When William Carleton wrote an introduction to Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, he claimed that everything depicted in them was true, and that by those who were acquainted with the manners, and language, and feelings of the people, they would sooner or later be recognised as faithful delineations of Irish life. That sense of the authenticity of his work was well justified, as was his feeling that in time his ability to portray his own people with authority and intimacy would be recognised. Even in his own time, his work was praised by such contemporaries as Maria Edgeworth, Charles Gavan Dufly, Thomas, Davis and Thomas Carlyle. Subsequently, W. B. Yeats appropriately observed that the history of a nation lies not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what people say to each other on fairdays and high days, and in how they farm and quarrel and go on pilgrimage.
That Carleton is the historian of the peasantry is now universally accepted, although as Thomas Flanagan has pointed out in The Irish Novelists 1800-1850 it must also be recognised that Carleton was a spoiled priest as well as a peasant, with the result that his roots in Irish life are complex. Traits and Stories , as Flanagan observes, range over a wide variety, of subject and theme, yet most of them turn, as though by homing instinct, to the hedge school and the chapel, to the scholar and the priest. In Irish life, the two were intimately connected. That Carleton had personal experience of both only further substantiates his claim for the faithfulness of his portrayal of peasant life.
The future memorialist of the peasantry was born on 20 February 1794 near Clogher, County Tyrone, the youngest of [vii] fourteen children, six of whom died before he was born. He has left an affectionate and significant portrait of his parents. His father, a man of unaffected piety and great integrity, had a prodigious memory, so that behind Carletons own immense knowledge of the people, lies this other retentive memory of the Irish storyteller. His father could repeat nearly the whole of the Old and New Testaments by heart, but more important for its impact on the future novelist, his knowledge of native folklore and custom was extensive.
This assessment is intended to be more than an affectionate tribute. Carleton offers it explicitly as further evidence of his knowledge of his people, and of his ability to render their speech. That his father belonged to the Gaelic oral tradition and that the Clogher valley was at this time rich in folk material point to the importance of Carletons own work simply as a record of what was being eroded by time and change even in his lifetime and that would be almost annihilated by the catastrophe of the Great Famine. It also draws attention to an aspect of his work that has been too little studied: if we say that his work, for all his accuracy of detail and its imaginative power, is flawed by his inadequate sense of form, it should also be said that his instinctive [viii] sense of form would have been derived not from literary sources but from the conventions of the oral tradition. In addition, therefore, to the kind of literary criticism provided by Thomas Flanagan or by Benedict Kiely in The Poor Scholar , there is need for an approach that will consider Carletons use of folk material and that will relate Traits and Stories in particular to the conventions of the oral tradition.
Carletons tribute to his mother is also indicative of his contact with Gaelic sources. She was famous in the Clogher area for the beauty of her voice so that word of her presence at any wake, dance, or other festive occasion was enough to attract people from the whole neighbourhood. Again it is the knowledge of remnants of the Gaelic tradition that Carleton mentions, those old songs that she knew and that passed away with her death. Furthermore, she preferred to sing Gaelic songs in the original, not in English translation, for she rightly said that the English words and the air are like a quarrelling man and wife: the Irish melts into the tune, but the English doesnt.
It was fortunate that Carletons parents gave him such intimate and natural contact with the heritage of his people, because his education was sporadic and seriously hindered by the conditions of the time. His first teacher was the Munsterman, Pat Frayne. Carleton draws directly from his memory of this teacher in his valuable record of the school and the locality in The Hedge School. It is the first example of what we find over and over in Traits and Stories: the impulse to record as faithfully as possible from actual experience. In this case he leads us into the village of Findramore with a precise and purposeful notation of the setting:
The movement of the opening description is from the generalised and the idyllic to the particular and the real, to the series of dunghills, each with its concomitant sink of green, rotten water before each cottage door. For this, as he pointedly asserts, is no landscape without figures, not an idyllic painting but an actual place teeming with life: the pigs grunting in the mud, the curs barking, the grotesque visage peeping through the pancless windows, the tattered female, the shaggy-headed urchin; and there are the more comfortable farmhouses, better stocked and better kept.
