Benedict Kiely - Writings on Carleton: 1947 Prologue and 1996 Foreword

Poor Scholar; A Study of William Carleton [1947] (Dublin: Talbot Press Edn. 1972), Prologue [infra].
Autobiography of William Carleton (Belfast: White Row Press 1996), Foreword [infra].

Poor Scholar [1947] (Dublin: Talbot Press Edn. 1972)


One hundred years ago the people of this small Atlantic island made a fearful plunge into misery, died and rotted in thousands, sailed westwards in thousands, very literally “pursuing the ghost of Brendan’s mast” [Sir Shane Leslie]. In the west they survived, built themselves into the body of something very different from the fragrant isles that delighted medieval legends. Incredibly, those who stayed at home, the remnant of a people, also survived, stubbornly fighting their way back to solid ground where the present would have stability and freedom and a clear meaning, where even the horror of the past would have its own sanative and instructive value. The man, who had been a boy in Prillisk in Tyrone, found or was allotted a place among the lessons that the past was to teach. We did not learn those lessons with patience, or from plain writing on a blackboard, or from deliberate pedagogic dictation, but hurriedly, and influenced always by our own caprice and self-will. We did not particularly like the lesson implicit in this man who had in him also so much caprice, so much self-willed, unrestrained imagination. For he saw us in our deepest degradation like men caught naked in [6] a cold street in the white light of day. He gave offence, wrote his more-or-less official biographer [D. J. O’Donoghue, Life of William Carleton, 1896], “to every class of Irishman in one or other of his books, and all that can be done by way of extenuation or excuse is to explain the incidents which seem to have occasioned his conduct.”

I do not know if they can even be explained as simply as all that. For the mystery of the man’s soul, or of the soul of any man, is hidden from us as completely as the awful secret behind that century-old suffering, the awful secret behind all suffering. In his own chaotic and entangled soul he has mirrored all our own complication, has hinted at the chaos into which we plunged, almost to perish, but ultimately to survive.

I only know that, in the one place in the world where he found men and women and made them immortal, the meaning behind the mystery, the secret lost somewhere in chaos, do not seem to be of any account. Sheltering in a cottage doorway from a sudden shower, or talking with men thinning turnips on a hill in Prillisk, or going up steeply through new-planted trees to the top of Knockmany Hill, the present is the past, the people are unchanged, the black cloth of famine might never have swept across the century. In the onesided town of Clogher a saddler says proudly that he lives in the house in Springtown where Carleton once lived. It must be remembered that this was written in the 1940s. In the 1970s the saddler’s widow still proudly lives in that house which has been inhabited since the 18th century. Her people have lived there since Carleton’s father died. In the hazel glen behind that house the blackbirds sing eternally, as he heard them through the open window singing their souls to the rich cool evening. Across the road from the Forth chapel the girl in the shop talks about the Yankee soldiers who camped near Aughentain. The stories he, in his time, heard and wrote down were about Cromwellian soldiers laying siege to the castle of Aughentain, about Rose the miller’s daughter in the mill of Aughentain. But there is justice in that change; for, although for the sake of a happy ending to the novel to which they gave a name, the emigrants of Ahadarra really stayed at home, the other Irish townlands were not so fortunate. And if the sons and grandsons of the exiles return, wearing the uniform of the great Western republic, it is only the justice of God on Cromwellianism in the past and Cromwellianism in all places and at all times.’ (pp.6-7.)

Chapter 12


The most noticeable thing about Ireland was, that with famine, fever, cholera and dysentery, the country was one general lazar-house. The objectionable feature of the bulk of Young Irelandism was to Carleton, that to the other miseries of the time it added a “juvenile revolution.” He pointed out, with the irony of the Irish peasant surveying the antics of young gentlemen, that the government of the time were deeply indebted to the hopes and expectations of liberty stirred up in the people by Young Ireland. For with this glorious prospect of freedom before them how could men who sincerely loved their country think of dying of hunger? Didn’t the young gentlemen practically go the length of maintaining that the Irishman that would dare to die in such a crisis was a traitor [104] to his country and a slave to Lord John Russell who had had the potato-blight concocted in Downing Street deliberately to put the young gentlemen down?

But Carleton’s denunciation of Young Ireland, or at least of the romantically revolutionary aspect of Young Ireland, was not governed noticeably by any steady, set political principle. He condemned “the ferocious and brutal violence” of the language of John Mitchel who referred to Lord Clarendon as “Butcher-General of Ireland”, told Lord Clarendon that he expected no mercy from him, as, so help him God, he (Lord Clarendon) might expect none from him (Mitchel) should the revolutionary cause prosper. This, Carleton said, was not the language of common sense or common feeling, but of political insanity. But from Mitchel’s point of view it was the only language possible under the circumstances: the people were dying; the mind of the nineteenth century exhibited in economic theory was responsible; so was the British government of Ireland, and the precariousness of the potato, and the callow selfishness of the landed classes. For an honest courageous man, whose temperament and whose prose-style had come under the influence of Thomas Carlyle, but who acted where Carlyle growled in prophetic self-satisfaction, the only thing to do was stand up before all men and speak the truth. John Mitchel did that, first in the Nation, later more inflammably in the United Irishman, later in the dock when a carefully-selected jury sent him overseas for life. He thought quite sensibly that no trade regulations and no unalterable economic laws should be allowed to take food out of Ireland while the people of Ireland died of hunger. He thought quite sensibly that if men had to die at all they should die like men, not like the plants that rotted around them in the fields. They should fight for food. They should tear down the whole structure that had brought them to such misery. (p.105.)


[Quotes Lady Wilde inciting rebellion in prose:] This was part of the “torrent of patriotic ink” that he condemned wisely enough in the Nation. Inspired by that patriotism were the “clubs with antiquated and unpronounceable names formed by all the young lads of Dublin, each with its juvenile president who boldly pronounced the memorised war-speech.” The young fellow was “no true herokin who did not wear a silver pike in his breast to show the world the dreadful tenor of his patriotism,” and, “a vast number of terrible pikes were furnished to them by the detectives, who in general drilled them first and afterwards reported them to the government.” Then after the 1848 revolution in France there were wild words in Dublin about the possibilities of the barricades. “Old bottles rose three farthings a hundred; and some of the dealers in old glass are still anxious for another outbreak.” And when William Smith O’Brien, glorious in his top hat, his ideals, his lineage, did lead out a few countrymen to rebellion in a remote part of Munster they went “without money, without men, without food, without discipline, officers, arms, or ammunition, in the glowing heat of their valour - big with the hopes of a successful revolution, for the accomplishing of which they were so admirably provided - they attacked a police barrack, and were defeated in a cabbage garden.” (The Squanders of Castle Squander, Vol. II.)

It was and is still easily possible for some Irishmen to indulge in this type of foolery and, incidentally, to provide uproarious amusement for other Irishmen. But it would be wrong to confuse the foolery with the occasional moments of practical revolution, to forget that both the foolery and the practical revolution were acting as rough indicators of the unrest and disorder in Irish politics. He was temperamentally incapable of going wholeheartedly into any of the movements of his time, or of accepting any other man’s solution for the complicated problems of his country. The great O’Connell stood damned in Carleton’s eyes as an agitator, and because of agitators he held that the moral character of the people was degenerating. But the sober truth was that few men had done more than O’Connell to raise the people from baseness and beggary to something of integrity and self-reliance.

