Barbara Hayley, Foreword to Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry [1845 Def. Edn.; rep.] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979), pp.5-12.

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A first glance at the illustrations to this edition of Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry gives a good impression of the tales themselves: crowded with laughing, weeping, fighting, working, playing, dying, praying peasants in sublime scenery, poverty-stricken cottages, cosy public houses, trim farms, broken-down barns, hillside chapels, hedgeschools, hovels. They inhabit a world, however poor, that is richly endowed with things: fiddles, crosses, coffins, spades, bottles and more bottles. The inhabitants of Carleton’s world are villains, scholars, horse-thieves, pig-drivers, priests, farmers, shopkeepers. Carleton’s aim was to show the Irish peasantry honestly to the world, and his way of doing an was to show him at home among his domestic surroundings. That is why he needs precise and wonderful things: flax on the lintel for warding off spirits; sheep’s grey wool for knitting socks, eggshells for drinking out of, potato-bins for courting on, straws to hold a huge pudding together. He chooses simple, strong plots, often based on a wedding, a funeral, a wake, a dance, and gives each a memorable setting which he uses not just as background but to explore and extend his narrative: the torchlight procession to the mountain altar in “The Midnight Mass”, for example, or Ellish’s thriving shop in “The Geography of an Irish Oath”:

From crockery, herrings, and salt, she advanced gradually to deal in other branches adapted to her station, and the wants of the people. She bought stockings, and retailed them every market day. By and by a few pieces of soap might be seen in her windows: starch, blue, potash, and candles, were equally profitable. Pipes were seen stuck across each other, flanked by tape, cakes, children’s books, thimbles, and bread. (Vol. II, p.33.)

Carleton was a peasant author, one who chose as his subjects the land, the people and the things that he knew and loved or feared. He knew these subjects from within. He spoke as a native Irishman, using the language of the people as he had heard it in his youth, English fresh and new, tinted with the Irish on which it was laid. He was born in 1794 in Prillisk, Co. Tyrone, and as he tells in the “General Introduction” to this edition, was educated at hedge schools, played in village sports, made the pilgrimage to Lough Derg, set out for Maynooth to become a priest, went to Dublin and started writing stories for the Christian Examiner and Church of Ireland Gazette, having become a Protestant. He was closely associated with the great nonsectarian revival of Irish literature in the 1830s and later with the more political writers of the Nation newspaper. He was one of the stable of {5} Irish writers for the Catholic publisher James Duffy and his popular ‘Parlour Library of Ireland’ series. In the 1850s and 1860s he continued to write tales and novels that were best-sellers in Ireland, England and America, notably Willy Reilly and His Dear Colleen Bawn (1855). He died in 1869, his writing career having spanned several literary movements as well as the religious divide between Catholic and Protestant.

As a novelist, Carleton wrote works of disturbing power and black comedy, such as Fardarougha the Miser (1839), Valentine M’Clutchy the Irish Agent (1845), The Black Prophet (1847), The Tithe Proctor (1849); these frequently took up the major issues of the day such as tenant right, famine, agrarian outrage. But it is as a teller of shorter tales that he excels, and of his many collections the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry have always been the best known and most widely read.

