John Lee Clark
CHARLES KICKHAM'S POETICS OF PATRIOTISMINTRODUCTION
When When Knocknagow, or The Homes of Tipperary , the novelís gentle humor and appreciation of peasant life won its author a special place in the hearts of the ordinary Irish. As a heirloom novel, literate and illiterate alike cherished it next to the Bible. We need only to read the dedication page to understand the appeal the book held: ,/p>
I dedicate this Book
What few readers knew, however, was that the author, Charles Joseph Kickham, was DeafBlind and that his nieces read drafts of his manuscript to him and took dictation as he labored over it for a decade. It had been mentioned here and there that he was DeafBlind, but his reputation was such that this fact had no meaning or, at best, served as a poignant detail in a life already full of sacrifice and devotion to the cause of Irish freedom. As celebrated as Knocknagow was, he was even more beloved for his poetry. No less a lion than Yeats firmly placed his poetry in the Irish canon. But that is not all. Kickham's greatest contribution was as one of the Triumvirate who led the Fenian movement, which brought the revolution to a point where the fighting would never cease until the Easter Rising.
Kickham did not, perhaps could not, think of himself as DeafBlind. He hardly regarded his afflictions. For him, there could be no misfortune except Ireland's misfortune. How can one be considered disabled when the whole nation is disabled? Everything he wrote was dedicated to the overthrow of British rule and to the care and love of the Irish people. He might have made his deafness and blindness a metaphor of Ireland's suffering, but as a writer he was drawn to the "plainative and idyllic," as Yeats put it, rather than to the pitiable or melodramatic. The image Kickham most frequently invokes is that of a peasant girl. One of the best examples of this fusing together of girl and land is haunting poem "Home Longings," sometimes called "The Maid of Slievenamon." The speaker is in a crowded hall but feels lonely because his beloved isn't there. His "restless spirit" cries out: "My love—Oh, my love—shall I never see you more? / And, my Land—will you ever uprise?"
Here we begin to discern Kickham's relevance to DeafBlind literature. The speaker is "Alone, all alone" despite being in a hall full of people. Kickham doesn't give social exclusion as the reason for the speaker's loneliness, but that situation still speaks to the DeafBlind experience as an outsider in hearing-sighted settings. It is a layer found in many of Kickham's other poems, and it provides his work with a texture available only through a DeafBlind reading.
Another layer is the fact that Kickham spent time in prison for treason. Although we have often been described as being imprisoned within our bodies, Kickham's literal imprisonment turns this metaphor on its head. His friend the Jesuit priest Matthew Russell noted that "the hardships of his prison life greatly increased [Kickham's] infirmities." We don't know just how deaf or blind he was before his confinement, but we do know he was more so after his release.
Among the poems he wrote in prison is "St. John's Eve." When he was later asked what he had missed the most in prison, Kickham replied, " Children, and women, and fires." The poem is about an annual festival that involves bonfires. It may be worth considering the fact that most blind people retain the ability to see lights at night—not to see anything at all by them, merely the illuminations in and of themselves. The critic H. L. Doak singled out the poem when he described Kickham's poetics:
Patriotic poetry is so often flawed by turgid declamation that young readers are tempted to mistake sound and fury for the essence of sincerity. Declamatory verse has perhaps its uses for stirring the dulled mind to feeling and to action. But Kickham can achieve his results by other means. Quietness and simplicity are the keynotes of his charm. Of its kind, it would be hard to find in Anglo-Irish poetry a truer poem than "St. John's Eve," with its calm and beautiful close.
The speaker is locked in a "dismal cell" but finds great comfort in recalling happier days. He may never again see his homeland,
But think not, friends, that I repine
His tenure in prison did leave its toll on his spirit, but it also made him resilient enough to cope with the challenges he would face the rest of his life.
He did write explicitly about blindness in one poem, "Patrick Sheehan," his second most famous poem after "The Irish Peasant Girl." It is a mournful ballad about an impoverished Irishman who succumbs to joining the British army, only to be blinded and end up a beggar. A work of propaganda more than poetry, its sentimental treatment of blindness has kept it in circulation to this day. It harks back to the moral view of disability as a punishment for sins. As it happens, Patrick Sheehan tells his cautionary tale from behind bars.
Almost all of Kickham's poetical speakers dream of Irish freedom and a happy homecoming. But these dreams are always thwarted, and this tragedy provides much of the ballast in his poems. Nowhere does it carry as much cargo as it does in his heartbreakingly beautiful "Oh! Sing Me Not That Song Again." The speaker begs dear "Norah" not to sing an old favorite patriotic hymn, because he cannot bear—nor, as it would have been the case for Kickham himself, hear—such things anymore. This poem has its twin in prose, the preface to his first novel, Sally Cavanagh, or The Untenanted Graves (1869). The following are among the first words he wrote on his return home from prison.
I am no longer the associate of thieves and murderers. I breathe my native air, in the midst of scenes from which nothing could have tempted me to stray, but a call, the neglect of which would have made life insupportable. I am at home. Opposite my window is an old ruin, whether castle or abbey no one seems to know, but the head of a United Irishman was impaled upon it in '98, and it has almost from my infancy possessed a strange fascination for me. Beyond I have a glimpse of the hills, every foot of which is as familiar to me as the street below. I move my chair, and the chapel cross looks in upon me, and seems to point at once to the graves below and the sky above. My sister's children, whom I see at play in the garden among the budding shrubs and the spring flowers, recall me to the loving hearts still around me. Wherever I turn I am greeted with something more deep and touching than mere popularity,–something that would be too great a reward for all the sacrifice that mortal man could make, and of which I will try and be more worthy if God spares me life. It is a dream too blissful for earth. But the roofless walls of once happy homes meet me at every turn; and the emigrant ship is still bearing away its freight of sorrow and vengeance. At this calm evening hour my noble comrades long for the night,–or sigh at the breaking dawn. And–I may not dream.
What he describes as seeing may have been more the product of psychology than perception. Phantom vision does erode over time, and likewise the Dream. Russell speaks of the "deafness, blindness, and desolation of his last years" as distinct from Kickham's earlier condition. The last poem he wrote suggests that a broken heart was part of the reason those were "darkened years." Written the same month he died, "An Autumn Noon" finds the speaker more than ready for the "rest of the blessed tomb." But the world around him suddenly comes back, rousing him from his "death-like swoon." The blue returns to the sky, and the lark is again singing. He credits this revival to "the beaming look in a kind grey eye, / And the clasp of a slender hand."
Charles Joseph Kickham was born on May 9, 1828, in Mullinahone, County Tipperary. His father, John, ran a large drapery and was known as a "true patriot." His mother, Anne O'Mahony, was cousin to John O'Mahony, the Fenians' founding spirit. Two uncles were Catholic priests. His hometown, at the foot of Slieveamon and near the Anner river, would figure in most of his poems and works of fiction.
When he was thirteen and out hunting, he accidentally got his gunpowder flask wet. He went near a fire to dry it. The ensuing explosion made him "largely blind and almost deaf." Russell records that "Both sight and hearing grew duller, and his frame less robust, as time went on." Young Kickham thought of going into medicine, but both the accident and the political climate steered him in another direction.
The Kickham family followed the Young Irelanders and read their organ, The Nation, from its first issue in October 1842. Charles contributed to the moderate Tenant Right League. But he became, as a biographer describes it, "so disgusted with the perfidious conduct of Messrs. Sadlier and Keogh that he lost all faith in Parliamentary agitation." Then came the Potato Famine, and there was no turning back.
After launching his hometown's Confederation Club, he set about forging pikes for William Smith O'Brien and John Blake Dillon's forces. It was at their meeting to pick up the pikes and local volunteers that he met James Stephens, who would figure prominently in his life. The collapse at Ballingarry drove our poet into hiding for the first time.
His first appearance in print, in his beloved The Nation, came on August 17, 1850. The Celt, The Irishman, Kilkenny Journal, and other publications soon saw his byline or a variety of his well-known pen names. On St. Patrick's Day, 1858, he and others gathered inside Langan's lathe and timber shop to take an oath to fight and die for independence. This meeting founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a military organization. In 1863, it established a publication, The Irish People, which boldly set up offices at 12 Parliament Street, only steps away from Dublin Castle, the seat of government. Kickham worked on the editorial staff.
As a devout Catholic, it fell upon Kickham to respond to the church's criticisms of the movement. The Church had enjoyed a major role in earlier conciliatory efforts and felt threatened by more radical, and secular, developments. Bishop David Moariarty had precisely Kickham and his colleagues in mind when he blasted the "fathomless depth of this infamy of the heads of the Fenian conspiracy," assuring his followers that "eternity is not long enough, nor hell hot enough to punish such miscreants." Kickham's tone is much calmer, writing at one point:Nothing can please us better than to keep clear of the vexed question of priests in politics if we could do so without injury to the cause which we were endeavouring to serve. But the question was forced upon us. We saw clearly that the people should be taught to distinguish between the priest as a minister of religion and the priest as a politician before they could be got to advance one step on the road to independence.
In 1864, James Stephens, the brotherhood's executive leader, left for America to coordinate support for a planned rising. Before his departure, he entrusted a document to Thomas Clarke Luby authorizing Luby, John O'Leary, and Kickham to run the organization during his absence. Luby told O'leary of this document but thought it unnecessary to inform Kickham. Apparently this document lay forgotten even after Stephens's return.
On the night of September 15, 1865, Superintendent Ryan and his infamous G Division police unit raided the offices of The Irish People. Luby and O'Leary were soon arrested, but Kickham and Stephens evaded capture for nearly two months. They were finally apprehended on November 11.
On January 6, 1866, Kickham stood trial for treason in Green Street Courthouse before Judge William Keogh–"the renegade," in William Murphy's words, "sitting in judgment on the patriot." When Kickham learned that the secret Stepens document, unknown to him until then, was the basis of the case against him, he asked that Luby come forward as a witness. Judge Keogh refused to allow Luby's testimony, whereupon Kickham withdrew his counsel, stating that the court had already decided that he was guilty. "I am convicted," he said, "for doing nothing but my duty. I have endeavored to serve Ireland, and now I am prepared to suffer for Ireland." When his attorney relayed through an ear trumpet the judge's sentence—fourteen years of penal servitude–Kickham smiled.
He was shipped first to Mountjoy, then Pentonville, and, when his health declined, finally Invalid Convicts Prison in Woking, Surrey, England. During his first year in prison, he received an emotional shock when word arrived that his sister Ajmie had died. Whenever he could, he wrote on prison "ruled paper." Friends made some plans to publish a collection of his poems, but the editor dropped it out of fear that its publication would, in Kickham's sardonic expression, "procure for him an introduction to the poet" in prison. Such a collection would never be published during Kickham's lifetime. However, he did complete his first novel, Sally Cavanagh. One favorite story of the Kickham legend is that he was put to work knitting. When the warder told him that he wasn't making much progress in this new craft, Kickham quipped, "I have time enough to learn in fourteen years." Due to his health, and perhaps helped, as Russell speculates, by his "blameless character and gentle demeanour," his sentence was shortened.
On his return home in March of 1869, Kickham was named Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was now the unchallenged leader of the Fenian movement. But his political life would never again hold the same place in his life as it had before his imprisonment. He devoted most of his time to writing fiction. After Sally Cavanagh was quickly published that same year, he plunged into his opus, Knocknagow. As he could not easily read print, he enlisted his two nieces as his assistants.
He doted on children. A friend once commented that "It delighted him 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." He had many women friends, the closest among them being the poets Ellen O'Leary, sister to John, and Rose Kavanagh, who attended to his care during his last years. There was at least one romance, from when he was in his mid-twenties, with Bessy Blunden, a sixteen-year-old Protestant. Their difference in religion prevented the consummation of their love. When Bessy later married a lawyer, Kickham addressed a poem to her. "The Last Dream" closes with these lines:
'Twere gladly sweet to say farewell,
As his luck would have it, Bessy later converted to Catholicism.
Ellen O'Leary's tenderly described her friend thus: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.
There was a street accident, but it is unclear how much it contributed to his death, but children were playing about his feet when Kickham had his final stroke of paralysis. He died on August 22, 1882, at 2 Montpelier Place, Blackrock, Dublin. It was the home of James O'Connor, a former member of the Brotherhood, later Member of Parliament, where Kickham had been living for many years. Before he died, he said, "Let it be known that I die in the Catholic Faith, that I die loving Ireland, and I only wish I could have done more for her."
ST. JOHN'S EVE
OH! SING ME NOT THAT SONG AGAIN
AN AUTUMN NOON
1.Kickham, Charles Joseph. Knocknagow, or The Homes of Tipperary. Dublin: Duffy, 1879.