The great political issue of Carleton’s time and of the whole nineteenth century was the repeated attempt to repeal the Act of Union, to give Ireland its own independent parliament. He knew enough of history to know that during his own childhood men had scandalously acquired wealth and titles by the simple process of [106] smiling at Lord Castlereagh and voting solid for the Legislative Union of Great Britain and Ireland. Tom Topertoe who became Lord Castle Cumber had “the high honour of being a union lord - that is to say, his attachment to his principles was so steady, that he did not hesitate to sell his country for a title, and something besides.” There was not to be found “in the annals of all history, any political negotiation based upon such rank and festering corruption as was the Legislative Union.” (O’Donoghue, Vol. II.)

But William Carleton never knew enough about these things, never kept his two feet in the same place long enough, to find for himself a stable, logical approach to the central political problem that had so much to do with the chaos of the Irish nineteenth century. In one place he makes a character say sententiously: “If Ireland is to have her own parliament it will not be got by force of arms, but by the force of public opinion.” (The Red-Haired Man’s Wife.) When the Dublin Evening Mail devoted a leading articles to attacking him, on grounds both literary and political as an unworthy holder of a civil list pension, he defended himself in a letter, never published in that newspaper, defining reasonably well his own position towards politics: “I am not now nor have I ever been at any time a Repealer. I am not a Young Irelander, nor, in a political sense at least, an old one. I am no Republican, no Jacobin, no Communist, but a plain, retiring literary man who wishes to avoid politics, and to devote his future life to such works as he hopes may improve his country and elevate her people.” (O’Donoghue, Vol. II.) In one place he points out that the Orange jingle “Lillibullero” was the most pointless and stupid production that ever came from the brain of man. (Willy Reilly.) In another place he could write that “a greater curse could not be inflicted on the country than to give it a parliament of its own making,” falling back on the Orange argument, ever old and ever new and never quite justified, that after Repeal the Catholic priesthood would become a formidable body of politicians with no interest but that of their own Church.

 There were a few contradictions here. But neither in William Carleton nor in the country of the period in which he lived should the discovery of contradictions cause surprise. [...] (pp.106-07.)

[...] “It is out of our own rough energies must come the cure for our own course maladies.”

Lever discovered that wisdom in the intervals of the “flippant chat” with which he filled volume after volume; and, in spite of foolish talk of war and wild talk of liberty, the men of Young Ireland had a fairly steady grasp on a stick capable of prodding those energies into life. Their poets romanticised and glorified the Past. Mangan saw visions of the lost glories of the once proud people of Barba and walked entranced through a land of bright sunshine and perpetual morning in the days of the great King of the West, Cathal Mor of the Wine-red hand. That appeal to the past is recurrent in the story of modern Ireland. It can lead to vapourings and delusions. It can also have a beneficial strengthening effect on the present. In the days of Young Ireland it did not prevent Thomas Davis from writing sensibly about Sir Robert Kane’s book The Industrial Resources of Ireland. (Lever, after a restless night in an inn in Connaught, said that flea-hunting could give employment to the population of one province.) The blinding and frequently ersatz radiance of the past did not prevent the writers in the Nation from drawing up a rough draft of a plan for economic and cultural and social reform; and on many of the points in that plan William Carleton sensibly submitted to their influence.

Their influence was strengthened by his candid appreciation of their high character. He wrote “It is due to them to say, however, that apart from their folly as politicians, it would be impossible to find a more highminded and honourable set of men; but by far the ablest among them was Gavan Duffy.”

But it was for Thomas Osborne Davis that William Carleton reserved the highest, most sincere tribute he ever paid to any man, proving once again the extraordinary personality that was lost somewhere in mediocre poems and patriotic ballads and quiet, thoughtful essays. Davis drew to himself and held under his influence all that was best in the Ireland of his time; and, fresh from the sorrow of that burial scene in Mount Jerome, Carleton wrote of “inexorable death that in the course of one short mad disastrous week extinguished that spirit, to whose pure lustre the eyes of our country would have one day turned as to a leading star.” He made one of the best attempts that has been made to analyse the reasons why men of [108] different types were variously attracted to Davis. He had “a character so full and complete, a mind so large and comprehensive.” He was “not only a man of genius, but a man of genius without the shadow of those errors, which almost always accompany it,” and to the wonderful and varied powers of his intellect, and the purity and strength of his principle, and the ever-living truth which kindled all his purposes, he added the spell of a child-like and loving heart. As a poet, he could have sung a people into freedom; as a statesman, he had capacity to deal with empires; in the field he would have led armies; in the council, he would have balanced and guided the destiny of nations.” The heart of Thomas Davis, wrote William Carleton, was as pure and as easily touched as the drop of dew on the blade of grass; and his society and conversation made you a better man; and “his brief life and appearance here were not a thing of ordinary being, but a miracle and a mystery.” The love of Thomas Davis for the traditional music of Ireland very naturally appealed to a man who had heard his mother sing with all the gathered sweetness of the centuries; and, over that premature grave, William Carleton thought: “That he was my friend is at once my pride and my sorrow. Only on one question did we differ.”

A sceptical present-day Irishman reading the poems and prose of Thomas Davis might wonder what all the eulogy was about, might wonder, also, had Carleton’s heart been too deeply affected by the sad burial of one who died young. But all the men of that time who had occasion to speak of Davis spoke of him in that same high language of praise, and on succeeding generations his influence has been out of all proportion to the length of his life or any sceptical estimate of the importance of his work. The devil himself could not doubt that Carleton had been deeply influenced by Davis, by the men who gathered around Davis while he lived, whose mourning for him when dead began the perpetuation of his memory. From no other living man could Carleton have said that he differed only on one point; and his close agreement with Thomas Davis brings him directly into the line of the men who down through that century worked, sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly, to make order out of chaos.

‘He approached his own portion of that work of formation like the careful wife of a poor farmer preparing to clean up the house. His people, his own beloved people, the grandest peasantry on earth and all that, could be, and often were, dirty, disorderly and drunken. Under the auspices of Young Ireland he decided to do something about it.’ (pp.108-09.)

Chapter 13


Characteristically, he could take back with one hand the laurels he gave with the other, not because of dishonesty or double-dealing, but because no counsel of common sense could stop his attempts to define the exact outline between what he felt to be right and what he felt to be wrong. His mind was never made for the exact work of defining and drawing outlines and making nice distinctions. At one moment he could praise the priests of Ireland because their work in the hearts of the Irish people made possible the success of Father Mathew. At another moment he could say that the priests had not made proper and complete use of “either their sacerdotal privileges, or the ecclesiastical machinery within their reach’ to aid in the suppression of Irish crime. If the priests, he said, were as anxious to suppress crime as they were to repeal the Act of Union or to sustain the Conciliation Hall exchequer’at the expense of a naked, perishing and famine-struck people” then the whole country “would not be steeped in crime as it is, nor disgraceful to the religion which its perpetrators profess.” But even while making the accusation he had an uneasy foreboding of the criticism it might provoke, and attempted to build up his fortifications before the attack by stating that not for one moment did he believe that the priests directly encouraged crime, for: “in one point of view we must unhesitatingly grant, that the Catholic priesthood of Ireland are an example to the priesthood of any other church or religion in the world. In the administration of their rites and sacraments at the bed of death and sickness - in the mountain hut, in the house of the wealthy farmer, [117] in the pest-house, in the hospital and fever bohog, on the side of the public road - they are ever to be found at their post nobly discharging their duties.” [The Tithe Proctor].