Contemporary critics praised Carleton most for the ‘light and shade’ of his depictions of Irish character, and much of his power lies in the combination and contrast of light and shade, good and evil, fun and tragedy. He is a writer of great comic genius. Yet of the twenty stories in this collection only five could be said to be purely comic: “Ned M’Keown”, the first, scene setting piece; “The Three Tasks”, a tongue-in-cheek fairytale, “Phil Parcel the Pigdriver” in which a rogue dupes the gentry by pretending to be a fool; “Phelim O’Toole’s Courtship” in which Phelim woos three consecutive (and concurrent) fiancées; “Neal Malone” in which a pugnacious tailor fantastically grows and shrinks. Of the others, three are purely tragic or horrific: “Wildgoose Lodge” which relates the burning of a house and its inhabitants by a terrorist gang; “The Lianhan Shee” which tells of a mysterious outcast with a bundle on her back; “The Donagh, or the Horse-stealers” which deals with murder, brutality and superstition. More typical of Carleton, however, is the mixture of‘light and shade’, humour and pain, in the same story. “The Hedge School” for example, starts with the comic abduction of a polymath hedge schoolmaster but ends with a Ribbon plot; “The Battle of the Factions” starts with a caricatured fight but leads to disturbingly real violence; “The Geography of an Irish Oath” starts with a comic layabout and his prosperous wife but leads to a death made pitiful by excessive materialism. In other tales a tragic or Pathetic plot is tempered with burnout: “Larry M’Farland’s Wake” has the death of a spendthrift and his wife but is lightened by the comic games that follow the wake; “The Midnight Mass” has a melodramatic chase and a death but also a ubiquitous comic prophecy-man; “The Party Fight and Funeral” has a murderous conflict but much repartee. In two stories, “The Lough Derg Pilgrim” and “The Station”, makes contentious points about the dangers and oppressions of the Catholic religion, but even these are lightened by some comic episodes and many funny voices. “Going to Maynooth” treats {6} the Catholic church from a less abstract, more personal point of view; that of a young man, Denis O’Shaughnessy, whose progress towards the priesthood is made by way of bribable bishops and gullible parishioners and involves the sacrifice of young love. Three particularly tender stories, “Shane Fadh’s Wedding”, “The Poor Scholar” and “Tubber Derg or the Red Well” show Carleton closest to his objective of showing the true, ordinary peasant without caricature or distortion. Their heroes are simple yet noble characters: Shane Fadh, an old widower, remembering his dear bride and their wedding day; Dominick, the poor scholar, valiantly overcoming poverty and illness to achieve education and relieve his family; Owen, the provident, hardworking farmer of “Tubber Derg” who endures eviction and destitution to re-establish himself in modest security. Even in these pathetic stories the voices are amusing, accurate, lively. Without depriving his characters of dignity, Carleton uses native, halve, joke-laden language full of happy distortions and inversions. The amazing hocus-poems of Darby More the prophecy-man, the ‘soodhering’ blandishments of Phelim O’Toole, are as irresistible as the fledgling Denis O’Shaughnessy’s Tall English:

‘Why, Miss Norah, that he who is so beatified as to secure you in the matrimonial paction – compactum it is in the larned languages – in other words – to condescend to your capacity – he who is married to you will be a happy man. There is a juvenility about your eyes, and an efflorescence of amaranthin odoriferousness about your cheeks and breath, that are enough to communicate the centrifugal motion to any brain adorned with the slightest modicum of sentiment.’ (Vol. II, p.108.)

Carleton’s use of the comic to underline a serious point has much in common with the tragi-comic method of later writers such as Sean O’Casey who use comic business and comic language to intensify a tragic conflict. In ‘The Battle of the Factions’, ‘The Hedge School’, ‘Phelim O’Toole’s Courtship’ and many other stories, a comic approach is followed by a serious development and climax. For violence, the agrarian terrorism of Ribbon and Whiteboy gangs, the suppressed resentment of ill-landlorded tenants, underlies much of the rural Irish Life Carleton portrays. The tension between his violence and his pastoral tenderness is one of the distinctive features of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. The fears and violence can be of class, landlords versus tenants; of religion, Protestant versus Catholic; even of village against village, family against family. Carleton resolutely sets himself against that romantic commonplace, the carefree happy peasant.

He sets himself equally sternly against the stereotype of Irish character. In the “General Introduction” to the Traits and Stories he repeatedly attacks the myth of the stage-Irish ‘Paddy’. One way of carrying this attack through in his fiction is to show examples of noble, {7} hardworking scholars, farmers, mothers. More cunning is his method of using the stereotype and standing it on its head, seen at its wicked best in “Phil Purcil the Pig Driver”. Phil’s exchanges with the English gentry to whom he sells and resells his pigs touches on the quick of Irish-English relationships. Phil, under the guise of the witless Phadrumshagh Corluffle, delights the company with his observations on their ‘hanerable fwhormations of beauty and grandheur’, does them out of money, secures food and lodging, a spare shilling or two, and an outrageous price for his pig.

