The truth behind ‘Knick-knack Paddywack’

The truth behind ‘Knick-Knack Paddy whack’? by Kevin Patrick Murphy

 The source of the Nursery Rhyme “This is old Man”, has been unearthed in the archives of RTE – the Irish Broadcasting Company. It refers to the variety of punishments meted out on the Irish poor during the Great Famine of 1846-53, when a million starved to death and another million were forced to emigrate, despite the fact that the country was a net exporter of food during the whole period.

During the Famine ninety six percent of Irish Land was ‘owned’ by people who didn’t live there – Grandees who had got the land through gift, often through fealty to royalty or chieftains, and felt no allegiance or sense of either ownership or belonging to that land. They lived elsewhere, often in big houses in England, so were ‘absentee landlords’. I live in the ‘Dukeries’, seat of Viscount Galway, whose other titles included Clanricarde, Imanney and Tyaquin in Ireland.

Being absent, they still wanted to profit from their estates of course, either not knowing, or ignoring that they were rotting and stinking through the failure of the staple of the poor in the Potato Blight.

Not that it was Viscount Galway, but this one old man played one merry hell and sent troops to evict people who would not – could not – pay the rent. The playing on the drum could be heard over the hills and sank fear into the very hearts.

Another old man played on two – shoes, leaving a million barefoot children to starve to death.

We know of punishment three which continued into our lifetimes – kneecapping – shooting people’s knees to cripple them and be a warning to others to pay up.

Sanction four followed the knock at the door and would be the tearing down of the main house beam and torching.

Punishment five would be setting the hives on the people – a reference to the stinging of whips as they were chased away from their family homes.

Retribution six played upon the few sticks of furniture some of the evicted would still have and the Gombeen men would buy for a bag of meal, or worse, kicking the dog when he’s down – not giving him meat – only a bone.

These punishments have gone into the lexicon of sufferings borne by the people – all the whacks on the ‘Paddies’, as they became known the world over when they were washed up on foreign shores.

The dead kept the faith and seven took them up to Heaven with number eight knocking on the Pearly Gate.

Finally there is this old man who played nine, he played knick-knack on the spine – a treble pun: knick knacks are small possessions, sold, stolen and burnt; paddywhack is the ligament from the neck and spine of sheep and cattle – a final piece of ‘meat’ the poor could chew on to stave off hunger; nick-nacks are also the vertebrae used in the famous game of Knucklebones, Fivestones, or Jacks played since even Sophocles attempted to date it. It is played the world over and often used angular bones such as vertebrae. Just as in that other Nursery Rhyme where “The Ring o’Roses” was a symptom of the great plague, he sad reference in this children’s nursery rhyme, is to the vertebrae of tens of thousands of unburied children which would continue to be found in fields and ditches around every town or village of Ireland for the next fifty years.

The rhyme for the final verse expresses the fear that the famine would return another year, so the old man, the devil, would play ten and come again.

Each verse concludes to remind all listeners of the greed behind it all – the exploitation of the starving by the rich old man and his venal Gombeen man – living the life taken from Riley, and in his drunkenness he came rolling home.


A truly fanciful notion of Kevin “Paddy” Murphy


2 thoughts on “The truth behind ‘Knick-knack Paddywack’

  1. This story is titled ‘The truth behind Knick Knack Paddy whack’ and is based on a source unearthed by RTE. Having read it several times, I can’t help thinking that whoever did the unearthing, had their tongue in their cheek when they made their discovery public.
    I find it hard to believe that this simple old nursery rhyme had anything to do with the harsh treatment meted out to Irish tenant farmers by their English landlords.
    I find it far easier to believe that Knick Knack Paddywhack refers to the travelling tinkers, who rolled about the countryside in their caravans and played the bones/spoons/sticks, on anything that came to hand: including, among other things, doors/floors, drums, knees, shoes, sticks, etc, etc, etc.
    However, despite, or, in spite of my doubts, this take on the old nursery rhyme makes for entertaining reading. Thanks for that, Kevin.

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