Knocknagow or the Homes of Tipperary

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Knocknagow, published in 1873, is a novel about the life of the Irish peasantry and is concerned with the workings of the Irish land system. The novel portrays landlords as apathetic to the needs of their tenants and their land agents as greedy and unscrupulous, leading to rural depopulation, emigration and poverty. The lives of the characters illustrate the iniquities of the land system but Kickham also provides a positive portrait of the virtues of Irish life. The novel centres around the land owner Sir Garrett Butler's agent, Isaac Pender, who refuses new leases to tenants. This and other injustices are received by the peasantry with restraint appropriate to contemporary respectable standards but they also illustrate a divided society. The novel also provides a contrasting vision of a harmonious community, symbolically expressed in music. James H. Murphy argues that this was the key to Knocknagow's popularity: "It presents Ireland both as a society riven with conflict and oppression...and as a society of harmony and celebration". Vincent Comerford accounts for the novel's success with the lower middle class by claiming that they saw "an explanation of [their] own origins in a struggle against vicissitudes of insecurity of tenure".

For fifty years after its publication, Knocknagow was one of the most popular books in Ireland. The young Michael Collins was once found weeping over the sufferings of the peasantry in the novel. Aodh de Blácam called Knocknagow "the national Irish novel" and claimed "Knocknagow will never die, unless the Irish nation dies".

Knocknagow was published in 1879, and rapidly became the most popular of all Irish novels. Its influence derives mainly from its political importance rather than its literary quality, which is about average for a best-seller but not outstanding. In this it resembles The Women's Room and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, two other polemical novels which were very important politically but marginal as works of literary art. It attacks the evils of the landlord system in Ireland, and indirectly the English rule which supported that system. Kickham himself was a leading nationalist, and was imprisoned for his opinions.

For many years Knocknagow was the book - along with a prayerbook and Old Moore's Almanac -- most likely to be found in any Irish home. Most Irish writers born between 1870 and 1950 would have read it as children. Yeats described it as "The most honest of Irish novels" and Con Houlihan as "The greatest Irish novel." For all its sentimentality and inept plotting, it gives a very accurate picture of rural Irish life in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it is one of the few such novels which was written by one of the ordinary people. Almost all the other writers who dealt with the rural poor were either of the landlord class themselves (Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Somerville and Ross, Emily Lawless, Maria Edgeworth) or urban Protestant middle-class (George A. Birmingham, Charles Lever, Dion Boucicault, Samuel Lover). However sympathetic and well-writen their accounts, they were written from the outside looking in. Knockangow was written from the inside.