No analytical method, unless aided by special insight or intuition, could draw from that particular passage what exactly William Carleton did feel that the priests could have done to prevent a people in torment from doing the violent deeds of the tormented. On the same page, in one stilted sentence, he increases the complication by showing his clear consciousness that neither the priests nor the people were ultimately responsible for the ground current of blood and violence sweeping along under the life of Ireland in the nineteenth century. He wrote: “In every country whose political, commercial, or social relations, are not properly settled, or in which there exists a struggle between the principles at variance with civil order and those of enlightened progress, there will always he found a considerable portion of the population ripe and ready for violence and crime.”

John Mitchel, for all his “political insanity”, had the type of mind that immediately clarified a situation by reducing it to its elements, and one page of his violent words can be infinitely more illuminating than all Carleton’s efforts to be abstract and detached, to lay the exact amount of praise and blame exactly where each belonged. Mitchel saw clearly enough that the killing of odious landlords, agents, tithe proctors and bailiffs had certainly been dreadful atrocities, but the country people of Ireland had regarded them not as murders but as executions. There was no law on either side but, as Mitchel saw it, “more substantial justice, on the whole, is done by the ‘midnight legislators’ than by the judges of Assize.” Because of his own temperament and his memories of first enthusiasm for Thomas Carlyle, Mitchel to the end of his days had no liking for the methods of secret and oath-bound societies. Ribbonism had secrecy and the swearing of oaths, and was, as well, spasmodic and unorganised both in particular action and in general outline. But for Mitchel it had the merit of being a flat negation of British law in Ireland, “a great manufactory of disaffection and rebellion, and one which the government will never be able to reach.” In other words, Ribbonism - a name that meant nothing more clearly defined than discontent expressing itself in violence - kept the fires of rebellion burning until the time and the man would come to fan them into one universal conflagration. No government could effectively smother those fires, for they burned secretly in the hearts of men resenting injustice. Although the violent expression of that resentment could be foolish and terrible, could go awry and destroy the innocent with the guilty, could be twisted to evil purposes by evil men, [118] yet it is on the survival in the human heart of that primitive anger at wrong and tyranny that the cause of freedom must ultimately depend.

The mental process that led the Irish countryman into the ranks of the Whiteboys was well enough described by Michael Banim in the story Crohoore of the Bill-Hook, when a poor man called Dermid decides, after suffering increasing exactions from collectors of tithes and collectors of rent, that there is no law or mercy in the land for the papist or the poor. Then Dermid: “continued his long walk, chewing the ever-rising cud of this bitter, and desperate, and obstinate thought; he brought to mind at the same time, all the life’s labour and sweat he had uselessly expended; he crossed the threshold of his puddled hovel, and heard his children squalling for food; and then he turned his back on them; walked hastily abroad; gave a kick to the idle spade he met on his way; sought out some dozen Dermids or Paddies similarly situated with himself; between them they agreed to take the tithe-proctors and the law of tithes into their own hands; proposed silly oaths to each other; and the result was “the boys” ... called, apart from the abbreviation, Whiteboys.”

That was Whiteboyism. That was something that ran in all Irish secret societies, and William Carleton knew it as well as Michael Banim or John Mitchel or anybody else in Ireland. He knew the mixture of motives that brought men together by night, swearing terrible oaths, burning and destroying property, taking human lives. He knew the resentment against tithe-proctors and rack-renting landlords. He knew the bitter sectarian hatreds that cracked the life of parts of the country into night-war between rival secret societies. In his youth he had taken the oath in one of these societies, and he knew how young men, unembittered by any grievance, could still be led into the dangerous business through idleness or frivolity or dare-devilry. He knew also that it could at times suit the purposes of high government to develop these conspiracies by specially chosen agents; and when he wrote Rody the Rover or The Ribbonmon he was absorbed by that aspect of the business to the exclusion of everything else.

The villainous Rody, a wandering agent provocateur, brought ruin and destruction to the prosperous village of Ballybracken, made unwontedly prosperous so as to heighten by force of contrast the reader’s sense of the misery that followed plotting and violence. Only to an old tramp called Tickling Tony did Rody reveal the purpose of his presence in Ballybracken, describing himself as an emissary or “a person that is sent out to do a particular thing.” When Tickling Tony, acting rather obviously to gather information for the sake of the reader, questioned Rody as to what general end he had in view, the emissary answered: “What object? Why, is it nothing [119] to be able to say that the Irish area disaffected, riotous, unscrupulous and blood-thirsty people, whom common laws cannot restrain? Is it nothing to give the country a bad name ...?” Rody’s method of provoking a conspiracy and then betraying the conspirators to gaol, the gallows, or transportation, showed that William Carleton was aware of the methods of secret police as an attack on the liberties of the people. Rody himself proudly boasted that: “the origin of this conspiracy against the people will not be easily come at ... because it seems to clothe itself with the prejudices of the people themselves. How then can they suspect it to be unfriendly to their own interests?”

Carleton never came closer to a sordid acceptance of the many miseries of his time than in the little book in which he told the story of Rody the Rover, meaning that story to act as a warning to his people against the work of scoundrels like Rody and in general, as a warning against conspiracy and lawless violence. For the village of Ballybracken there was no happy ending, as there had been for the townland of Ahadarra. The prosperity of the place was gone. An innocent young man was hanged, an innocent girl seduced, an old couple left to broken-hearted death. He never came nearer to sedition than when he traced through the pages of that book the links of the chain that bound Rody the Rover to the government in Dublin Castle, stating plainly that: “government was certainly under serious obligations to Rody the Rover.” Yet the book was unpopular with young men who were genuine revolutionaries, because they detected there a tendency to regard even genuine revolutionaries as agents provocateurs. In detecting that tendency they were not greatly mistaken.

For William Carleton was a peasant who became a novelist and did his best to be a reformer. He could never, like Mitchel, the gentleman who became a revolutionary, welcome murder as a weapon against murder, and disorder from below as the only answer to disorder imposed from above. In that he was much less logical than Mitchel and the whole revolutionary Ireland and revolutionary Europe of which Mitchel was a part. But he was much more human, in the sense in which it is human to be torn with pity for the sorrows of poor people. The logical revolutionary who accepts the necessity of violence as a weapon against violence can be correct and wise in his own environment, but he has one foot on the road to the cell in which Ivanov, the official in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, tells his prisoner: “I have not a spark of pity ... the vice of pity I have up till now managed to avoid. The smallest dose of it and you are lost.”

