Nationality: Irish. Born: Clogher Valley in Prillisk, County Tyrone, 4 March 1794. Education: In rural schools around Prillisk; went to Munster to prepare for the Catholic priesthood, 1811; went to a school in Glasslough run by his second cousin, 1814-16. Family: Married Jane Anderson, 1822. Career: Left home to travel, 1817-19; moved to Dublin; tutor, Dublin, 1820-22; teacher in Protestant school, Mullinger, 1822-24; taught briefly in Carlow; contributor to Christian Examiner, Dublin, 1828-31; full-time writer, beginning 1831. Died: 1869.
Irish Tales by William Carleton (introduction by W. B. Yeats). 1904.
Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. 1830.
Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry: Second Series. 1833.
Tales of Ireland.
Popular Tales and Legends of the Irish Peasantry. 1834.
Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry: Fourth Edition. 1836.
Neal Malone and Other Tales of Ireland. 1839.
Characteristic Sketches of Ireland and the Irish, with Samuel Lover and Anna Maria Hall. 1840.
The Fawn of Spring-Vale, The Clarinet, And Other Tales. 1841.
Tales and Sketches, Illustrating the Character, Usages, Traditions, Sports and Pastimes of the Irish Peasantry. 1845.
Alley Sheridan and Other Stories. 1857.
The Silver Acre, and Other Tales. 1862.
Tubber Derg; or the Red Well, and Other Tales of Irish Life. 1866.
The Poor Scholar, Frank Martin and the Fairies, The Country Dancing Master, and Other Irish Tales. 1869.
Barney Brady's Goose; The Hedge School; The Three Tasks, and Other Irish Tales. 1869.
The Fair of Emyvale, and the Master and Scholar: Tales. 1870.
Amusing Irish Tales. 1889.
Father Butler; The Lough Dearg Pilgrim: Being Sketches of Irish Manners. 1834.
Fardorougha the Miser; or The Convicts of Lisnamona. 1839.
Valentine M'Clutchy, The Irish Agent: or Chronicles of the Castle Cumber Property. 1845.
Denis O'Shaughnessy Going to Maynooth. 1845.
Art Maquire; or The Broken Pledge: A Narrative. 1845.
Rody the Rover; or the Ribbonman. 1845.
Parra Sastha; or the History of Paddy Go-easy and His Wife Nancy. 1845.
The Black Prophet: A Tale of Irish Famine. 1847.
The Poor Scholar: a Pathetic Story of Irish Life. 1847.
The Emigrants of Ahadarra: A Tale of Irish Life. 1848.
The Tithe Proctor: A Novel. Being a Tale of the Tithe Rebellion in Ireland. 1849.
The Clarionet, the Dead Boxer, and Barney Branagham. 1850.
The Squanders of Castle Squander. 1852.
Red Hall; or The Baronet's Daughter. 1852.
Willy Reilly and His Dear Coleen Bawn: A Tale, Founded upon Fact. 1855.
The Evil Eye; or the Black Spectre: A Romance. 1860.
The Double Prophecy; or Trials of the Heart. 1862.
Redmond Count O'Hanlon, the Irish Rapparee, An Historical Tale. 1862.
The Red-Haired Man's Wife. 1889.
The Life of William Carleton: Being His Autobiography and Letters; and an Account of His Life and Writings, From the Point at Which the Autobiography Breaks Off. 1896.*
A Bibliography of the Writings of William Carleton by Barbara Hayley, 1985.
"Traits of the Irish Peasantry" by Patrick Joseph Murray, in Edinburgh Review, October 1852, pp. 384-403; Poor Scholar, 1948, and Modern Irish Fiction both by Benedict Kiely, 1950; William Carleton: Irish Peasant Novelist by Robert Lee Wolff, 1980; William Carleton by Eileen A. Sullivan, 1983; Carleton's Traits and Stories and the 19th Century Anglo-Irish Tradition by Barbara Hayley, 1983; "William Carleton: Elements of the Folk Tradition" by Harold Orel, in The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, 1986, pp.14-32; "Carleton, Catholicism and the Comic Novel" by David Krause, in Irish University Review, Fall-Winter 1994, pp. 217-40.* * *
The short story has always been a more successful narrative genre for Irish writers than the novel. The most common conjecture offered to account for this success is based on the critical assumption that the novel, primarily a realistic form, demands an established society, whereas the short story does not. As the contemporary Irish short story writer William Trevor has pointed out, when the novel began in eighteenth-century bookish England, Ireland, largely a peasant society, was not ready for it. As a result, throughout the eighteenth century Irish fiction remained aligned with its oral folklore, the oldest, most extensive folk tradition in Europe, and was not prepared for the novel's modern mode of realism until the nineteenth century, when William Carlton began his career.
Carleton is often credited as being the most important Irish intermediary between the old folk style and the modern realistic one because of his careful attention to specific detail and his ability to create a sense of the personality of the teller—characteristics frequently cited as qualities that distinguish the modern individual artist from the teller of folk tales. The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton and later Poe and Hawthorne developed it, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective of it.
Most of the critical commentary on Carleton has focused on his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism and his obsessive attacks on the Catholic religion in early stories published in the Christian Examiner, a journal established in 1825 to promote Anglicanism in Ireland. Although some of Carleton's more virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric has been attributed to the editor of the journal, the Reverend Caesar Otway, and portions of it were deleted by Carleton when several of the Examiner stories were reprinted in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830 and 1833), a number of the best-known stories from both the first and second series of his collections still focus on what he called Catholic superstitions that blind "devotion without true religion."
