By MATTHEW RUSSELL, S.J.
KNOCKNAGOW has been out of print for a considerable time, and very many eager inquiries have been made for it. It now reappears in a new and cheap edition, which may be usefully introduced by a brief account of its Author. The secondary title which he gave to his tale was — "The Homes of Tipperary." His own home was one of them.
Charles Joseph Kickham was born in the year 1825, at Mullinahone, a small town of the County Tipperary. The Anner flows past the town, and Slievenamon rises not far away — the river and the mountain which figure often in his writings. His father, John Kickham, had a large drapery establishment in that place, and was widely respected for his intelligence and probity. His mother, Anne O'Mahony, was a pious and charitable woman, whom he lovingly described in the earliest of his stories, "Sally Cavanagh; or, Untenanted Graves." His uncle, Father Roger Kickham, was a zealous member of the Vincentian Order; and another uncle, whose name he bore, was a priest in the Archdiocese of Cashel. But the Author of KNOCKNAGOW was probably called after his grandfather, Charles Kickham. In his youth he was greatly influenced by The Nation of Davis and Duffy; and, like his kinsman, John O'Mahony, he took an active part in the '48 movement. He was the leading spirit in the Confederate Club, in Mullinahone, which he was chiefly instrumental in forming; and after the failure of the rising at Ballingarry, which was not far from his home, he was forced to hide himself for a time. A little later, while still a very young man, he worked earnestly in the Tenant Right League, hoping against hope that something would be done to keep the people at home. When that failed, he lost faith in legal agitation.
In persevering in a political career, and devoting his life to what he believed to be the service of his country, Charles Kickham showed not a little of that iron will which enabled Henry Fawcett to achieve distinction as a public man, in spite of tremendous difficulties of a similar character. The Englishman, on the threshold of manhood, was totally deprived of sight by an accident in a shooting party; yet in spite of this misfortune (the more distressing because his father's hand fired the shot), Fawcett contrived to work on, to ride, to skate, to fish, to become a successful University professor, an active and influential Member of Parliament, and a most efficient Postmaster-General. Young Kickham's accident was not so tragical in its cause, nor so destructive in its effects, at least in one respect. One day, while he was drying a flask of damp gunpowder, it exploded, injuring permanently not only his sight, but his hearing. This was not (as we have seen stated in print) in his sixteenth year, but two or three years earlier. Both sight and hearing grew duller, and his frame less robust, as time went on; and the hardships of his prison life greatly increased these infirmities.
For it was to a prison that his political career conducted him. He was one of the writers in The Irish People, the organ of the Fenian movement. Of course, there was an informer working in the very office of the newspaper. Kickham was arrested in November, 1865. He was tried in the court-house of Green Street, Dublin, on the 5th of January, 1866. He was found guilty, and Judge Keogh, after expressing his sympathy for the prisoner, and respect for his intellectual attainments, sentenced him to penal servitude for fourteen years. His attorney announced the sentence to him through his ear-trumpet. He heard it with a smile. As he was led away to his cell, something on the ground attracted his notice, and he picked it up. It was a little paper picture of the Blessed Virgin, and he kissed it reverently. "I was accustomed to have the likeness of the Mother of God morning and evening before my eyes since I was a child," he said to the warder. Will you ask the governor if I may keep this?" *[see note at end] In prison he showed great patience and fortitude. His health, already impaired, soon gave way, but he bore up bravely. He felt deeply his sister's death in the first year of his prison life. The sister of his associate, Mr. John O'Leary, asked in after years, did be pray much while there? He answered that he said exactly the same prayers as when he was out in the world. From the solitary confinement of Pentonville he was removed to the invalid prison at Woking. Once he was set to knit stockings. The warder pointed out that he was not making much progress in this novel art. "I have time enough to learn in fourteen years," he replied. What proficiency he had attained we do not know when this particular study was interrupted. His wretched health, helped no doubt by his blameless character and gentle demeanour, shortened very considerably his term of imprisonment. He was released in March, 1869.