More than one hundred years before the madness of the modern logical revolutionary William Carleton walked in a troubled time [120] across the flat green land of Louth on the eastern shore of Ireland. He saw the body of Paddy Devaun high on the gallows at the crossroads of Corcreagh, heard the story of Paddy Devaun’s mother, crossing and recrossing her own threshold, looking up at that hideous swinging object, mourning her poor martyr of a son. The terrible picture was painted forever in his mind, and looking out over Ireland he could always see in vision the sorrowful homes into which violence had brought loneliness and death. It was weak and illogical, things being as they were, to suppose that submission to injustice could ever bring peace. But then William Carleton was seldom anything but illogical; and because his great heart was large enough, in spite of his erratic head, to find room for all the people of Ireland, he sorrowed with the sorrowing mothers mourning the bravery and the foolishness of their sons. (pp.119-21; end chap.)

Chapter 14


The writing of the novel The Black Prophet did, he said, involve the heartrending consideration of life and death to an extent beyond all historic precedent, not an abstract consideration of the mysteries of birth and life and death, creation and procreation and the final end of soul and body. Novelists being men and seeing and knowing and experiencing mortality have been drawn powerfully to such [122] abstract consideration. But only a few novelists have written of death in the middle of universal death. He felt that the choice of subject necessitated the explanation of motives, a statement of intentions going above and beyond artistic election or artistic necessity. So he pointed out that, seeing in the autumn of 1846 the failure of the potato crop it had occurred to him that a story based on the famine made almost inevitable by that failure would “awaken those who legislate for us into something like a humane perception of a calamity that has been almost perennial in the country.” It might stir inactive sympathy into active and efficient benevolence. “National inflictions of this kind pass away, and are soon forgotten by everyone but those with whom they have left their melancholy memorials, to wit, the widow, the fatherless, the destitute, and all who look in vain around their desolate hearths for those on whose love and labour they had depended for the very means of sustaining life. Aware of this, then, and knowing besides, that the memory of our legislature is as faithless on such a subject as that of the most heartless individual among us, the author deemed it an act of public usefulness to his countrymen, to record ... such an authentic history of those deadly periods of famine ... as could be relied upon with confidence by all who might feel an interest in placing them beyond the reach of this terrible scourge.”

He assured his English and Scottish readers that he had not coloured the truth. He had written down what he had seen in 1817 and 1822, years of emphasised famine. In other places and at other times he was to write down what he had seen or heard of in the greater horror of Black ’47. Then he dedicated the book to the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland.

Over the doomed country men, bent in fear, saw signs and omens in the sky. The clouds were black like the black drapery of the grave, and in their slow movement they took to themselves the shapes of hearses and coffins and long funeral processions, scattered now and again by the lightning that followed the long roll of thunder. Under such a sky his story began, in a glen called the black glen, for the colour of the sultry clouds was after all only a reflection of the desolation on the earth and in the hearts and souls of men. “Go where you might,” he wrote, “every object reminded you of the fearful desolation that was progressing around you. The features of the people were gaunt, their eyes wild and hollow, and their gait feeble and tottering. Pass through the fields, and you were met by little groups bearing home on their shoulders, and that with difficulty, a coffin, or perhaps two of them. The roads were literally black with funerals; and, as you passed along from parish to parish, the death bells were pealing forth.” (The Black Prophet.) [123]

Skies black with ominous thunder clouds, fields black where the roots and the plants had rotted in the furrows, roads black with the weary processions of death. The terrible word repeats itself again and again like a recurring lament, the negation of colour, the negation of all life. In the black glen the black-haired daughter of the black prophet quarrels violently with the woman who is supposed to be the black prophet’s wife, and all through the terrible scene that ends in a demoniacal struggle and the accidental discovery of a tobacco-box bearing the initials of a man mysteriously murdered in the days of the rebellion, the feeling of gloom and darkness accumulates. It was a melodramatic beginning fora very melodramatic story, filled with wild coincidences and misleading identities and extravagant gestures. But there is no denying the historical authenticity or the artistic effectiveness of that carefully erected background. “How black the evenin’ is gatherin’,” says one of the two women when the terrible quarrel has ended like a roll of thunder passing off along the sky. And out on the road Black Donnel the prophet cries out to a neighbour in rhythmic words that give meaning and dignity to the lingo of the prophecy-man: “Look about you, and say what it is you see that doesn’t fortell famine - famine - famine! Doesn’t the dark wet day, an’ the rain, rain, rain, fortell it? Doesn’t the rottin’ crops, the unhealthy air, an’ the green damp fortell it? Doesn’t the sky without a sun, the heavy clouds, an’ the angry fire of the West foretell it? Isn’t the earth a page of prophecy, an’ the sky a page of prophecy, where every man may read of famine, pestilence an’ death. The earth is softened for the grave, an’ in the black clouds of heaven you may see the death-hearse movie’ slowly along - funeral after funeral - funeral after funeral - an’ nothing to follow them but lamentation an’ woe, by the widow an’ orphan - the fatherless, the motherless, an’ the childless - woe an’ lamentation - lamentation an’ woe.”

For an illustrated edition of the story, published in the last year of the nineteenth century, the pencil of J. B. Yeats, the father of the poet and of a greater painter than himself, caught in a striking drawing the posture of Black Donnel telling of desolation in a desolate land [Lawrence & Bullen, intro. by D. J. O’Donoghue, 1899]. In everything else, except his love for his wild daughter, the black prophet was a calculating liar, imposing on the credulity of the people, concealing his lies in a complicated dressing of whorled and antique phrases. His hand was red with human blood. But when he stood on the wet road in the middle of a decaying harvest, chanting and gesturing his story about the greater desolation to come, he became fora moment towering and symbolic, a voice out of the black sky, a cry from the weary hungry earth insistently claiming its own. His words went out over fields where even the [124] few crops that were ripe had a sickly and unthriving look, where crops that in other autumns would have been ripe and yellow were thin and backward and unnaturally green, over low meadows flooded by the incessant rain, over fields where the ravages of floods were still visible in layers of mud and gravel lying heavy on the prostrate corn. In the bogs the peat lay in oozy and neglected heaps, lacking the sun to dry it for use, leaving the people at the mercy of the approaching winter, without food and without fuel. Weeds grew high in the unnatural wet heat, and hedges and woods were brooding and silent for the birds had ceased to sing, and there was heard only the sullen roar of rivers in flood or the hiss of water in the swamped grasses. Over all this and including all this was the terrible chant of Black Donnel, swelling like high water around little houses in sodden fields where the people crouched down before calamity and died.


He had written of so many happy, contented homes that his pictures of plague-stricken cabins we by contrast hellish in detailed accurate vividness. In the novel The Red-Haired Man’s Wife the old priest, Father Moran, remembers the days of 1839 when the fever that followed famine was bad and brief, and the poor dying in hundreds in their cabins, by the roadside, in the fields, in the ditches, in the lanes. The potato crop was black with blight. There was a murrain among the cattle, a failure in several of the branch banks where thrifty farmers had placed their meagre savings, and “above and before all the black remorseless plague, which, with a cruel besom, swept the whole country from end to end.” Father Moran and his curate and the Protestant rector worked together for the suffering and the dying, and in burying the dead, riding out through the country from house to house, finding one house where a score of famished ragged creatures clustered around the door, clapping their hands and groaning and crying like animals. Crossing the threshold the three men found the quite conventional scene of the living and the dead lying together on the same rotten straw, the living not sufficiently alive to know that the dead were dead, the air solid with the stench of excrement and fever and putrefying flesh.