He instructs ‘the lady of the mansion’ how to ‘lay down a wishp o’ straw for the slip of a pig’ in the corner of her kitchen, and instructs her how to feed it in order to mix the fat and lean in streaks:

Fwhy, Sir, I’ll tell you how the misthress, Gad bliss her, will manage it for you: Take the crathur, Sir, an’ feed it to-morrow till it’s a full as a tick – that’s fwhor the fwhat, Sir; thin let her give it nothin’ at all the next day, but keep it black fwastin’ – that’s fwhor the lane [lean]. Let her stick to that, sir, keepin’ it atin’ one day an’ fastin’ anodher, for six months, thin put a knife in it, an’ if you don’t have the fwhat an’ lane, lair about, beautiful all out, fwhy tire, bl’eve Phadrumshagh Corfoffiv agin.’ (I, p.423.)

The Englishman ‘looked keenly at Phil, but could only read in his countenance a thorough and implicit belief in his own recipe’. The narrator finds it impossible to express the Englishman’s ‘contempt for the sense and intellect of Phil, and adds: ‘nothing could surpass it but the contempt which Phil entertained for him’. The Englishman concludes:

‘I have often heard of the barbarous habits of the Irish, but I must say that the incidents of this evening have set my mind at rest upon the subject. Good heavens: when will ever this besotted country rise in the scale of nations? I should have thought it incredible had I heard it from any but an Irishman’. (I, p.423.)

The lady’s attitude is equally condescending: “George, my love, is the pig also from Ireland?’ In this manner Phil sells the pig to ‘upwards of two dozen intelligent English gentlemen and farmers’, decamping each morning with his fast-running pig, seeking a fresh dupe. Here Carleton amusingly illustrates the point he makes seriously in the “General Introduction”:

The English tongue is gradually superseding the Irish ... This fact, then, will easily account for the ridicule which is, and I fear ever will be, unjustly heaped upon those who are found to use a language which they do not properly understand. In the early periods of communication between the countries, when they stood in a hostile relation to each other, and even long afterwards, it was not surprising that the ‘wild Irishman’ who expressed himself with difficulty, and often impressed the idiom of his own language upon one with which he was not familiar, should incur, in the opinions of those who were {8} strongly prejudiced against him, the character of making the bulls and blunders attributed to him. ... the man whom you laugh at, you will soon despise. (I, p.iii.)

In “Phil Purcel” this is put by the Englishman: ‘Whether it is that he talks our language but imperfectly, or that he is a stupid creature, I cannot say; but in selling the pig just now, he actually told me that he would let me have it for more than it was worth’. The stage Irishman is thus comically demonstrated to be a false and potentially dangerous creation. Carleton’s Irishmen may be pathetic, villainous, noble or lazy, but they are never stereotypes.

Among other stereotypes he refuses to perpetuate is the proposition that Irish scenery is necessarily sublime. We may meet ‘beautiful and romantic’ views at the beginning of “Ned M’Keown”, where

this deep but narrow river had its origin in the glens and ravines of a mountain which bounded the vale in a southeastern direction; and after sudden and heary rains, it rumbled down with such violence and impetuosity over the crags and rock-ranges in its way, and accumulated so amazingly, that on reaching the meadows it inundated their surface, carrying away sheep, cows and cocks of hay upon its yellow flood. It also boiled and eddied, and roared with a hoarse sugh that was heard at a considerable distance. (I, p.2.)

On the other, less romantic, hand, in “The Poor Scholar”, ‘The day was both bitter and wintry, the men were thinly clad, and as the keen blast swept across the hill with considerable violence, the sleet-like rain which it bore along, pelted into their garments with pitiless severity’. (II, p.256.)