One of Carleton's most admired stories is "The Hedge School," which, although its anti-Catholic bias was softened somewhat for its first book publication, focuses on a teacher in one of the small unauthorized Catholic schools created to combat British Protestant efforts to keep the Irish uneducated. Mat Kavanaugh, a member of a secret Catholic society, beats his young charges during the day and attacks Protestant landlords at night. In the story Carleton blamed much of the sectarian violence in Ireland on the hedge schools for their teaching political rhetoric that made heroes out of hooligans.
In another commonly anthologized story, "The Death of The Devotee," which appears in The Tales of Ireland (1834), Father Moyle, a Catholic priest who has begun to doubt the dogmas and rituals of his religion, is called on to perform the rite of extreme unction on a dying man who is a true believer. Insisting on the Protestant view that such rituals are unable to confer salvation, the priest refuses. In a later story, "The Priest's Funeral," Father Moyle, in spite of the efforts of his fellow churchmen, also refuses the last rites for himself and makes it publicly known that he has converted to Protestantism.
Not all of Carleton's stories, however, are polemical excuses for anti-Catholic attacks. Many are significant for their combination of a tightly unified narrative style with the plot conventions and themes of the old oral tale. One of the best-known examples of Carleton's use of oral legend is his focus on the motif of the mysterious journey to a wonderful country in the story "The Three Tasks," a story he most likely heard from a shanachie, or teller of old Irish folktales. Carleton's father was a shanachie whose memory, Carleton said, "was a perfect storehouse, and a rich one, of all that the social antiquary the man of letters, the poet, or the musician, would consider valuable."
"The Three Tasks" is a typical folktale, albeit told in a tightly controlled fashion, in which a man loses a bet with a dark-looking stranger and must perform three impossible tasks: clean a stable that has not been cleaned for seven years, catch a wild horse, and rob a crane's nest at the top of a tree in the middle of an island without using a boat. A beautiful young woman helps him succeed, and they fall in love and bury a great deal of money. As they are about to get married, the man wakes up from what has been a dream. But the dream seems so real that he looks for the money and finds it and becomes a wealthy man.
"The Linahan Shee" is an interesting combination of Carleton's interest in the old oral folktale and his concern with being true to historical fact. Father O'Dallaghy is called to rid the parish of a mysterious "fairy follower"; we find out, however, that she is actually an ex-nun whom the priest has known sexually and abandoned. The next morning he is found burned to a cinder by the fireplace, with only his legs unscorched. Carleton insisted that the method of the priest's suicide, throwing himself into the fireplace, was true, known to him from childhood.
Most critics feel that Carleton is at his best when he is describing real events or making use of traditional tales rather than when he is trying to invent his own incidents or narratives. Except for the rather loose narrative style of the traditional tales, he had no real models. The only story that comes close to the kind of tight control we expect of the modern short story is "Wildgoose Lodge," which, although based on an actual atrocity in which Ribbonmen burn a farmer's house and murder the inhabitants, is transformed by Carleton into a tightly controlled story based on the subjective experience of the first-person narrator.
Carleton did not perceive himself to be a creator of stories so much as a re-creator of fact. Critics have noted that Carleton believed fiction and fact to be inextricably mixed. Thus, like other romantic writers, including Hawthorne, Irving, and Poe, he made no real distinction between the terms "sketch," "story," and "essay." In many of his narratives Carleton reminds his readers that his story is based on fact, using such language as "exactly as it happened" and "strictest truth." Harold Orel has pointed out that this emphasis on truth was obsessive with Carleton and that he emphasized fact even when the story was written to illustrate a theory or a moral.
The combination of fact and thematic significance is an important shift in the development of the nineteenth-century short story, for part of the problem for writers of the period was how to write a story based on "real" events that illustrated a thematic idea but that did not depend on the symbolic conventions of the old allegorical romance form. One of the most important characteristics developed from this need by such romantic writers as Carleton was the creation of a personal teller whose emotionally charged account of the event took precedence over both mimetic and didactic considerations.
When the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry was published, it was enthusiastically received by British critics, who felt that Carleton's stories were the first to reveal the whimsical nature of a wild, imaginative people that they knew little about. Moreover, unlike the stories of Gerald Griffin (Holland-Tide; 1827) and John and Michael Banim (The Tales of the O'HaraFamily; 1825 and 1827), which were about middle-class Irish life and which were primarily local color pieces, Carleton's stories dealt with peasants. Most critics feel that the stories in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry transcend mere regionalism and take on a much more universal and literary value than other narratives of the time.
Carleton said in the introduction to the collected edition of Traits and Stories that the publication of his stories established the fact that Ireland, "if without a literature at the time, was at least capable of appreciating … the humble exertions of such as endeavored to create one." He felt that the book made it clear that an Irish writer could succeed at home without appearing under the sanction of London or Edinburgh booksellers.
Yeats, who revived interest in Carleton during the Irish literary renaissance, called him a great historian, for the history of a nation is not "in parliaments and battle-fields, but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high-days, and in how they fare, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage. These things has Carleton recorded."
—Charles E. May
See the essay on "Wildgoose Lodge."