He saw the homes of the Irish poor in all the varieties and stages of hopeless decline, oppressed by landlordism, rejected even by the God the people worshipped. God - they were told - had sent the blight as a visitation. The pitiless skies sent the dark weather and the endless, monotonous rain. In the farmhouse of Jerry Sullivan, in the opening chapters of The Black Prophet, there were, just as in the signs in the clouds, prophecies of the desolation to come. The thatch on the roof had begun to blacken and in places to sink into rotten ridges. The yard was untidy, the walls and hedges broken and [125] dismantled, the chimneys - from which the thatch had sunk down - standing up with the incrustations of time, that had been trowelled round their bases, projecting uselessly out from them. Walking through the heart of Ireland on his way to Dublin his quick eye had photographed such telling details; his memory kept them for ever as symbols of decline and desolation. Inside the house the floor, once smooth, would be breaking into holes; the tables and chairs would be creaking and crazy; the dresser would have a cold, hungry and unfurnished look. The chimney-brace, once heavy with sides and flitches of deep, fat bacon, grey with salt, would now have nothing but bare, dust-covered hooks, or a dozen herrings hung at one side of a worn salt-box, or a small string of onions. While the man of the house might entertain his guest to the little he had to give, the stand around silently watching the food “with those yearning looks that take their character from the hungry and wolfish spirit which marks the existence of a ‘hard year’ as it is called in our unfortunate country, and which, to a benevolent heart, forms such a sorrowful subject for contemplation.”

A hard year was - in a land in which more than two million people lived always on the verge of starvation - almost a normal year. Famine meant something much more fearful. Famine meant twenty-three human beings, of all ages and sexes, as the public officers said, lying together on the same straw-littered floor, five or six of them already putrid corpses. Those who still lived were “so completely maddened by despair, delirium, and the rackings of intolerable pain ... that all the impulses of nature and affection were not merely banished from the heart, but superseded by the most frightful peals of insane mirth, cruelty and the horrible appetite of the ghoul and vampire. Some were found tearing the flesh from the bodies of the carcases that were stretched beside them. Mothers tottered off under the woeful excitement of misery and frenzy, and threw their wretched children on the side of the highways, leaving them there, with shouts of mirth and satisfaction, to perish or be saved .. . whilst fathers have been known to make a wolfish meal upon the dead bodies of their own offspring.” (The Black Baronet.)

That was famine. Those things were little more than the commonplaces of famine. Famine meant hungry crowds roaming the country, their appearance in frightful harmony with the wasted land, the unreaped crops, the plashy and fermenting ruin. Almost too weak and worn to walk, the torments of hunger drove them at times to tumult and robbery, a voiceless violence, a shouting like the shouting of ghosts for “the wretched people were not able to shout.” During the frenzied progress of some spasmodic act of pillage men and women and boys and girls could be seen seated behind ditches, or [126] in the porches of houses or out openly on the roads and streets ravenously gobbling raw flour or oatmeal, or tearing and devouring stolen bread with the unnatural appetite of famished maniacs. Following on these frantic feasts came inevitably fits of giddiness and retchings and convulsions that ended often in tormented, twisted death. Famine meant that miserable women in the early mornings went out along the trenches and ditches gathering weeds for food, happy in the finding of a few handfuls of nettles or chicken-weed or sorrel to bring home to the children. Famine sent men secretly to stock-farms in various puts of the country to bleed rich men’s cattle and to drink the hot blood. Funerals no longer caused pity or comment or interest. When the dead were buried at all they were covered hastily in shallow pits, deprived even of the last sad ceremonies that dignify death and comfort the living.

Famine meant that self-respect and modesty and an independence that had existed in spite of landlordism, all those things that the people valued in themselves and William Carleton valued in the people, went like dust on the poisonous wind. “Under the terrible pressure of the complex destitution which prevailed, everything like shame was forgotten, and it was well known that whole families, who had hitherto been respectable and independent, were precipitated, almost at once, into all the common cant of importunity and clamour during this frightful struggle between life and death.” Around the soup-shops, wild crowds, ragged and sickly and wasted to skin and bone, struggled and screamed like vultures around a carcase, “and the timid girl, or modest mother of a family, or decent farmer, goaded by the same wild and tyrannical cravings, urged their claims with as much turbulent solicitation and outcry as if they had been trained since their very infancy to all the forms of impudent cant and imposture.” While the good went down like animals to such degradation, the greedy strong farmer with food stored in his barn and the profiteering meal-monger with stocks on his shelves and in the room behind the shop, knew days of evil power and evil profit. Darby Skinadre, the miser, a thin and mealy man, shuffled about his shop, wearing no coat but wearing a waistcoat to which were attached flannel sleeves, pitying his poor penniless begging customers for God’s sake, but refusing meal on credit for the sake of business.

For God was high and far away and heedless in heaven, and business and the making of money were still close at hand on the withering earth. Unalterable economic law, and the wickedness, conscious and unconscious, of the human heart, and the wisdom of the nineteenth century were on the earth. Landlords living in high houses owned the earth, seized for the rent the little amount of corn [27] that might have saved the lives of the people, sent it in carts to the sea-harbours for export. Down the same roads went the staggering people, no longer believing in the good earth, fleeing from hell in the cabins, and ditches, running from the last land of Europe, from the island of traditional romantic greenery that had suddenly smelt of pestilence and turned black under the black sky. Against the spectacle of that exodus, as always against the spectacle of famine and war and the poor needlessly condemned, the story of human progress can be as pitiful as a tale told casually on a dusty weary afternoon, and the human heart can seem suddenly as foul as the earth that rotted and dragged down to corruption a whole miserable people.


It was not one year or two years or three. When there was not the deepest horror of famine there was the threat of famine. There was always hunger. There were always the two millions who could never be sure of their food. It was not confined to the island on which Carleton lived his life and wrote his books. But nowhere else in Europe were the poor so utterly neglected. In no other country could a man writing to interpret a people be faced so terribly with the task of interpreting what looked like the total extinction of that people. A writer could hardly feel that his work would go to found or strengthen a distinctive literary tradition; and when the smell of death became too strong and the only colour in the world was the denial of all colour, the creative artist could do little more than record atrocity after atrocity, writing pamphlet material that has value to-day because of the merciless character of its realism.

The opening pages of The Squanders of Castle Squander had bright moments of humour and tatterdemalion gesture as strong as anything in the stories of Neal Malone, the tailor, or of Phelim O’Toole. But the final pages fall in the best pamphleteering style to the quoting of statistics and reports and learned reviews. The subject was famine, and even the dullest quotation had the power of taking to itself a very morbid interest-value. But through these columns of figures and recorded facts Lady Squander went travelling one day to the graveyard in which her husband lay buried. It was a significant journey; for Lady Squander was the essence of Squanderism, the pure spirit of Irish landlordism that had ruined the people because of greed and extravagance, that was bringing landlord and tenant down to the same end in the bitter earth. For the first time in her life Lady Squander was travelling on the same road and in the same direction as the people of Ireland, and the road led down to the graveyard.
In that graveyard men were busy burying weak shells of coffins [128] often not deeper than ten or twelve inches in the ground, and “one horrific remnant of humanity, whose nearly black features retained the frightful and spasmodic contortions of cholera, was in the act of being thrown, coffinless and half-naked, into what was rather a shallow trench than a grave.” Gaunt starving dogs ravenously howled their hunger, waited for the coming of the moon and the moment when the graves were unguarded. In one place lay a mangled arm, in another a half-eaten head, in another a leg had been partially pulled from the earth, in a corner by the tottering wall a wolfish hound lay undisturbed making his meal off the features of a head held calmly between his paws.