Carleton’s peasants are not romantically picturesque. They live in houses with middens and dunghills; their children may have to go in squalid rags, as in “Larry M’Farland”s Wake’:

It was no strange sight, in summer, to see the young ones marching about the street as bare as my hand, with scarce a blessed stitch upon them that ever was seen, they dirt and ashes to the eyes, waddling after their uncle Tom’s gem and ducks, through the green sink of rotten matter that lay before their own door, just beside the dunghill. (I, p.91.)

Their passions are for land, food, drink and possessions, even for knowledge and education, but rarely for love, with occasional exceptions such as the Roanco-and-Julict-Ifla, Rose Galh O’Hallaghan and John O’Callaghan of the feuding families in “The Battle of the Factions”. Much of their affection is jocular, like that of Ned and Nancy in “Ned M’Keown”, or Ellish and Peter in “The Geography of an Irish Oath”, or touchingly fulfilled like that of Mary and Shane Fadh:

‘I’m going to trust myself with you for ever – for ever, Shane, avourneen’ – and her sweet voice broke into purty murmurs as she spoke, ‘Whether for happiness or sorrow God he only knows. I can bear poverty and distress, sickness and want with you, but I can’t bear to think that you should ever forget {9} to love me as you do now; or that your heart should ever cool to me: But I’m sure,’ says she, ‘you’ll never forget this night, and the solemn promises you made me, before God and the blessed skies above us.’ (1, p.56.)

Because one of their passions is for possessions, there is good reason for Carleton’s concentration on things. Because he writes from intimate knowledge of the minutiae of peasant life he can list Ellish’s lands, goods and merchandise; he knows exactly the economics of running a pub or a shop or a farm, and can take us from the first bid for the tenancy to the success or failure of the crops and beasts. He shows successful farming in “The Geography of an Irish Oath“, feckless mismanagement in “Larry M’Farland’s Wake”, failure and recovery in “Tubber Derg”. He shows a thoughtful, paternal landlord in “The Geography of an Irish Oath”, and a merely misguided one in “The Poor Scholar”, avoiding yet another stereotype, that of the wicked landlord.

In depicting customs, wakes, games, funerals and weddings, Carleton satisfies the mid-nineteenth century demand for details of the lives or foreign of alien races. Again he is wary of the cliché. Because his peasants are not prettily romantic, their customs are not picturesque, but logical, humorous, sociable. A match-making may turn into a squabble, or a wake into a cuddling party, with games such as ‘Frimy, Framsy who’s your Fancy’. We are in no doubt that he has played these games himself. He is also aware of the exact order of precedence in a funeral procession, or the precise placing of holy pebbles on a coffin.

Carleton’s descriptions of marriage customs, death rites, midnight masses and the like are his way of cementing ritual and tradition, not of displaying their superficialities to the tourist or as a tourist. Many nineteenth century travellers did tours of Ireland (and of many other countries) and on the strengh of one day’s visit described the beauties or horrors of lakes, mountains, peasants, round towers, and other curiosities. Whatever a reader’s opinions of Carleton’s fiercely hostile view of Lough Derg, there can be no doubt but that he has been there, seen it, smelt it, felt its stones in the soles of his feet and its spikes under his knees.

When Carleton embarked on his plan to show the Irish to the world, as he tells us in the “General Introduction”, the world of Traits and Stories was that of his own youth, a world that he feared was disappearing: he determined to capture it and with it ‘the condition and character of the peasantry of Ireland’. Carleton’s achievement was not only in capturing that life but in presenting it to the world. When he began to write, at the end of the eighteen-twenties, there was virtually no fiction publishing in Ireland. Irish writers published in London, and there was no sense of Irish writing, Irish identity, or Irish literary life. Carleton was the first to break that pattern and to present specifically Irish literature to the world. {1}