Much of Carletons work provides this kind of dense observation that is of interest to the material folklorist and the social historian. The Hedge School itself is invaluable also as a record of actual life and this would seem to have been Carletons intention. As a story it is episodic and formless: it begins with a realistic description of the place and the people, discusses their respect for education and the difficulty they have in getting a teacher, shifts abruptly and in a different tone to the merry abduction of Mat Kavanagh and his family, provides a comic and detailed portrait of his activities in the classroom, places him in relation to the community at large, and ends unexpectedly with his proposed hanging for a crime he did not commit. In his speech from the scafrold he urges the people to learn the lesson of his fate and for once the philomath English, often a mode of ridicule, has genuine feeling for the occasion: Obey the law, he tells them, or, if you dont, youll find a lex talionis - the construction of which is, that if a man burns or murdhers, he wont miss hanging; take warning by me ... Carletons final comments are both terse and illuminating: Mat never shows his face again in Findramore, as certain death would have been the consequence of his not dying game; and as for the man who gave evidence against him, he was compelled to enact an [x] ex tempore death ... having been found dead, with a slip of paper in his mouth, inscribed - This is the fate of all Informers.
The connections between the Church and the teachers were close. The priest was the respected figure in the countryside and many young men, with the encouragement of their families, sought advancement in life by means of the Church. Those who showed promise, or an interest in 1~g, were encouraged by their teachers to try for the priesthood. The determination once fixed," Carleton explains, the boy was set apart from every kind of labour, that he might be at liberty to bestow his undivided time and talents to the object set before him. His parents strained every nerve to furnish him with the necessary books, and always took care that his appearance and dress should be more decent than those of any other member of the family." The way to Maynooth was through the classical schools of Munster and this meant becoming a poor scholar travelling from school to school in search of instruction, as we see in The Poor Scholar when James McEvoy made his educational journey. It is not one of Carletons better stories, being so full of moral purpose and so laden with asides and explanations, but it tells us a lot about the system and has its poignant and intense feeling for the miseries of a dispossessed people.
That passion burns clearly in the economical opening scene in which Dominick McEvoy and his son, James, were digging potatoes on the side of a hard, barren hill ... The day was bitter and wintry, the men were thinly clad. But it is the bitterness of history that really afflicts and for which the natural setting serves as metaphor. They work hard on their miserable waste of a rack-rented farm while below them lies the sheltered inland, inhabited chiefly by Protestants and Presbyterians. They can only curse those who have evicted them and it is the pressure of the past, the sense of rage and oppression that drives James to fling his spade aside and to set off for Munster. He will pitch slavery to the devil, once and for all, and will never set foot in the parish again until he comes home either a priest of a gentleman. Furthermore, as he tells his father, Ill rise you out of your distress, or die in the attempt.
In truth he almost dies on his double quest, but Carleton with that instinct for the happy ending that spoils the conclusion [xi] of Denis OShaughnessy Going to Maynooth and almost spoils the ending of Tubber Derg brings James home again when both parts have been secured. There is a moving account of his tearfully ecstatic reunion with his family, a fairytale comee true, and for once Carleton keeps the emotion under control. But he must point the moral:
We are incapable of describing this scene further. Our readers must be content to know, that the delight and happiness of our heros whole family were complete. Their son, after many years of toil and struggle, had at length succeeded, by a virtuous course of action, in rising them from poverty to comfort, and in effecting his own object, which was to become a member of the Catholic priesthood. During all his trials he never failed to rely on God; and it is seldom that those who rely upon Him, when striving to attain a laudable purpose, are ever ultimately disappointed.
All Irish writers at this time have this tendency to turn aside to the reader; it is one of the conventions of fiction, but it is also part of their provincialism, of their realisation that their main readers are in England, not Clogher, or Edgeworthstown, or even Dublin. London was the literary centre, so that even Maria Edgeworth, privileged daughter of the Ascendancy, felt the need to address Castle Rackrent to the English reader as a specimen of manners and characters, which are perhaps unknown in England. The need was even greater in Carletons case for the simple reason that his work was drawn out of even more mysterious and hidden regions of Irish life than hers. So that his aim of portraying Irish life faithfully almost inevitably involved some explanation of what he felt was unfamiliar or peculiarly Irish. There are times when he overdoes it, but there are others, as in this description of a cottage in Phelim OTooles Courtship when the result justifies it:
The house to which Phelim and his father directed themselves was, like their own, of the humblest description. The floor of it was about sixteen feet by twelve; its furniture rude and scanty. To the right of the fire was a bed, the four posts of [xii] which ran up to the low roof; it was curtained by straw mats, with the exception of an opening about a foot and a half wide on the side next the fire, through which thou who slept in it passed. A little below the foot of the bed wwo ranged a few shelves of deal, supported by pins of wood driven into the wall. These constituted the dresser. In the lower end of the house stood a potato-bin, made up of stakes driven into the floor, and wrought with strong wicker-work. Tied to another stake beside this bin stood a cow, whose hinder part projected so close to the door, that those who entered the cabin were compelled to push her over out of their way. This, indeed, was effected without much difficulty, for the animal became so habituated to the necessity of moving aside that it was only necessary to lay a hand upon her. Above the door in the inside, almost touching the roof, was the hen-roost, made also of wickerwork; and opposite the bed, on the other side of the fire, stood a meal chest, its lid on a level with the little pane of glass which served as a window. An old straw chair, a few stools, a couple of pots, some wooden vessels and crockery, completed the furniture of the house. The pig to which Sheelah alluded was not kept within the cabin, that filthy custom being now less common than formerly.
Traits and Stories is full of valuable recording; in Phelim OTooles Courtship we are given detailed accounts of the pilgrimage of the childless couple and their superstitious trust in a variety of cures; in The Party Fight and Funeral we witness the custom of bringing the corpse of a victim to the door of his killer; in The Midnight Mass we have the bizarre test of innocence by which the accused has to lay his hand thred times on the corps to see if it will bleed.
If the road to Maynooth lay through the hedgeschools, the way back often led to the hedgeschools. Hedge masters were often spoiled priests, that is, men who had gone to Maynooth with the intention of becoming a priest, but for one reason or another, had returned home again. They were wild and colourful men, the victims of enormous social and psychological pressures, rebels against authority, pedantic in manner, drunken, leaders of [xiii] extremist organisations, and sometimes gifted poets. Pat Frayne was a good example; he attracted a hundred pupils in Clogher the day after he pinned a notice to the chapel door to say that he would teach a weirdly mixed bag of subjects - Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, Mathematics, all the classical writers, Physics and Metaphysics.
Carletons progress under a variety of teachers, who came and went, meant almost inevitably, since he had clearly an attraction to books and learning, that he too in his turn with the blessing of his family would set off for the schools of Munster. When he did, there was a local collection; he had a new suit of clothes, four shirts, as many classical books as he could stuff into a linen satchel, five pounds sewn into his left cuff, thirty shillings in ready cash, and a needle, thread and penknife with which to cut loose the fiver when he needed it and duly sew the remaining pounds back in the sleeve. He would go, in the words spoken by Corcoran, the old teacher in The Poor Scholar to that county where the swallows fly in conic sections, where the magpies and turkeys confab in Latin, and the cows and bullocks will roar at you in Doric Greek. But it was not to be. In his Autobiography he tells the outcome: his sorrow at this first parting from his family and the familiar places of his youth, the kindness accorded to the poor student as he walked south to Granard, his dream of a mad bull, his return with lightening spirits to a reunion with his delighted family.
All through the Autobiography, as everywhere in Traits and Stories, we find the richness of his experience: his fame at dances, his relish for all kinds of sports, trials of strength and contests, his membership of the secret and illegal society of Ribbonmen, his presence at a big party fight between Orangemen and Ribbonmen, his pilgrimage to Lough Derg, his presence at his brothers wedding, later depicted in Shane Fadhs Wedding. He lived for the most part a carefree life, broken by educational endeavours a youthful love affair in which he never declared his love, his lust for books, his youthful pedantry, and his bitter childhood memory of the midnight intrusion into his home of Orange yeomen in search of arms. That was during the 1798 period of Orange ascendancy in which as he savagely recorded Every yeoman with his red coat on was an Orangeman. Every cavalry [xiv] man mounted upon his own horse and dressed in blue was an Orangeman ... Roman Catholics were not admitted to either service. No law, he says with particular emphasis, was against an Orangeman, no law was for a Papist. His local experience of sectarian bitterness, fed by that indelible memory of Orangemen searching his home, prodding a sister with a bayonet, found angry release in his novel, Valentine McClutchy.