The roads of all Ireland seemed to lead only to graveyards like the graveyard in which Squire Squander lay buried down deep, tolerably safe from the body-snatching dogs; or to ports where emigrant ships spread sail and carried mournful passengers out into the unknown; or to workhouses which were very literally next-door to the graveyards. He called these workhouses “all Black Holes of Calcutta,” hopelessly overcrowded and understaffed, sick and quick, young and old, male and female lying in the same sweltering mass of cholera and dysentery. Anyway, among such a multitude, what could the few medical men do except die with those who died? The thirteenth report of the Poor Law Commissioners showed that fifty-four officers - including clerks, masters, medical officers, and six chaplains - died, out of 150 who caught one or other of the many available diseases. For back in 1832 cholera “like an eastern monarch” had suffered no brother malady near the throne; in 1848 it had to help it famine-fever and dysentery and diarrhoea. And for the few public officers who died out of devotion to their duty there were naturally the many prepared to turn the deepest misery of others to their own profit. There were Poor Law Guardians who perpetrated or connived at villainy that meant worse and less food for the inmates of the black holes, “artificial milk” that killed hundreds by a rather fearful form of diarrhoea. In those hell-holes cleanliness was seldom enforced, was anyway, under the overcrowded conditions of the apathetic sufferers, almost impossible; their shirts and shifts stiff with vermin, they sat around troughs and ate poor quality stirabout moistened with the chalky and extremely purgative milk.

In Connaught it was a common sight to meet the body-cadgers driving their donkey-carts loaded with naked corpses. “Such a combination of many-shaped misery brooded upon the country as, perhaps, since the time of the great plague in London, was never witnessed.” Driving through the afflicted countryside, seeing the varieties of ignominy and suffering that had come upon his people, reading and hearing reports of greater horror from parts of the country he had never visited, his mind rested not with Le Sage and [129] his creative laughter but with the frightening chronicle of plague written by Daniel Defoe. In Carleton’s Ireland “the fields and drains and ditches and morasses had over them, in them and upon them a number of suffering wretches, who moved from place to place - crawling languidly and with difficulty; some tottering, some creeping upon all fours like savage beasts of the field, and others hurrying with feeble speed to convey a portion of the wild and innutritious weeds they had picked up as a means of sustaining life in such of their helpless families as were unable, either from illness or hunger, to go abroad as their own providers.” Over all this was the silence of sultry skies, broken only by “the cry, the groan, the insane howl, the still more frantic laughter, and solemn death-prayer, with sometimes a curse so piercing and vehement that it bore the same relation to the gloom which overhung the country as the midnight lightning does to the black and lowering cloud from which it proceeds, serving only to reveal its horrors.” (The Squanders of Castle Squander.)

Chapter 15

What had happened to London before the eyes of the author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe had been something similar to what had happened to many cities in the insanitary centuries. When plague came killing into the medieval streets it had frequently been possible to escape the smells and the contagion by flight into the clean country. Boccaccio, being of the intellectual breed of Le Sage, made that escape. But in nineteenth-century Ireland it was not the cities or the towns or undrained or unsanitary streets that caused the country places to blacken with corruption, that sent the people among whom Carleton had found Denis O’Shaughnessy and Jemmy McEvoy and Phelim O’Toole crawling like afflicted vermin on a monstrous dung-heap.

Some people said it was the English. It was so easy - easier because not always without reason - for Irishmen to curse at calamity and say: “It is the English.” People said it was the Act of Union, or the Corn Laws, or the repeal of the Corn Laws, or the landlords, or overpopulation, or some fault in the people, or unalterable economic laws, or the precarious nature of the potato and the prevalence in Europe of the black blight. Some said even more simply that it was the hand of God and, with a resignation that possibly depended on how far tragedy was from the speaker’s doorstep, many good people were prepared to leave it at that. Yet if you did believe in a God who was omnipotent and omnipresent it was only common sense to assume that God had something to do with the business, either for the sanctification and salvation of those who suffered, or for their more fortunate neighbours who could earn heaven by unstinted charity, or as a sign to the good to become better and to the wicked to amend their ways. “Divine Providence,” wrote Father Mathew, “in its inscrutable ways has again poured out upon us the vial of its wrath.”

The ways of divine providence were little more inscrutable than the ways of the owners of the festering soil of Ireland, little more inscrutable than the misgovernment and miscalculation that had made possible the period’s odd mixture of famine on one island and frothy talk of progress on a neighbouring island. Father Mathew, travelling through the country from Cork to Dublin on the twenty-seventh day of July, 1846, had seen the “doomed plant bloom in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest.” Returning from Dublin to Cork on the third day of August he saw with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. “A blast more destructive than the simoon of the desert has passed over the land, and the hopes of the [131] poor potato-cultivators are totally blighted, and the food of a whole nation has perished.” He saw in many places the wretched people seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands, and wailing bitterly the destruction that left them foodless. Being a man who believed in God, the Capuchin friar very logically bowed his head before the punishment that came mysteriously on the poisonous blast. Being a man of great energy and of great practical charity he did all that he could do to help his suffering brothers. But, apart from the putrefying wind, there was all that accumulation of human greed and stupidity that had left ignorant, uninstructed people dependent on one vulnerable plant, existing in very unholy, hungry poverty, liable to wholesale extermination by any chance calamity. That greed and stupidity has little to do with the hand of God or the vials of divine wrath, except in so far as hell has a certain relation of contrast to heaven; and in every period of human history there have been such moments when selfishness hardened a creed or a class into something alien to the blue sky or the green grass or the light of the sun. Selfishness and stupidity were remaking and recolouring the countryside of Carleton’s and Father Mathew’s Ireland.


Sir Charles Trevelyan was, for instance, one of the most able and enlightened civil servants that England at that time sent to Ireland to guide and direct the business of feeding the hungry. He wrote all about it in the Edinburgh Review in January of 1848, and the article was afterwards reprinted as a little book with the title “The Irish Crisis”. It is a conscientious record of work conscientiously done. It is the quiet, unpoetic, uninspiring testimony of the good civil servant. It has moments of humanity, exceptional in nineteenth-century officialdom, or in officialdom in any century. But it never quite escapes from the assumption that the famine was allowed by God, or by somebody, to give an opportunity for the development and improvement of theory and practice in civil service relief-organisations. It is childishly easy to misrepresent or at least to misinterpret the workings of such a mind, and a sentence lifted cruelly from its context can crackle like the laughter of a fool; but remembering always the energetic sincerity of his work, the comparative accuracy of his figures, the fact that it is easy to be wise a century after the event, it is still impossible to miss the underlying and unconscious fatuity of such a sentence as: “Ireland had now a year and a half’s experience of the administration of relief on a large scale and in different ways, and the objects to be aimed at and the abuses to be avoided had become generally known.” His meaning and the essential truth are as plain as daylight, but everything that he neglected to take into account is as monstrously ominous [132] as the skies that blackened over a black land where an unfortunate people was experiencing other things than official relief.

