Mary L. Mullen: Empire and Unfielding: Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow: Or, the Homes of Tipperary

Charles Kickham

by Mary L. Mullen

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

The V21 manifesto (V21 Collective 2015) asserts, “We must break accepted frames.” Focusing on Victorian empire raises the question, to what end?  Breaking accepted frames can spark innovation and expand the geographic and temporal scale of the field, but these innovations and expansions might reproduce the very Victorian imperial formations that we study.  As Roderick Ferguson’s recent history of the interdisciplines warns, acts of unfielding are often archived within the university in ways that obscure the “ruptural possibilities of modes of difference” (2012, 18).[1] When breaking frames or considering acts of unfielding, I suggest that we should work towards anti-colonial ends.

Turning to nineteenth-century Ireland—a place that has a complicated relationship to both empire and the field of Victorian studies—one of the “accepted frames” to consider breaking is our emphasis on the book itself.[2]  After all, in 1841 only 27% of Ireland’s population could read and write (Graff 1987, 337). For this reason, although scholars like Kate Trumpener (1997, 16) and James Buzard (2005, 41) persuasively demonstrate the ways in which Irish literature shaped and was shaped by English fiction of the period, it is also important to remember that the book was not the primary form of Irish cultural authority or public discourse.

Charles Kickham’s immensely popular Knocknagow: Or, the Homes of Tipperary (1879) highlights the difficulty of anti-colonial unfielding even when focusing on questions of colonialism and empire. Kickham started writing novels while imprisoned for his role in the Fenian conspiracy in 1865, suggesting that his writing was intimately connected to his anti-colonial politics. Knocknagow, his most famous work, was published in serial form in periodicals in both Ireland and New York and was on Ireland’s bestseller list as recently as 1978.  But today, few Irish people or Irish studies scholars read the book.[3] Knocknagow’s longstanding popularity resulted from the way it incorporates alternative forms of cultural authority—music, storytelling, athletic competitions, embodied memory. And yet, the ways in which Knocknagow circulates as a book shows how imperial authority reproduces itself in colonial and postcolonial states.

Making the case that Knocknagow is a “great Irish Novel”—even better than Joyce!—the Irish sportswriter, Con Houlihan, suggests that the novel doesn’t hold together as a novel (2007, 20). Houlihan (2007, 20) celebrates this “great basket” of a novel not because of its narrative unity or coherence but because it captures the contradictory experiences of everyday Irish life. Sometimes, the narrative actually gets in the way of the energy of the story. Kickham interrupts a lively description of a game of hurling to solve a mystery surrounding one of the characters.  By the time he returns to the hurling match, the reader has almost forgotten that it is taking place.  Tellingly, readers remember the description of the hurling match rather than the narrative it interrupts: the Gaelic Athletic Association later includes this description in their manual, and sportswriters like Houlihan continue to draw upon Kickham when recounting particularly exciting matches (Valente 2011, 65).

But, the circulation of this book often blunts the politics of the novel as these alternative forms of cultural authority are used to reinforce the aesthetic standards of the British colonial state instead of questioning them.  Working to unify the novel’s discordant forms, readers take up the novel’s sentimentalism as a form of nostalgia and conveniently forget its criticisms of British law and state formations. The novel’s nostalgia is actually quite complicated: it reinforces a sentimentalized pastoral ideal but also recalls graphic state violence that the community remembers but the British state has already forgotten. Staging a conflict between official state history and native Irish remembering, Knocknagow tends to be taken up in ways that allow native Irish remembering to achieve the aesthetic authority of official history.  It was celebrated for teaching Irish youth proper morality (“Charles Kickham’s Career” 1928, 5), for providing a thoroughly Irish counterpart to Dickens’s “English Christmas” (“Leader Page Parade, 1954), and as the appropriate subject matter for English classes in Ireland well into the twentieth century (Fitzpatrick 1973, 12). As a result, the music, hurling, Christmas celebrations, and storytelling that Kickham lovingly portrays become timelessly embodied in the newly independent Irish state while Kickham’s anti-colonial politics that question official state history are forgotten.[4]

By paying attention to these contradictions—between the novel’s politics and the politics of its circulation, the novel’s competing forms and the easily portable forms that travel beyond the novel—we can recognize how empire reproduces itself, but also, the forms of difference at odds with this reproduction. Knocknagow shows that returning to what has been forgotten—in this case, the novel’s anti-colonial politics and its discordant forms—can break accepted frames by reactivating the ruptural possibilities of difference.


Buzard, James. 2005. Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

“Charles Kickham’s Career.” 1928. Irish Independent, August 30.

Ferguson, Roderick. 2012. The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fitzpatrick, Sean. 1973. “English Books for Irish Children.” Irish Independent, September 12.

Graff, Harvey J. 1987. Legacies of Literacies in Western Culture and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Houlihan, Con. 2007. “Kickham’s work up there with the great Irish novels.” Sunday Independent, October 28.

Joshi, Priya. 2011. “Globalizing Victorian Studies.” The Yearbook of English Studies, 41:2: 20-40.

Kiberd, Declan. 1995. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

“Leader Page Parade.” 1954 Irish Independent, December 22.

Martin, Amy. 2012. Alter-nations: Nationalisms, Terror, and the State in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

Murphy, James. H. 2011. Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nolan, Emer. 2007. Catholic Emancipations: Irish Fiction from Thomas Moore to James Joyce. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Trumpener, Katie. 1997. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and The British Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

V21 Collective. 2015. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective: Ten Theses.” (accessed 2/10/2016).

Valente, Joseph. 2011. The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.


[1] Priya Joshi (2011, 21) makes a similar point, arguing that transnational work in Victorian studies often “preserved the sense that the Victorian metropolis was hegemonic.”

[2] As Declan Kiberd (1995, 5) argues, Irish people were “both exponents and victims of British imperialism.”

[3] Emer Nolan’s (2007, 103-24) and James H. Murphy’s (2011, 119-47) work are notable exceptions.

[4] Examining how Fenianism is remembered (and forgotten) in the twentieth century, Amy Martin (2012, 161) contends that Fenian politics “represent a loss that haunts Irish politics.” I suggest that Kickham’s forgotten anti-colonial politics is part of this larger structure of historical amnesia and remembrance.



Mary L. Mullen is Assistant Professor of English and faculty member in the Irish Studies program at Villanova University.  Her essays have appeared in Victorian Poetry, Victoriographies, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and elsewhere.


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