He never learnt much in the schools, as he freely admitted, but he compensated for that failure by the adoption of a learned manner, if only to impress the neighbours and to seem to justify his lack of practical employment. But his family, indulgent while his father was alive, eventually told him bluntly that he could not be a Denis OShaughnessy all his life. That pressure, together with his feeling that he was destined for better things, and strengthened by his reading of the picaresque Gil Blas made him set off along the roads in search of whatever chance might bring. He left with the parting shot You may hear from me yet.
Whatever his inner dream may have been, the reality in those desperately impoverished years in Ireland, with famine, evictions, popular unrest, coercion, and widespread s^ring, was bleak. He got jobs here and there as a teacher, told stories to earn his lodging, lived impecuniously all the time, as he made his way slowly and erratically south, to Louth, to Drogheda, to Maynooth, to Newcastle, and finally to Dublin where he lodged the first night in Dirty Lane. Again, although in a practical sense he has almost nothing to show for his quest for adventure and fortune, it is all grist to his imaginative mill; he is extending his range of contact with the conditions of Irish life, with the habits and mores of the people. In his Autobiography, he remembers the various characters he encountered: Judy Byrne who sold fruit to Maynooth, a woman by accident, huge in size, free in speech, who had once been a United Irishman; the celebrated giant, Big Magee, who liked to invent clocks and watches; the bully whom Carleton trounced; MacDonagh, the literary tailor in Moore Street, whom he helped with his autobiography. The progress towards the metropolis was haphazard and hazardous, an education in itself, but with nothing quite so horrible as his sight of the gibbets in County Louth, each with a body in a tar sack left to decompose in the hot sun. It was there he saw the frightful and pitiful remains of the hedge schoolmaster, Paddy Devann, who has also been a master of a Ribbon lodge. It was he who had plotted and executed the reprisal killing of the Lynch family in Wildgoose Lodge. Local accounts of the incident stayed in Carletons mind to be recreated imaginatively in the vivid and macabre story Wildgoose Lodge.
When he walked into the crowded and poor areas of Dublin in the year 1818, he had two shillings and ninepence in his pockets. It was the city of Burke and of Grattan, of the old parliament house in College Green, of Trinity College, the Four Courts and the Customs House, but there is little evidence of this eighteenth century splendour in Carleton. He did go to the theatre, where he saw the Siddonses, the elder Kean and Macready; he read in Marshs library beside St. Patricks Cathedral and met the novelist, Maturin. He worked in Dublins hedgeschools, got married, tried in vain to enter Trinity College and began to write essays in the manner of Addisons in The Spectator. As he said himself I had read nothing but a few odd novels and some classics but the gipsy fortune-teller many years before had said that he would go to Dublin and become a great man. The extraordinary thing is that despite the odds against him, despite his crazy education, despite his frequent poverty, he did become famous and quite soon.
Whether he could ever have achieved success as a writer had he not met Caesar Otway is impossible to say. Otway, a proselytizer and polemicist, had started The Christian Examiner. Shrewdly sizing up the true nature of Carletons gifts, he invited him to write about the habits, conditions and superstitions of the peasantry. Carleton conformed to the Church of Ireland and began with a biased account of the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. Gradually, despite the anti-Catholic nature of some of his work, he discovered the world he had been carrying around in his head for over thirty years. Now it emerged, with startling vividness and strangeness, as a revelation. No one else could explain the instincts, passions, values and sufferings of these people with such passionate insight and such absolute authority. The subject grew upon him, so that he took quite seriously upon himself the task of putting down on paper what he had remembered. His aim, as he said, was neither to distort his countrymen [xvi] into demons, nor to enshrine them as suffering innocents and saints, but to exhibit them as they really are. He would in that process remove many absurd prejudices against his people.
