I love you, Tipperary dear, for sake of him who told
The tale of homely ‘Knocknagow’ – its hearts as true as gold –
For sake of ‘Matt the Thresher’s’ strength, and Nora Leahy’s grace,
I love you, Tipperary, tho’ I never saw your face.
The words are by Brian O’Higgins and the poem includes five more verses outlining all the places of beauty in the county that he loves as well as ‘one dear friend, Within whose eyes your smiles and tears forever meet and blend.’
O’Higgins was born in County Meath in 1882 and took part in the Easter Rising. He was present in the GPO during the rebellion. Elected MP for Clare in 1918, he was re-elected to the Dáil in 1921, 1922 and 1923. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and lost his seat in the 1927 election. Active in the Gaelic League, he started a successful publishing company in the late twenties. He was an ardent lover of Ireland, its history, culture, language and freedom. From 1935 to 1962 he published the Wolfe Tone Annual in which he presented Irish history from a republican viewpoint. He died in 1963.
O’Higgins gave the background to his poem: ‘I always had a special love for Tipperary as my mother, God rest her, told us the stories of Kickham and recited the poems for us even before we were able to read, and when I did read them my love for Tipperary grew. It was far back in 1903, when I was a patient here in a Dublin hospital, that I wrote ‘I love You, Tipperary.’ While convalescing I amused myself and the other patients by composing poems. One day, a Tipperary man said to me: ‘It’s a pity you don’t write something about Tipperary.’ ‘But I have never seen Tipperary,’ I answered. ‘What matter? Haven’t you read Kickham?’ I composed this poem that day.’
Charles J Kickham
And, of course, as most people know, it was Charles J. Kickham who created Knocknagow, when he wrote his great novel, entitled Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary. Published in 1879, it was an instant success and ran to seven editions between then and 1887. In it the author presents an idealised picture of the contemporary peasant as ‘simple-minded, honest-souled, high-spirited, animated and inspired by two noble passions, love of his religion and his country.’
This love of country finds expression in one of the most memorable incidents in the novel, the sledge throwing contest between Captain French and Matt the Thresher. The Captain has just delivered a huge third throw and most of the spectators doubted if Matt could possibly beat it. The account continues:
‘The captain is a good fellow,’ thought Mat Donovan, ‘and I’d like to lave him the majority – if I could do it honourable.’
He looked on the anxious faces of those around him; he looked at Bessy Morris; but still he was undecided. Some one struck the big drum a single blow, as if by accident, and, turning round quickly, the thatched roofs of the hamlet caught his eye. And, strange to say, those old mud walls and thatched roofs roused him as nothing else could. His breast heaved as, with glistening eyes and that soft plaintive smile of his, he uttered the words: ‘For the credit of the little village!’ in a tone of the deepest tenderness. Then, grasping the sledge in his right hand, and drawing himself up to his full height, he measured the captain’s cast with his eye. The muscles of his arms seemed to start out like cords of steel as he wheeled slowly around and shot the ponderous sledge through the air.
His eyes dilated, as, with quivering nostrils, he watched its flight, till it fell far beyond the best mark that even he himself started with astonishment. Then a shout of exultation burst from the excited throng; hands were convulsively grasped, and hats sent flying into the air, and in their wild joy they crushed around him and tried to lift him upon their shoulders.
‘O boys, boys,’ he remonstrated, ‘be ‘asy. Sure ‘tisn’t the first time ye see me throw a sledge. Don’t do anything that might offend the captain afther comin’ here among us to show ye a little diversion.’
For the Credit of the Little Village
‘For the credit of the little village’ has become a mantra of exhortation for all sporting endeavour in the county since then. Wherever the Tipperary sportsperson finds himself, he is exhorted to give his all, just as Mat did, for the honour and glory of his native place.
The mythical name of Knocknagow, with its broad vowels and solid sound, is synonymous with the county. It reflects great love for home and hearth, for friends and neighbours, for one’s native place, however small and insignificant it may appear to others.
The kind of inspiration that lifted Mat’s achievement to such heights came from the sights and sounds of the people around him, the people of his own kith and kin. He was their representative, their saviour, their champion against the forces outside Knocknagow.
This kind of endeavour is extraordinary and drives people to greater heights of achievement. One does it for one’s community and there is no nobler cause than the protection of and championing the cause of one’s community.
Of course the whole episode presents an idealised picture. There is a nobility and decency about Mat’s motives that are almost saint-like.. The captain is a guest in the community and the laws of hospitality have to be observed. These laws demand that you don’t do anything that might offend your guest and that is where Mat is torn, between his desire to champion his community and yet not beat the captain. The sound of the drum helps to make up his mind but when he has delivered his winning cast, he tries to prevent his supporters from being too triumphal.
Although it presents an idealised version of Irish peasant life in nineteenth century Ireland, it does show the importance of local loyalty in driving people to greater endeavour for their communities. The G.A.A. recognised this when they made the parish the basic unit of the new Association, which came into existence only five years after the publication of Kickhams’s novel.
It is appropriate that the most prestigious of the Annerville Awards, which recognise athletic achievements, is the Knocknagow. Introduced in 1962, three years after the awards were initiated, the Knocknagow award is a unique and special honour for an athlete from the past. It recognises the pinnacle of achievement and the high level of excellence reached through dedicated commitment..
United Sports Panel Presentation Booklet for the Annerville Awards, Clonmel Park Hotel, Jan 23rd, 2016.