Posterity, Trevelyan said, would trace back to the famine “the commencement of a salutary revolution in the habits of a nation long singularly unfortunate.” Posterity would also acknowledge that on this, as on many other occasions, Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.” One sample of the permanent good would be that for the first time in the history of Ireland “the poor man has become sensibly alive to the idea that the law is his friend.” Previously, as the good civil servant saw it, the landlords had had agents who collected their rents, and the landlords very naturally supported their agents. The grand jury had had agents to collect the county-cess, and those agents had enjoyed the protection of the grand jury. But now “for the first time, the poor man has an agent to collect his rent. That agent is the poor-rate collector and he should be supported by the poor.”

The years that followed proved clearly enough the fantasticality of that vision of the lamb and the lion, the law and the poor man lying down together. But “posterity” has made fools of wiser men than Sir Charles Trevelyan. The pitiable thing is to find a man, representative of many other men, letting everybody know in his own words that he is moving about in a world which he has not clearly realised. The landlord had his agent collecting his rent, and the agent lived, often dishonestly, at the landlord’s expense, and the landlord passed the accumulating burden back by way of the agent to the broken-backed people. The horrible truth was that if landlords had had different ideas, if the agents had had different and more normal functions, the conscientious labour of Sir Charles Trevelyan would never have been necessary. A more horrible truth was that a poor-rate for the upkeep of workhouses or death-houses was only one more additional burden.

Trevelyan learned something from his experiences of Irish famine. Probably he learned as much as or more than any official of his time. He wrote down the conclusions he had arrived at as a result of “this remarkable crisis in our national affairs, when the events of many years were crowded into two short seasons, and a foundation was laid for social changes of the highest importance.” No man who combines head and heart in the proportion that makes neither a ghoul nor a machine but a human being, no man who can feel for the sufferings of other men past or present, could read those words without being tortured with sickening pity for the crawling, stricken thousands left to the cretinous mercy of everything that Sir Charles Trevelyan represented.

He concluded, firstly, that “it had been proved to demonstration [133] that local distress cannot be relieved out of national funds without great abuses and evils.’ Well and good.

He concluded that it had been established “by the result of these extensive experiments in the science, if it may be so called, of relieving the destitute, that two things ought to be carefully separated which are often confounded.” The two things were improvement and relief. He was quite correct when he concluded that they should not be confused, but he was not very original. The Dickensian charity boy when he had mastered the alphabet decided it was by no means worth while going through so much to learn so little. In a similar way, Paddy, rotting in his cabin, without the strength to cover with clay the corpses of his wife and children, might have argued had he possessed sufficient breath, that given a decent chance for improvement he need never have been made the laboratory rabbit for experimenters in the very odd science discovered by Sir Charles Trevelyan.

He concluded also that the case of Ireland had at last been understood, that the abyss separating England and Ireland had, in fact, been fathomed for “the attention of the two countries has been so long directed to the same subject, that a new reciprocity of interest and feeling has been established.” The two countries might have found a more auspicious way of bringing to birth that new reciprocity of interest and feeling; and anyway ’posterity’ was to find out to its cost that the calamity of the famine was to add one more additional embitterment to the traditionally bitter story of England and Ireland.

Trevelyan claimed that the famine had disabused the Irish “gentry” and the Irish “lower orders” of their excessive dependence on government. Previously no gentleman would marry his daughter off without consulting the Castle; and in 1847 poor people in a part of the West had laid in no turf because they thought the Queen would supply them with coal. But now, said he, they understood “that the proper business of a government, is to enable private individuals of every rank and profession in life to carry on their several occupations with freedom and safety.” Maybe the gentry of Ireland did understand all that. Sir Charles Trevelyan was there looking at them and should have known. But other observers at that time had come wearily to the conclusion that Ireland’s landed gentry were incapable of understanding anything. WilliamCarleton said that the monster that had destroyed a million and a quarter people was a three-headed monster. One head was famine. One head was the pestilence that followed famine. The third head was extermination by the landlords. As for the poor people who waited for the queen’s coals to keep their hearth-fires burning it was most unlikely that they lived long enough to cogitate on abstractions about the functions of government. Shivering with cold and starving with hunger in [134] stricken places beyond the Shannon they would never have considered themselves as private individuals of any rank or profession. They knew vaguely that in far-away Dublin there was a government that stood behind the landlords, and the landlords wanted rent even from men who had no food to eat. Dying and emigrating were the only two occupations that they could carry on with freedom and safety.

Sir Charles Trevelyan made his conclusions and passed on, his voice fading off towards posterity like the low hollow bellowing of a benevolent bull. He was the best that power and official might could offer in the nineteenth century to an abandoned people; and the moronic insufficiency of that best should set the powerful and the officially mighty in all ages carefully examining their consciences. In spite of his conclusions hunger remained in Ireland, and death by hunger and death by fever, and extermination by landlords, and rack-renting and evictions, and emigration sending the best of the people moving in a line without end to the harbours and the emigrant ships. The people were leaving Ireland because the only alternative was starvation in Ireland. England was sending Sir Charles Trevelyan to Ireland to bring relief to a people without food; and Ireland was steadily exporting food to England, and some of that food was being sent back to Ireland to help the relief work on which Sir Charles Trevelyan was busy. It was all as funny, as delightfully upside down as an Irish bull. Irish writers who would naturally be at home among Irish bulls had, anyway, the advantage of a local colour for which Hugo or Gautier might have cheerfully sold their souls. It hangs like a black curtain behind the movement of life in all the Irish writers of the nineteenth century who were in any way conscious of the threatened existence of the people. It turned what might have been among the best of Carleton’s novels into a pamphlet that would be dull if it wasn’t terrifying.

It left corners of black shadow in Michael Banim’s blood-red story, Crohoore of the Bill-Hook. For Pierce Shea, in pursuit of the elusive hunch-backed Crohoore, came to the inevitable cabin, recently spoliated by the tithe-proctor, sought shelter there from a passing shower and saw: “the large, waste den, with its sides rough as a quarry, and the black roof dripping rain and soot.” There was no furniture beyond a bundle of straw on which lay a shivering child, while two other children squatted listlessly on the damp floor, and, seated by the fireless hearth, was a man without shoes or stockings, coat or vest, covered only with tattered breeches and a soot-stained shirt, his arms folded hard, his chin sunk into his breast.

Etched stiffly and heavily, or sculptured in black stone, that father [135] and his motherless children could stand symbolically for the people that the Banims and Carleton used as material for novels. Looking at that scene it is easy to understand the preoccupation of Michael Banim’s story with the red of blood, or the stifling preoccupation of so much of William Carleton with the dull black of desolation. He wrote The Black Prophet and The Black Baronet and The Black Spectre and a story with a Gaelic name that meant The Black Day, a story that, incidentally, left a deep impression on a lawyer called Isaac Butt.

