Charles Joseph Kickham

By T. D. Sullivan, from `Speeches from the Dock', 1886

In the year 1825, in the village of Mullinahone, County Tipperary, Charles J. Kickham first saw the light. His father, John Kickham, was proprietor of the chief drapery establishment in that place, and was held in high esteem by the whole country round about for his integrity, intelligence, and patriotic spirit. During the boyhood of young Kickham, the Repeal agitation was at his height, and he soon became thoroughly versed in its arguments, and inspired by its principles, which he often heard discussed in his father's shop, and by his hearth, and amongst all his friends and acquaintances. Like all the young people of the time, and a great many of the old ones, his sympathies went with the Young Ireland party at the time of their withdrawal from the Repeal ranks. In 1848 he was the leading spirit of the Confederation Club at Mullinahone, which he was mainly instrumental in founding; and after the fiasco at Ballingarry he was obliged to conceal himself for some time, in consequence of the part he had taken in rousing the people of his native village to action. When the excitement of that period had subsided, he again appeared in his father's house, resumed his accustomed sports of fishing and fowling, and devoted much of his time to literary pursuits, for which he had great natural capacity, and towards which he was all the more inclined because of the blight put upon his social powers by an unfortunate accident which occurred to him when about the age of thirteen years. He had brought a flask of powder near the fire, and was engaged either in the operation of drying it, or casting some grains into the coal for amusement, when the whole quantity exploded. The shock and the injuries he sustained nearly proved fatal to him; when he recovered, it was with his hearing nearly quite destroyed, and his sight permanently impaired. But Kickham had the poet's soul within him, and it was his compensation for the losses he had sustained.

He could still hold communion with nature, and with his own mind, and could give to the national cause the service of a bold heart and a finely-cultivated intellect. Subsequent to the decadence of the '48 movement, he wrote a good deal in prose and verse, and contributed gratuitously to various national publications. His intimate acquaintance with the character and habits of the peasantry gave a great charm to his stories and sketches of rural life; and his poems were always marked by grace, simplicity, and tenderness. Many of them have attained a large degree of popularity amongst his countrymen in Ireland and elsewhere, and taken a permanent place in the poetic literature of the Irish race. Amongst these, his ballads entitled "Patrick Sheehan," "Rory of the Hill," and "The Irish Peasant Girl," are deserving of special mention. To these remarks it remains to be added that as regards personal character, Charles J. Kickham was one of the most amiable of men. He was generous and kindly by nature, and was a pious member of the Catholic Church, to which his family had given priests and nuns.

Such was the man whom the myrmidons of the law placed in the dock of Green Street court-house, when on January 5th, 1866, after the return of the judges from Cork, the Commission was re-opened in Dublin. His appearance was somewhat peculiar. He was a tall, strong, rough-bearded man, with that strained expression of face which is often worn by people of dim sight. Around his neck he wore an india-rubber tube, or ear trumpet, through which any words that were necessary to be addressed to him were shouted into his ear by some of his friends, or by his solicitor. His trial did not occupy much time, for on the refusal of the crown lawyers and judges to produce the convict, Thomas Clarke Luby, whom he conceived to be a material witness for his defence, he directed his lawyers to abandon the case, and contented himself with reading to the court some remarks on the evidence which had been offered against him. The chief feature in this address was his denial of all knowledge of the "executive document;" he had never seen or heard of it until it turned up in connection with those trials. Referring to one of the articles with the authorship of which he was charged, he said he wondered how any Irishman, taking into consideration what had occurred in Ireland during the last eighty-four years, could hesitate to say to the enemy--"Give us our country to ourselves, and let us see what we can do with it." Alluding to a report that the government contemplated making some concession to the claims of the Catholic bishops, he remarked that concessions to Ireland had always been a result of Fenianism in one shape or another, and that he believed the present manifestation of the national spirit would have weight, as former ones had, with the rulers of the country. As regards the landed class in Ireland, the Irish People, he contended, had said nothing more than was said by Thomas Davis, whose works every one admired. That eminent Irishman, afflicted and stung to the heart by witnessing the system of depopulation which was going on throughout the country, had written these words:--

"God of Justice, I sighed, send your Spirit down
On these lords so cruel and proud,
And soften their hearts, and relax their frown,
Or else, I cried aloud,
Vouchsafe Thy strength to the peasant's hand
To drive them at length from out the land."

He had not gone farther than the writer of these lines, and now, he said, they might send him to a felon's doom if they liked.

And they did send him to it. Judge Keogh, before passing sentence, asked him if he had any further remarks to make in reference to his case. Mr. Kickham briefly replied:--

I believe, my lords, I have said enough already. I will only add that I am convicted for doing nothing but my duty. I have endeavored to serve Ireland, and now I am prepared to suffer for Ireland."

Then the judge, with many expressions of sympathy for the prisoner, and many compliments in reference to his intellectual attainments, sentenced him to be kept in penal servitude for fourteen years. His solicitor, Mr. John Lawless, announced the fact to him through his ear trumpet. Charles J. Kickham bowed to the judges, and with an expression of perfect tranquillity on his features, went into captivity.