He settled in Dublin, lived for a while in a cottage in Clontarf then moved to the south side. Thereafter the story of his life, so far as we know, is uneventful; his family grow up around him, some children emigrated, his novels appeared, he was a noted literary figure and received a pension through an appeal on his behalf by most of the important people of the time. He went on walking tours, with Thomas Francis Meagher, with Samuel Ferguson; he went back to the Clogher valley and found it emptied of people after the Famine: the field full of folk lived on only in his fiction. He visited London where he met Thackeray whose work he admired and called to see Leigh Hunt. In 1868 he began to write his Autobiography, but it was unfinished at his death on 30 January 1869. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, in Dublin. Flanagan sums up those years as follows:
In his life and in his writings he had bridged the Famine. Born in the closing decade of Irelands worst century, he lived through the rise and decline of Daniel OConnell, King of the Beggars, knew the young men associated with The Nation, witnessed the catastrophe of the Famine, the abortive Fenian risings of 67, and died just a year before Gladstones first land act. It was a time of upheaval and transition in which the values of what [xvii] Daniel Corkery called the hidden Ireland clashed with those of modern Europe. His understanding of the wider issues seems to have been unclear; he remained loyal to what he knew best and his point of view was always that of the Irish peasant.
Commenting many years later on Traits and Stories, he admitted that it was his best work and reflecting on the characters in these stories, he said I found them, and only gave them a linked embodiment, some at school or at college, or amid the lanes and hillsides of my native Tyrone. I found them at mass in stations, and pilgrimages, in the company of the priests. The linked embodiment was enough, deceptively artless in appearance and allowing for all the modes of his vision. By the end, the world of the Clogher valley was swarming with life, like Chaucers pilgrims jostling along the road to Canterbury; the various figures and events interact one with the other in rich and cumulative abundance. A less confident writer could not have brought it all alive in this vital way, but Carleton knew his material and knew his people. I found them, he wrote in the introduction to his Tales of Ireland, a class unknown in literature, unknown by their own landlords, and unknown by those in whose hands much of their destiny was placed. If I became the historian of their habits and manners, their feelings, their prejudices, their superstitions and their crimes; if I have attempted to delineate their moral, religious and physical state, it was because I saw no person willing to undertake a task which surely must be looked upon as an important one ...
The task was indeed important and few have been as equal to it as Carleton was. His vision of that world of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Ireland has two distinct sides: he saw the good in Irish character, the humane impulse; and he saw the evil, the endemic violence and superstition. It was in terms of character that he best reflected what he saw and through the rhythms of a language that was composed of an odd mixture of Gaelic, Latin and English. His plots tend to be episodic and belong to that picaresque mode that deals with the escapades of a merry rascal who lives by his wits and his tongue. And like Le Sage, or Cervantes, Carletons realistic anti-types deflate the romantic or idealised views on Ireland. For he had a sardonic cast of mind and knew, just as Frank OConnor did later, how [xviii] everything should be said; and the manner of its saying, in a society and in a fiction so affected by the oral tradition, was also a trait of the Irish character and one of Carletons essential achievements.
As a result he has a firm and unique place in the history of Irish fiction, despite his weaknesses and contradictions. Above all he belongs to his world and possesses it to a degree never possible for later writers when the Famine had depleted the Clogher valleys of Ireland of a people, their language and their culture, when that network of feeling, thinking and behaviour that are the components of a culture had succumbed to successive erosions. For he possessed his world on the brink of its final fragmentation and portrays its baroque carousel of two cultures and three languages. For later writers that hidden Ireland would be a kind of home sickness to which they would turn, a sense of anaemia in the very substance of things, a thin racial echo towards which they would incline in a variety of ways.
George Moore would come back to his untilled field in search of what Paddy Durkin and Father Pat would say to him on the roadside. J. M. Synge would give up the boulevards of Paris for the boreens of Aran. James Joyce would allow Gabriel Conroy to acknowledge the call of that Ireland across the Shannon. Frank OConnor and Sean OFaolain would find that a whole new world lay forty miles west of Cork. The myth of the west appears everywhere in modern Irish writing, but for most writers the racial memory is affected by a sense of diminution and ultimate loss. Carleton, almost alone, stands at the beginning, with his feet planted firmly among his people, in possession and magically giving witness. "Gentlemen," Pat Frayne said to his pupils one Eastertime, "tomorrow let each of you bring me an egg - one will be sufficient, but in the meantime I have no objection against two. When you bring them, I will then go to that field ..., and placing every egg upon a spot of ground which I will consecrate by the repetition of that most charitable of all documents, the Athanasian Creed, I will cause every egg to rise with the lightness of a soap bubble into the air and it will in this manner disappear for ever.