The first ‘Series’ of Traits and Stories appeared anonymously in 1830 and was an instant and unexpected success. Carleton writes in the “General Introduction”: ‘Thus it was that the publication of the two unpretending volumes written by a peasant’s son established ... that an Irish writer could be successful’, and indeed by their success they encouraged other writers to publish in Ireland. They were followed in 1832 by an equally acclaimed Second Series, and after several reprints and new editions, both series were put together in 1842 for the extravagant and elegant ‘New Edition’ of which this is a facsimile reproduction. The illustrations included etchings and woodcuts by eighteen of the greatest contemporary artists, including Phiz, Sibson, Wrightson, Mactriamis and Lee. The’New Edition’ appeared in eleven later impressions until 1870, and there were many other editions and selections from the Traits and Stories throughout Carleton’s lifetime and beyond. The ‘New Edition’, which appeared first in monthly parts at a shilling a part, was the one that Carleton himself was most proud of, overseeing the illustrations, revising the text and providing footnotes which are by times informative, by times funny, by times interesting sidelights on the author or his narrative methods, by times explanations of Irish words or dialect phrases. Its ‘General Introduction’ gives the best account of his life (on which he later based his Autobiography), as well as his views on contemporary literature, and his aims in his own writing.

Why were Carleton’s Traits and Stories so well received by critics and general readers? Carleton’s own reason was ‘that in undertaking to describe the Irish Peasantry as they are, I approach the difficult task with the advantages of knowing them, which perhaps few other Irish writers ever possessed’, and certainly that confident understanding underlies every story, every statement. There is another factor: a sense of urgency. Carleton knew that he was grasping at something already past or passing. In describing the traditions, tales, customs and pastimes of his youth Carleton Was describing something that was no longer there. So the veracity on which he and others frequently commented was in a sense a sleight of hand, an illusion of actuality relating to something that was no longer actual. This distance prevents Carleton from being a mere documentary recorder. Memory and imagination play their part in establishing the strength and truth of his characters and their lives and homes. It is remarkable that one of the most compelling stories in the collection, “Wildgoose Lodge”, is written in the first person singular, as if Carleton himself had taken part in the raid and burning. This purely fictional account seems grippingly true (it was originally called “The Confessions of a Reformed Ribbormnan”), and by a wild paradox, it is frequently quoted as a factual source on this atrocity. This sense of urgency and imagination, which is not always present in Carleton’s later work, pervades the Traits and Stories. {11}

A fine ability to tell a story distinguishes Carleton from many contemporary purveyors of folk lore and folk life. He is always conscious of storytelling, and among his regrets for the old days is the passing of the storyteller:

The recreations of the Irish were very varied and some of them of a highly intellectual cast. These latter, however, have altogether disappeared from the country, or at all events are fast disappearing. The old Harper is now hardly seen; the Senachie, where he exists, is but a dim and faded representative of that very old Chronicler in his palmy days; and the Prophecy man unfortunately has survived the failure of his best and most cherished predictions. (I, p.xxiii.)

The Seanachie or story-teller, a key figure Carleton’s work, often takes a major part in a plot, or even manipulates it, as does Darby More in “The Midnight Mass”. In the first five Traits and Stories, interest centres as much on the tellers as on their tales. Carleton has much of the quality of the seanachie himself. He intersperses, his fictional tales with true stories of his own youth, and interrupts the doings of his characters with accounts of his own dealings with them, as in “Ned M’Keown’. He presents himself in the foreground as the narrator-figure, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. Even the garrulous footnotes establish the story teller as a medium, linking tale and audience. It is impossible to divorce Carleton himself from his tales, or from the landscape in which they are set. Seamus Heaney, in Station Island (1985), makes his poetic persona meet Carleton the storyteller-Seanachie on the road to Lough Derg. Despite Carleton’s own sense of the passing of things, some of the old ways have lasted, and the poet uses them to establish a continuity of tradition that links him with Carleton:

                   A lot of what you wrote
I heard and did: this Lough Derg Station,
flax-pullings, dances, summer crossroads chat
and the shaky local voice of education.

When the twentieth-century poet meets the shade of the nineteenth-century storyteller on that road, two centuries intersect and two voices harmonise. Just as Heaney finds a hearing in our world, and expresses a certain sort of Irish identity to that world, so Carleton spoke with an Irish voice to the literary world of the nineteenth century. And he reaches out to us still, echoing clearly down the years, in the well-drawn Traits and well-told Stories of his finest collection.

Barbara Hayley

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