Charles Joseph Kickham

“Fenian Heroes and Martyrs”
By John Savage



His Family—Sad Accident when a Boy—A Student—His Love of Rural Sport!—In the Cabins of the Poor—Forms a Club in ’48—Literature—Espouses Keogh’s and Sadlier’s Tenant-Right Party—Treachery of the Leaders—Literature Again—Becomes a Fenian—Arrest—Trial—Defends Himself—Speech in the Dock—Sentence—Cruel Treatment in Prison.

In his gentleness and force, in his talents and devotion as a practical Catholic, in his patriotism and purity, Charles J. Kickham bears a strong resemblance to Richard D’Alton Williams, the poet, well and widely known by his nom de plume of Shamrock, and equally distinguished by being one of the young Ireland patriot-martyrs of ’48. They were likewise Tipperary men, and do honor to that noble county.

The more recent transactions in which Kickham was concerned have become a part of the history of our day. For the facts embracing the earlier portion of his career, we are indebted to one of his associates, Captain D. P. Conyngham.* Charles J. Kickham was born about thirty-eight years ago, in the small village of Mullinahone, which lies almost beneath the shelter of Slievenamon, whose picturesque beauty he has interwoven into some of his best poems. He sprang from a respectable and patriotic stock. His father, John Kickham, was a wealthy draper, and the leading man of the village, a patriot and a philanthropist. He gave unto hundreds who were evicted from their little farms, not only clothes from his store, but also money to enable them to emigrate to America; and to their credit be it said, they gratefully returned it as soon as earned. Many a farmer, who to-day enjoys peace and plenty in happy homesteads in America, blesses his memory.

His mother was an O’Mahony, and in every sense a lady, refined and charitable. Two of his uncles and several of his relatives were eminent divines. Sprung from such a family, and reared amid such associations, Charles Kickham grew up with unsullied principles and a mind as pure as the gentlest maiden. His father, a man of education, sound judgment and keen penetration, saw that his son possessed the germs of a fine mind, and resolved to spare no labor or expense to polish the diamond. He engaged a competent tutor for that purpose. The boy progressed rapidly, but an unfortunate occurrence blighted his hopes when about thirteen years of age: the explosion of a powder flask brought the boy to the verge of the grave. He slowly recovered, however, but remained deaf and near-sighted ever after. He could not now avail himself of the instructions of a teacher, so he retired within himself, and became a great reader and thinker. When only a boy of eighteen he contributed some beautiful pieces to the press.

“He was passionately fond of fishing and fowling. Sometimes you would meet him along the banks of King’s River, a stream near his neighboring town, or wandering along the beautiful Anner, that flows beside Slievenamon. At other times you might meet him with a double-barreled gun in his hand, or flung on his shoulder, with Fan, the terrier, and a pointer for his companions, wandering over the moors or along the mountains, in search of game. He and his haunts were so well known, that the little children crowded the cabin doors on the day he was expected, looking out for Master Charles; for he had a kind word for all, and divided his spoils with them, and had shanachus with the old women in the corner, and smoked the dudheen with the old man, and talked of ’98, of the Croppies and the Yeos, of the pitch-caps and the triangles, of the wholesale exterminations and starvation of the peasantry of the present time, until his honest blood coursed his veins in fiery streams, and the tear moistened his eye, and the hope of revenge gave a fierce expression to his kind and noble face. He delighted very much in manly exercises, and keenly enjoyed the hurling and the dance upon the green, and made these rural customs the subject of some of his descriptive tales.”

Though his society was courted by the wealthiest, it was in the poor man’s sheiling, or enjoying the merry dance and hurling-matches of the peasantry, he was most at home. The honest peasant who mourned the wrongs of his country and yearned for its freedom—who toiled hard for his daily bread—was, in his opinion, far nobler than the sleek slave who, because he had enough himself, closed his eyes to the sufferings around him, and felt happy.

*Author of ” The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns,” ” Sherman’s March,” etc

Although scarcely twenty years of age in ’48, he was an active nationalist, and in conjunction with some congenial spirits organized a club in Mullinahone. Having fallen under suspicion, he suffered some inconvenience for a short time. He then returned to his old sports, and to literature, writing fugitive pieces for the periodicals. Soon after Keogh and Sadlier organized an independent opposition party—a Tenant-right party—pledged to oppose every government that would not do justice to Ireland, Keogh, in making his pledge, raised his hands and eyes to Heaven, exclaiming—”I pledge myself, so help me trod!” What became of all these promises and violated oaths we know too well.