The black shadow spreads out over the century and over the writers of the century. Jane Barlow who, according to T. W. Rolleston, closely resembled Carleton, and who, as far as Irish fiction was concerned, helped at the deathbed of the nineteenth century, found for her imagination and her art a small village of poor people in a western bog. The bogland around Lisconnel was lonely, but it was, in a sombre fashion, colourful. “Heath, rushes, furze, ling, and the like have woven it thickly, their various tints merging, for the most part, into one uniform brown, with a few rusty streaks in it, as if the weather-beaten fell of some huge primaeval beast were stretched smoothly over the flat plain. Here and there, however, the monochrome will be broken: a white gleam comes from a tract where the breeze is deftly unfurling the silky bog-cotton tufts on a thousand elfin distaffs; or a rich glow, crimson and dusky purple dashed with gold, betokens the profuse mingling of furze and heather blooms; or a sunbeam, glinting across some little grassy esker, strikes out a strangely jewel-like flash of transparent green.”

Jane Barlow called that book of stories about Lisconnel by the name Irish Idylls (Hodder & Stoughton, 1892) and Ireland is one of those odd countries in which it is almost always possible to uncover something of the idyllic. But even in Jane Barlow’s coloured land the bog could turn grey and stiffen with frost, the cut wind could blow blighting, corrupting blackness into the seed-potatoes on which life in Lisconnel depended. Faces could lengthen and heads shake, superurtious minds draw omens from the flickering white flights of sea-grills over the bog, from the gloomy croaking and flapping of passing herons, from “ the long trains of wild duck, scudding by like trails of smoke.” A man, distraught with famine-fever, could bolt himself and his children into the cabin while the woman of the house went searching for food; and when she returned her husband was too weak to answer her battering at the door. In the morning he and his children were dead in the cabin, the mother dead outside on the ground, and in Lisconnel they said her tormented spirit battered night after night on the closed and bolted door”. (Irish Idylls.) [136]

There were dark, sunless corners in the most idyllic places; and the soul of Ireland in the darkness was for all the world like the figure of the farmer standing among his rotting ridges, weighed down with all the weariness of years of poverty and oppression and hopeless hunger that had made him “a haggard and tatterdemalion Despair.”

Chapter 17


In spite of the contradictions in his own soul, in spite of the terror of his time, he was the greatest laugher his country produced, until James Joyce, seeking in exile a refuge from contradiction, looking back at one great Dublin day that comprehended all time and hinted at eternity, heard the randy laughter of the streets and the pubs, saw the dark figure and the divided soul of Stephen Dedalus. With Carleton as with Joyce Ireland joined in the laughter, knowing it genuinely for the native laughter, but always resenting the recording of hollow unhumorous echoes that every Irishman had been trying hard to forget. Phil Purcell’s pigs, tall and loose and with unusually long legs, no flesh, short ears as if they had been cropped for sedition, long faces of a highly intellectual cast, an activity that surpassed greyhounds and beagles, were undeniably funny. But Irish readers following their uproariously devastating career on English farms could feel uneasily that the character of Phil and the waywardness of his pigs revealed to the world something about Ireland that was not in the least humorous, something unkempt and lawless and uncouth. Phelim O’Toole was Carleton’s most laughable creation; but when Phelim’s fond mother, looking at her son with the eyes of love, said: “Doesn’t he become the pock-marks well, the crathur?” and his father, looking at Phelim with the eyes of pride and hope for the half-acre, said, “Doesn’t the droop in his eye set him off all to pieces?” they had innocently hinted at an abyss of pain and pathetic deformity that made all laughter as thin as froth from broken water. To be able to convey in that way the delicate fragility of human joy, always transient, frequently depending for its existence on the human power for unconscious self-deception, may be just one of the faculties of a comprehensive, creative spirit. But in Carleton’s Ireland it made pitifully obvious the fact that all joy was only a little, brief light against wide, overshadowing gloom, that all dancing was over the grave or under the gallows. Never forgetful of the method of the old story-teller he pulled his chair to the corner of the fire, told his listeners tales that were humorous or sad or terrible. But he never equalled the story-teller by the hearth in the ability to make his listeners forget that outside the closed door there was rain and the buffeting wind and the black night. (p.149.)



Autobiography of William Carleton (Belfast: White Row Press 1996), with a Foreword [by Benedict Kiely]

[ Note that the following ends with a nigh-verbatim repetition of the concusion of his Prologue to Poor Scholar - viz., ‘Those who returned to camp where the soldiers of Cromwell once camped’ are Canadian soldiers training for D-Day, one of whom is said, in the corresponding passage of Poor Scholar, to have made the radio which figures less clearly in the present foreword. ]

‘William Carleton’s more-or-less official biography, David O’Donoghue, wrote of him: “He gave offence to every class of Irishman in one or other of his books, and all that can be done by way of extenuation or excuse is to explain the incidents which seem to have occasioned his conduct.” (Life of Carleton, intro. by Mrs Cashel Hoey, London 1896).

But considering the character of the man, and the choatic time in which he lived, I do not know if O’Donoghue’s remark can be explained as easily as all that. [sic] it is just possible that, anyway, what it needs is not explanation but the considerate contemplation that years of comparative calm should give to years of uncertainty and suffering.

For William Carleton knew the Irish people in the cabins in a time of hunger and unease and miserable change, in a time of chaos when even the strongest were not sure of their footing. He may never have been one of the strongest, never one of the stable. But he had imagination, rich humour, a capacity for honourable tears. He went with his own people to weddings and wakes, funerals, christenings, places of prayer, places of merriment. He saw the black withering visitation of the famine. All thes things he remembered and wrote down. And about and because of his own people he wrote some of the world’s great stories. (p.1.)


But in the Clogher valley in south Tyrone where he [Carleton] found men and women and made them immortal, the meaning behind the mystery, thesecret lost somewhere in chaos, does not seem to me to be of any account. Sheltering there in a cottage doorway from a sudden shower, or talking with men thinning turnips on a hill in Prillisk where he was born, or going up steeply through newplanted trees to the top of Knockmany Hill, one realizes that the present is the past, the people are unchanged.

In the hazel glen behind the house at Springtown where he once lived, the blackbirds sing eternally as he had heard them, through the open window, singing their souls to the rich cool evening. Across the road from the Forth Chapel the girl in the shop talked about the Yankee soldiers who had camped near Aughentain. The stories Carleton had heard in his boyhood had been about Cromwellian soldiers laying siege to the castle of Aughentain.

Leaning on the wall beside the shop the saddler who, fifty years ago, worked in the one-sided town of Clogher, pointed across the little valley to Dunroe and to Richardson’s house where the hedge school had been. And it was very easy suddenly to see William Carleton walking those narrow roads, learning a little about books, learning a lot about men and women, his own immortal, imperishable people: leaving us a lot to learn from the story of his days.

In the house at Springtown there was a radio set. Over it the voice of the world came to the quiet valley, mingling with the song of the blackbirds in the hazel glen, with the confused contradictory voices of the previous century. But if you listened carefully you could hear the one voice that mattered most of all, speaking across a hundred years, speaking for the people of that valley, for the people of Ireland, for those who died and for those who still lived, for those who sailed over the sea, even for those who returned to camp where the soldiers of Cromwell once camped in the townland of Aughentain.’ (p.3.)

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