To somebody who asked what he had missed most in gaol, he replied, "Children, and women, and fires." He was very fond of little children, and knew how to win their hearts, "It delighted him," says one of his best friends," when the little ones tried to talk to him on their fingers; and he was most patient in teaching them, taking particular care not to allow them to speak incorrectly. Children who loved him, were playing about his feet in the sunshine when the stroke of paralysis came upon him at the last." There was much of what is best in woman and in child in his nature; and it was impossible, says another devoted young friend, to know him well without feeling that he was trustful, and kindly, and sympathetic as a woman. His slender hand was fashioned like a woman's, too. There was a great deal of silky grey hair in curls about his head, which was finely shaped and he was very tall.
These last phrases are taken from a writer, who, in her affectionate obituary, speaks thus of the tale which we are now introducing anew to the public:-
"No writer has produced more faithful pictures of Irish country life than Charles Kickham. For no other writer possessed a mind quicker to see, or wider to hold the best feelings of our people; none other owned head or hand more obedient to the highest impulses of the Celtic character, and his memory was filled with the traditions of our land and race. 'Knocknagow' illustrates many sides of his own personality and of his ready humour, which was never cynical. In this book, as in nearly all he wrote, tears and laughter are close together.
"'Knocknagow' had always been my favourite Irish story, and when an opportunity of meeting its Author came, it was an event in my life. I remember giving him the sort of information he must have had from hundreds of persons — of what a pleasure his stories and songs were, and how dear to me and my friends were Grace Kiely, and Mary Kearney, and poor Norah Lahy, whom, in spite of his niece's entreaties, he had to let die. He bore the infliction good-humouredly and talked about his heroines as if they had just gone out for a walk."
Besides the present novel and "Sally Cavanagh," and some shorter tales, Mr. Kickham left behind him a full length novel, which was published last year, in a cheap form, under the title of "For the Old Land." His knowledge and love of the Irish character in many different phases are shown in every page of this tale, and fun and pathos are very skilfully intermingled. Charles Kickham's poems are very few and short, those at least which he gave to print. Very many of our readers must be familiar with the pathetic little ballad about the Irish peasant girl who "lived beside the Anner, at the foot of Slievenamon." Also, "Rory of the Hills" and "Patrick Sheehan" have taken a great hold on the people.
This Introduction has now, perhaps, served its purpose by letting the reader know something before hand about this book and its Author. With the addition of a few names and dates learned from his kinswoman, the Sister of Mercy who helped to make his death bed as holy as his life had been innocent, our sketch, as it has acknowledged more than once, has followed the published recollections of Miss Ellen O'Leary and Miss Rose Kavanagh. To the personal description cited from the latter, we may join that given by the former lady.
"In person, Charles Kickham was tall and strongly built. He walked like a sailor, swaying from side to side. He had a fine picturesque head, on which the wavy brown hair, of late years thickly streaked with grey, grew in soft curls; a large forehead, keen, piercing eyes, which had a strange power of reading one's very thoughts, and a rough skin, somewhat scarred by that terrible powder accident. The expression of his face when in repose was striking — a face you'd love to look upon: earnest, thoughtful, rather sad, and so good. In conversation he showed wonderful powers of observation, an intuitive insight into character. His talk, when in good spirits, was very pleasant. He had a great fund of quiet humour, and would describe a scene or a character with a few well-painted strokes. Though gentle and kind in disposition, he could be a good hater as well as a fervent lover."
Charles Joseph Kickham died at Blackrock, near Dublin on the 22nd of August, 1882. His body was brought home to the Tipperary graveyard where his father, and mother, and sister, and many kinsfolk were buried. In the Dublin Exhibition of 1864, he had lingered long before a painting, "the Head of a Cow," by one of the Old Masters, not on account of any subtle genius be discovered in it, but "because it was so like an old cow in Mullinahone." A quaint trait of the affectionate, home-loving nature which made it fitting that his grave should be where his cradle had been — "beside the Anner, at the foot of Slievenamon."
Dublin, 27th Feb., 1887.
Note: This touching incident probably comes from Kickham himself, for we take it from an affectionate memorial written "before the first bloom of daisies was dead upon his grave," by the young lady whose kindness soothed his last years and his last hours, Miss Rose Kavanagh. She recalls a "parallel passage" in his life, when almost the last use his tongue made of language after the fatal blow came, was to say aloud the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin.