Caitríona MacKernan, review of William Carleton: The Authentic Voice, ed. Gordon Brand, in Books Ireland (March 2008)

Details: Review of Gordon Brand, ed., William Carleton: The Authentic Voice (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 2006), 205pp. [ills. by Sam Craig], in Books Ireland (March 2008), p.46; copied from scrapbook.

This is a selection of the proceedings of William Carleton summer schools. The contributors, a who’s who of Irish literati and historians, are far removed from Carteton’s pre-famine peastants in their “recklessness, of devotion ... drunk and sober, in sorry and joy”, as wrote Caesar Otway, an early commentator. Through his fiction, William Carleton became the social historian of the ordinary people of pre-famine and famine Ireland. By the 1830s, eiric [i.e., Brehon blood-price/compensation] had long given way to hanging as punishment for crimes. In Carleton’s historical novel Fardorougha the Miser, a duplicitous arsonist ribbon-lodge leader and maiden-abductor releases during his hanging ungentlemanlike passions and fury.

Yeats, who gave him a prominent place in his Representative Irish Tales, said Carleton, born and bred [an Irish-speaking] peasant, gave us the multitude of grotesque, pathetic, humorous persons - misers, pig-drivers, drunkards, schoolmasters, labourers, priests, madmen - and filled them all with abounding vitality.” Carleton himself “found them a class unknown in literature, unknown by their landlords and by those in whose hands their destiny was placed”. By describing this class, he undermined the Irish stereotypes of centuries of English writing.

Deeply conservative because of the terrorist tactics of ribbonmen and whiteboys - Captain Moonlight, midnight raids, mutilations of cattle, foul murder - he deeply loved his fellow countrymen. In his 1830 preface to Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, he hoped that his own dear native mountain people ... would ... through the influence of education, by the leadings of purer knowledge, and by the fosterings of a paternal government become the pride, the strength, and support of the British Empire, instead of as now forming its weakness and reproach.”

He converted to Protestantism permanently following his revulsion and scepticism, roused by a pilgrimage to Lough Derg. Rejecting sectarian violence by Ribbonmen and Orangemen alike, he did not spare Catholicism. “Oh Romanism! The blood of millions is upon you - you have your popes ... your scapulars ... your confessions.”

In her essay, Marianne Elliot points out that despite his Protestantism, Carleton stayed with unreformed folk and pre-tridentine Catholicism throughout his life. Irish Catholicism had undergone changes. A new authoritarianism was a result of Gallagher’s 1735 Irish Sermons. Priests also became a force for anglicisation following the foundation of Maynooth in 1795. Bishops, keen to prove loyalty to England and show gratitude for relaxations of the penal laws, instituted English as the language of instruction.

Affection for friars (such as Darby More in Carleton’s “The Midnight Mass”) was replaced by fearful respect for clergy. His priests were avaricious and hedge-school masters brutal. For Carleton, Catholics were hardy like their soil and Protestants softened by easy living in the lowlands. In Carleton’s “The Poor Scholar”, the MacEvoys, evicted from their farm by a Protestant land agent, look down from the barren hills where they now live to the fertile farms below.

“The Party Fight” describes a parent teaching “hereditary enmity to the child”. Carleton bemoaned the lack of a middle class to mediate between the very poor and the very rich: “If a third class existed, Ireland would neither be so political or discontented as she is.” His famine novel The Black Prophet marks the decade that cut off the Irish-speaking past from the English-speaking present. There is some debate in The Authentic Voice as to whether the lure of modernity, the famine or Daniel O’Connell’s charisma did for the Gaelic tradition. Part one of The Authentic Voice includes correspondence from, to and about Carleton. He bore with fortitude an uneasy old age, facing blindness, deafness and the financial worries of his children. Once again, the correspondents, who compared him for example to Balzac, are a who’s who of their day: Speranza [Lady Wilde], Maria Edgeworth, Isaac Butt among them.

Young Irelanders felt, surprisingly, that he spoke for them. Thomas Davis said of him: “While local enough for the purely Irish reader [he] is sufficiently catholic to move all readers, who butforthe phraseology which localises, could be true of anywhere in the world.” He resisted attempts by various groups - from the proselytising Protestants of the 1820S to the Young lrelanders - to claim him.

He had much correspondence with Prime Minister Robert Peel, appealing with eventual success for a writer’s pension - a foreshadow perhaps of Aosdána. Sam Craig’s illustrations are particularily striking, nostalgic as they are for bygone community warmth.

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