Kickham, Charles Joseph (1828–82), journalist, Fenian, and novelist, was born 8 May 1828 near Cashel, Co. Tipperary, the eldest of the four sons and four daughters of John Kickham, draper and urban property rentier, and his wife, Anne (née Mahony), of Mullinahone in the same county. His baptism is recorded in the parish register of Cashel, which suggests that, in accordance with customary practice, his mother returned to her own home for the birth. Little is known about Kickham's early education apart from the fact that he attended a classical school in the town. His education and later life were greatly curtailed by the permanent damage caused to his hearing and eyesight when a flask of gunpowder exploded in his face in a hunting accident.
Political development The Kickhams, a rising catholic middle-class family, participated in the great political demonstrations against tithes in the 1830s, supported Fr Theobald Mathew (qv) in his temperance crusade, and rallied to the standard of Repeal in the early 1840s. The shaping force of Kickham's literary and political careers was the Nation newspaper, founded in 1842 by Thomas Davis (qv), John Blake Dillon (qv), and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv). Kickham's uncle James became agent for the paper in Mullinahone, and throughout his life Kickham never lost his belief in the inclusive, non-sectarian political philosophy of the Young Irelanders. His sympathies lay with the young men in their contest with the ageing Daniel O'Connell (qv), concerning the morality of physical force. Kickham's role in the 1848 uprising was limited, and there is no evidence that he was present at the fateful encounter at the Widow McCormack's house near the hill village of Ballingarry on 29 July 1848. Ballingarry marked the end of both Repeal and the Irish Confederation as formal political organisations, but the question as to how Ireland could attain a measure of self-government remained unresolved.
Kickham supported the Callan Tenants’ Protection Society, which in 1850 became the Irish Tenant League. His aversion to parliamentary politics and to participation at Westminister was reinforced when two of the leading members of the Independent Irish Party, John Sadleir (qv) and William Keogh (qv), defected from the policy of principled opposition to serve in the administration of Lord Aberdeen in 1852.
Living in the comfortable family home during the 1850s, Kickham contributed ballads and prose articles to local newspapers such as the Kilkenny Journal and a short-lived literary magazine, the Celt, which had been founded in Kilkenny in 1857 by the Young Irelander Robert Cane (qv). Three of his best-remembered ballads, ‘Patrick Sheehan’, ‘Rory of the hill’, and ‘Home longings, or Slievenamon’, were published during this period. It was at a literary evening at Cane's house that Kickham met James Stephens (qv) – whom he would have last seen in July 1848 – back in Ireland to revive revolutionary politics. On 17 March 1858 the Irish Revolutionary (later Republican) Brotherhood was founded in Dublin. Later that year John O'Mahony (qv), Stephens's revolutionary companion in 1848, launched a support organisation, known as the Fenian Brotherhood in commemoration of Ireland's legendary warriors, in America. Kickham may not have formally joined the new organisation – it is unclear if he was ever sworn in – until his neighbour and lifelong friend John O'Mahony visited Ireland in late 1860.
Fenian activist and journalist, 1860–69 Kickham was now entering the public phase of a life that was to involve him in bitter paper battles on a variety of fronts: between the Fenians and constitutionalists; in factional struggles within Fenianism; and on a broader front against the two great institutions which controlled Ireland, the catholic church and the British government. His able defence of Fenian politics in the Irishman enhanced his status, and when Stephens launched the Irish People in 1863 it was no surprise that Kickham was appointed its joint editor with John O'Leary (qv) and Thomas Clarke Luby (qv). The decision to leave Mullinahone, the place he loved, cannot have been easy, but Kickham later described Stephens's invitation as ‘a call, the neglect of which would have made life unsupportable’.
In late 1863 Kickham travelled to America, ostensibly for the purpose of accompanying his sister and her young child, but while there he attended the convention of the Fenian Brotherhood in Chicago. After returning to Dublin he was responsible for many of the leading articles in the Irish People enunciating Fenian philosophy. He was especially critical of the catholic church's denunciation of the secret society. Its certitude was met with equal certitude from Kickham, who preached, as the Young Irelanders had done in the Nation in the 1840s, that the people had a right to judge for themselves in temporal matters.
The Irish People suffered the same fate as its radical predecessors. In September 1865 the police closed the paper's offices and arrested the editors, John O'Leary and Thomas Clarke Luby, and the business manager, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv). Kickham and James Stephens were located at Fairfield House, Sandymount, and were also arrested. Stephens was dramatically rescued from Richmond jail through the agency of John Devoy (qv), but the others were charged and tried under the Treason Felony Act, first introduced in 1848 to ensnare John Mitchel (qv). Kickham was given a fourteen-year sentence by Judge William Keogh. Keogh, who had defected from the Irish party in the 1850s for a place in government, was the sentencing judge in the celebrated case of the McCormack brothers, natives of Tipperary, who were executed, wrongly many claimed, for the alleged murder of a land agent. Kickham had castigated Keogh on both of these issues, and some perceived the sentence on the semi-invalid as a spiteful act of revenge. Prison for the delicate and fastidious Kickham was an ordeal, and much of his sentence was served in the invalid prison at Woking. The accession of Gladstone as prime minister in 1868 heralded a new programme of pacification after the Fenian threat had faltered in the spring snows of 1867.
Politics and literature, 1869–79 Released on compassionate grounds in March 1869, Kickham returned to Mullinahone and entered what appears to have been the most comfortable period of his life. His first novel, Sally Cavanagh, or The untenanted graves, was published in May 1869. Though contented in the sanctuary of his home and among his own people, the realities of Irish life intruded. ‘But’, he wrote in the preface, ‘the roofless walls of once happy homes meet one at every turn and the emigrant ship is still bearing away its freight of sorrow and vengeance.’ Kickham's first novel attempted to delineate the national character and manners, and he claimed no more merit for it other than its truthfulness. His mission also was to vindicate the character of his countrymen against the calumnies which daily denigrated them in the hostile media. As in all his writings, he never condoned individual acts of violence but understood ‘why a shot sometimes rang out in the night air, and a red stain was on the land’.
While the members of the Fenian movement decried constitutional parliamentary politics, they were not averse to contesting elections as a measure of public support. In December 1869 Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, then in prison, was elected MP for Tipperary. However, he was declared unfit as an unpardoned felon. A new contest was called and Kickham, reluctantly it appears, was nominated. His campaign consisted of one ambiguous letter to the Freeman's Journal, and he lost by a narrow margin to the liberal candidate, Denis Caulfield Heron (qv). It was Kickham's first and only participation in parliamentary politics. But the political landscape was changing rapidly. Isaac Butt's Home Government Association signalled another attempt to seek redress through parliament. Somewhat reluctantly, the IRB, with many of their leading men either in jail or exiled in America, gave qualified support to the new agenda. The movement, as Kickham termed it, was following the precedent of the Young Irelanders who had hoped to align parliamentary and military politics. Kickham, now the most senior IRB man in Ireland, was elected to the supreme council in 1872, and in 1874 became its chairman.
In June 1873 Kickham's greatest literary work, Knocknagow, or The homes of Tipperary, was published through the benevolence of A. M. Sullivan (qv), a bitter opponent of Fenianism. Dismissed by literary critics as flawed, it nevertheless remains the best literary ‘photograph’ of land, landscape, and life in nineteenth-century Ireland. Knocknagow has its quota of sentiment, but close reading reveals it as a scathing indictment of English misrule and Irish gombeenism that together were destroying the community of small farmers and cottiers that Kickham revered. Although it became one of the most popular novels in late nineteenth-century Ireland, its publication did not bring Kickham financial security, and the departure to New York in September 1876 of the two nieces who had shared his family home in Mullinahone deprived him of the domestic companionship he craved. His circumstances were not helped either by family problems, which led to the sale of the interest in the urban property accumulated by his grandfather and subsequent loss of income. Separation from a cherished home place, one of the great themes of Knocknagow, now visited its author, and early in 1877 Kickham was again forced to leave the locality he loved and return to Dublin.
The emergence of two charismatic men, Michael Davitt (qv) and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), set a fresh agenda for Ireland in the late 1870s. Davitt championed the occupying tenants through the Land League, while Parnell orchestrated a parliamentary campaign for home rule. Kickham remained committed to parliamentary abstentionism despite an attempt by John Devoy, who supported the ‘new departure’, to effect a rapprochement between Kickham and Davitt at a meeting of the supreme council in Paris in January 1879. By degrees the Young Irelanders were exiting the political stage. On 4 March 1877 Kickham delivered a funeral elegy for his friend and neighbour John O'Mahony, who had died in a New York tenement after a lifetime of unrequited service for Ireland. O'Mahony, like Kickham, had forfeited everything for the movement.
Perhaps Kickham was thinking of his own as well as his friend's legacy when he said: ‘But in spite of denunciation and calumny, of dissension and disorder and derision, in spite of the dungeon and the gallows, the Movement, the foundations of which were laid by Doheny, O'Mahony and Stephens, more than twenty years ago, is not a memory; it is an existing thing’ (Maher, 313). Kickham opposed both the ‘skirmishing campaign’ advocated by O'Donovan Rossa and the ‘no rent manifesto’ of the Land League. He was more a political propagandist than a political activist; security of land tenure within familiar boundaries under an Irish parliament was his social as well as his political credo.
Last years In November 1878 the Freeman's Journal, conscious of Kickham's financial problems, established a fund to help him. Kickham reluctantly accepted the assistance and in the following year went to live at the residence of James O'Connor (qv) in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Here in this comfortable suburb within sight of the sea he enjoyed again both the companionship of family life and that of the literary circle which frequented the house. He died there 22 August 1882 after suffering a paralytic stroke.
Kickham's funeral cortege left Blackrock at 11 a.m. on Sunday 27 August and at 4 pm reached Kingsbridge (Heuston) railway station, where the body was placed on the train to Thurles. A request was made to the administrator of Thurles parish, Fr James Cantwell (qv), to have the remains repose in the cathedral overnight before removal for burial in Mullinahone. In the absence of Archbishop Thomas William Croke (qv), Cantwell refused the request, no doubt aware of the refusal by Cardinal Cullen (qv) in 1877 to allow John O'Mahony's body into the pro-cathedral, Dublin. The following day thousands joined the cortege in its slow procession to Mullinahone. Here, in the town Kickham had immortalised, the graveyard gate was locked and no priest was present to officiate at the burial service. There were two brief speeches. Alexander Kickham said ‘that my brother Charles's soul is gone as pure to heaven as if there was a thousand of them [priests] here’ (Tipperary People, 1 Sept. 1882). The Limerick Fenian activist John Daly (qv) was succinct: ‘the Davis of ’82 has followed the Davis of ’43 to his rest. Though death has robbed the British government of its greatest enemy, the day will yet come when the sides of Slievenamon will ring out to the tune that Kickham composed’ (ibid.). In 1898 a statue of Kickham by John Hughes (qv) was erected in Tipperary town; after the foundation of the GAA in 1884 hurling and football clubs throughout Ireland were named in his memory. Each year since the centenary of his death in 1982 an annual commemorative series of lectures is held for Kickham in his native Mullinahone.