When the treachery and rottenness of the Keogh and Sadlier party became apparent, the Tipperary Leader became the great organ of the people in smashing up their perjured clique; and Kickham, Father Kenyon and Father John Power were among its ablest contributors.

Keogh became a justice of the Common Pleas, and in time Kickham was arraigned as a felon and a traitor before the perjured judge, who, if there was any treason in the act which brought him there, was the man who taught him that very treason.

Disgusted with the treachery of his leaders, Kickham again retired within himself—to write tales and put the feelings of the people into vigorous verse. When Doctor Cane of Kilkenny started the Celt, Kickham at once became a contributor, writing sketches, tales, essays, and poems. Of the latter, his “Rory of the Hill” appeared in this periodical. Although Kickham had vowed to eschew politics in future, he became a convert to Stephens’ views; and when John O’Mahony visited Ireland he initiated one man, and that was our poet, who at once threw himself with the devotion ot his nature into the organization, and was mainly instrumental in sowing the seeds of Fenianism over Tipperary. He paid a visit to the United States in 1863, and was present at the First National Congress of the Brotherhood at Chicago. On his return home he became a leading writer for the Irish People; and on Stephens’ visit to America during the war, he was designated (without his knowledge) one of the three executive council to manage affairs in his absence. Kickham was captured at the time of Stephens’ arrest, and brought to trial in Dublin at the re-sitting of the Special Commission, 5th January, 1867. At its commencement, his defence was conducted by counsel; but on the refusal, by the judges, of his application to have Thomas Clarke Luby produced as a witness, he declared the trial was a mockery, and refused to have any further legal assistance. He addressed the jury in his own defence, and made a lengthy and clever speech, one which bore the impress, not only of talent, but of truthfulness in every part, and which certainly tended to place his conduct in a more innocent light than that in which it was represented by the Crown lawyers.

He said that a person unaccustomed as he was to public speaking, could hardly get out his ideas at all without preparation, and he had had no time. However, he had no objection to go on. No prisoner had ever been treated more unfairly than he was. Not only had he to bear his share of calumny, but from the commencement of the Commission, in every speech made by counsel for the Crown, his name was dragged in, and not alone that, but even the judges on the bench did it. He could not but feel a little surprised when one of the judges read out the names from the “Executive document”—Luby, O’Leary, and Kickham—and said he shuddered at the crimes these men would commit if they had the power. He could not help thinking that his lordship should have recollected that there was one of these men who was not yet tried, and who might be innocent of even knowing the existence of this document. So that he (prisoner) considered he had been tried and found guilty five times in that Court House, and he did not know how many times in Cork. He would now go through the articles in the indictment, but would not read them all. The first article was one headed “’82 and’29.” If they took the trouble of reading through that article, they would be at a loss to see why it was that so long an article, with so little treason in it, should have the place of honor. They might not agree with the writer, but it was, nevertheless, true what he said, that it would have been well for Ireland that the claims of the loyal Volunteers of ’82 had been refused, for the result would have been complete independence. And let them look back upon the history of this country—not a gleam of sunshine—the sufferings of the people, and the exodus. What Irishman could look upon the eighty-four years which had passed and would not say, “Give us our country for ourselves, and, in God’s name, let us see what we can do with it.” These armed volunteers trampled on the Treason-Felony Act. So much for ’82. There was not much treason in that. Perhaps it was in the ’29 part of the article the treason was. The purport of that portion was, that if the English Government refused emancipation, the Roman Catholics would have taken up arms, and that the liberal Protestants would have joined them. The Duke of Wellington said the same thing, and he must say that a bishop in America was so oblivious of his allegiance as to organize forty thousand armed Fenians, to send them to Ireland, if the Government refused emancipation. There was one good thing that the Fenians did. He said that concessions to Ireland had been always the result of Fenianism in some shape or other; the English Government, however, while making concessions, always expected to get something in return; and, he believed, they had never been disappointed. Not only had they stipulated upon getting prompt payment, but, also, they got a large installment in advance. And here he could not help referring to the publication of Sir John Gray’s affidavit, which he stated he withheld, afraid it would injure the prisoners on their trial, and yet that very affidavit was published on the eve of his trial. To return to the article “’82 and ’29,” he repeated, they would find very little treason in it. Why, then, had it been placed on the front of the indictment? That was done for a passage in it referring to Roman Catholic judges, and Roman Catholic placemen, in which it was said, “The Catholic judge will prove as iniquitous a tool of tyranny, as the most bigotted Orange partisan would be.” It would not do for the Attorney-General to select articles in which one of the judges was mentioned by name in the severest language. That would be going too far. Judge Keogh said he had never seen a copy of the Irish People, and he believed that if his lordship had seen these articles, he would have tried to avoid sitting in judgment on the men who were accused of being the writers of them.

But the Attorney-General knew of them, and he believed that the articles he alluded to had been placed in the front for the purpose of prejudicing Roman Catholic judges against the prisoners they would have to try; and the Special Commission was appointed—if that was the word—for the sole purpose of enabling them to select the judges, and that it was the best mode of following up the attempt to put down the organization, by trampling on the law, and then following that up by trampling on the law of morality and decency. If it were necessary to interrupt him, Mr. Lawless would communicate their lordships’ wishes to him.

Justice Keogh—”Not at all. Proceed.”

The Prisoner went on to say that the jury might be told that all this was beside the question. But he denied this. He said the Government was on its trial, and not alone the Irish Government, but English rule in Ireland was on its trial. The Government admitted the existence of a wide-spread conspiracy, both in Ireland and America; but this only showed that the treatment of England towards Ireland had been judged and condemned. After a number of observations of an exculpatory character, he quoted Thomas Davis:

“The tribune’s tongue and poet’s pen
May sow the seed in slavish men,
But ’tis the soldier’s sword alone
Can reap the harvest when ’tis sown.

“The man who wrote those lines, did his best to make the Irish people a military people. A few years before his death his friends observed in his library a number of military books, such as those found in the office of the Irish People, and he would say, ‘These are what Irishmen want—this is what they should learn.’ His statue, by Hogan, is now in Mount Jerome. The whole nation mourned his death, and all creeds and classes gathered round his grave. Thomas Davis saw the peasants’ cabins pulled down by the landlords, and witnessed the suffering of the people, and he wrote—

“‘God of justice!’ I said, ‘send your spirit down
On those lords so cruel and proud,
And soften their hearts, and relax their frown,
Or else,’ I cried aloud—
‘Vouchsafe your strength to the peasant’s hand,
To drive them at length from off the land.'”

The prisoner concluded by saying, “What did the Irish People say worse than that? I have done no more than he has done; doom me to a felon’s doom if you choose.”

The charge of Judge Keogh was considered not unfavorable to the prisoner. The jury, however, brought in a verdict of “Guilty on all the counts.”

Some one near Kickham intimates this to him by some look or sign, and he knows that his time is come to speak again, if he chooses to do so. Stepping to the front of the dock, at first stooping slightly over the iron bar, and then raising himself to his full height, he says—

“Perhaps, my lord, I have said enough already. I will only add that I believe I have done nothing but my duty. I have endeavored to serve Ireland, and now I am prepared to suffer for Ireland.”

The sentence was that he be kept in penal servitude for a term of fourteen years. Great commiseration (said the Nation) for Mr. Kickham, was felt during the progress of the trial, which was, throughout, a painful scene. His deafness and his defective sight caused him to be almost unconscious of a great portion of the proceedings; but the most material points were communicated to him through the india-rubber speaking tube which he wore about his neck. During his trial one could not help being forcibly reminded of one of the verses occurring in his clever and popular ballad, named “Patrick Sheehan “—

“O, Blessed Virgin Mary,
Mine is a mournful tale,
A poor blind prisoner here I am
In Dublin’s dreary jail;
Struck blind within the trenches
Where I never feared the foe;
And now I’ll never see again
My own sweet Aherlow.”

We read lately of a good old priest, who was found weeping over one of Kickham’s graphic pictures of peasant sufferings, and, when asked what was the matter, replied, “Read that, and when you reflect that the man who wrote it is pining in a dungeon to-day, instead of being idolized by all classes, is it not enough to make any man weep?”

Mr. Kickham has suffered what has been termed a process of “slow and savage torture” since his incarceration. His pure, gentle, and loving nature, has been subjected not only to indignity, but to such treatment as should make any civilized nation bow its head in shame. After spending a few weeks in Mountjoy Prison, where he was treated with comparative generosity, he was removed to Pentonville, and handed over to the tender mercies of English officials. Here, the invalid prisoner was subjected to the solitary discipline and starvation allowance, until he “was riddled over with scrofulous ulcers, and reduced to a skeleton. He is then sent to Portland for change of air, where, by way of healthful recreation, he is ordered into the wash-house to cleanse the foul garments of England’s vilest criminals. But his brave soul can no longer support his famished body. He sickens almost to death, is tried in the quarries, and then sent off to the invalid station at Woking.” When last heard from, he was being killed by inches.

Source: Google Books

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