William Carleton

Literatura Irlandesa / LEM2055

Dr. Bruce Stewart
Reader Emeritus in English Literature
University of Ulster

Index of Resources
Classroom Readings
Critical Commentary
Some Further Texts
The Oxford Companion

A William Carleton Album


The Hedge Schools of Ireland


William Carleton (1794-1869) is a pivotal writer in Irish literary history whose works mark the shift from the literature of the Protestant Ascendancy to that of the Irish people. As he wrote in an application for a government pension in later life, “I have risen up from a humble cottage and described a whole people.” Certainly he was the first writer in whom the character and spirit of the oppressed Gaelic majority comes to the surface again after the era of the Penal Laws, which were finally removed from the statute book when Catholic Emancipation passed through the British Parliament in 1829, driven by the political energy of Daniel O'Connell - an Irishman of a very different class from Carleton. While estimates of the literary merit of his books widely vary, he is generally accepted on his own terms as the first writer in English who ever looked at his fellow-countrymen through “Irish eyes”. The truth of this assertion reflects the fact that his predecessors and contemporaries had all been members of the English settler-community in Ireland who either ridiculed the peasantry for their apparent ignorance or saw them as material for their comic novels. Such were Samuel Lover and Charles Lever who are often mentioned as Carleton’s chief competitors, and both of these wrote primarily for the amusement of English audiences. In John and Michael Banim and Gerald Griffith, on the other hand, he had fellow-Catholic novelists, though both of these came from the emerging middle class and hence, though their sympathies were broadly with the Gaelic and Catholic population of the country, they were not in any sense “peasant writers” as he was. In this respect, Carleton enjoyed an unchallenged primacy as the only “authentic” writer who could report truly on the realities of life for the largest and lowest class of Irishmen and women and, in this sense, he is always regarded as the “true historian” of native Irish society. It has been said that no one who has not read Carleton really knows Ireland - and this is just as true of Irish people today as of those of other nations. (Whether Carleton is truly readable for non-English readers is another question!)

Born on a farm amid the “peasantry” of Co. Tyrone in the North of Ireland and excluded from significant education by the anti-Catholic Penal Laws which still operatied in his childhood, he succeeded in becoming the “historian” of his class in short stories and novels which capture the chaotic vitality of pre-Famine Ireland outside of the polite drawing-rooms and councils of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. He is the first “native” Irish writer in English and when a later generation led by W. B. Yeats set about founding a modern literature in Ireland they turned to him as the founder of the “national” tradition. Carleton was a complex man whose first entry into print took the form of sectarian narratives in which the “superstitious” practices of his fellow-Catholics and former neighbours in rural Ireland were hilariously caricatured for the amusement of the Protestants who still dominated publishing in Ireland. Critics have always been divided about the sincerity of his conversion: it was convenient and even necessary at the time, in order to reach an English-speaking audience - he addressed himself to Englishmen and Scotsmen as often as to Irishmen in his Prefaces - but it may also have been strongly felt since his rapid progress from rural peasant, failed seminarian (he “went for a priest”), then school-teacher before finally attaining the status of self-supporting writer - a rarity in those days - involved enormous changes in mental outlook and social adherence. For those who like to think of as a Catholic writer, there was the obstacle that he was Protestant. For those who liked to think of him a nationalist writer and a supported of the Repeal of the Act of Union, there was the difficulty that he said the arrival of an independent parliament in Dublin is he worst thing that could happen to Ireland.

In his own estimate he was a writer who had “risen up from a humble cottage and described a whole people.” The people he described were the ones he knew in childhood and young manhood and it is generally accepted that the rumbunctious, violent, jubilant and melancholic community of characters who populate his tales and novels are indeed a realistic cross-section of the contemporary population of Catholic Ireland in the years before the Famine of 1845-49. After the Famine, all changed: Catholic Ireland rapidly espoused the puritanical form of a Jansenist clergy and, instead of the careless proliferation of children which supplied pre-Famine Ireland with a population of 8 million living largely on the potato - a tuber which was wiped out by a rotting blight during those terrible years - two million of the country’s surviving population went into exile in Britain or American while those who remained locked themselves into a system of farm-ownership which necessitated the continued emigration of all but the eldest sons who inherited the meagre farms. In this stern modification of Irish social morals the Catholic Church played a central role by means of what is called the Confessional Revolution which made pious church-goers of the majority within a generation.

Carleton lived in a society in which the majority were still Irish speakers - or, at least, speakers of Irish with some English intermixed in a kind of croele language known as Hiberno-English. (After the Famine of 1845-49, the language-shift accelerated to the extent that Irish was near-extinct when the Language Revival Movement was promoted by the Gaelic League from 1893 onwards.) In conveying the words and deeds of his characters, he is obliged to use a form of transliteration which reproduces the vagaries of Irish pronunciation in English together with a plethora of phrases which are typically Hiberno-English as arising at the juncture between the two languages. Carleton himself strove to write in an educated form of English - the form, that is, which best displayed his own adequacy as an educated writer - and between the two dialects or planes of composition there always subsists a conflict, even a contradiction. As Barbara Hayley has pointed out in a fine analysis of his predicament, the “framing narrative” with which he began his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830-34; new edn. 1843) quickly falls down, to be replaced by the educated voice of the narrator talking directly to his readers at points when the characters are not talking to each other. The resultant space allows Carleton to express strongly held opinions independently from his characters, or even about them, but it does not constitute an artistic solution to the problem of story-telling in a colonial society.

See some of William Carleton’s opinions - infra.

[ Note: All files listed on this page are downloadable MS Word documents which can be read and saved on your own hard-drive. ]

Primary Texts

Classroom Readings

“The Faction Fiction” (from Traits & Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1830-34)
“The Marriage of Jack Magennis(from “The Three Tasks” in Traits & Stories)
Literary Beginnings - Extracts from The Autobiography of William Carleton (1896)

[ A full copy of Castle Rackrent can be reached at RICORSO > Library > “Irish Classics” - via index or as attached.]

Some Further Texts

Traits & Stories (1843 Edn.) - General Introduction
“The Hedge School”, (Traits & Stories) - extract

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Secondary Texts

Scholarly Commentaries on William Carleton

W. B. Yeats, Preface to Stories from Carleton (1889) - and other writings about Carleton
Barbara Hayley, Carleton’s “Traits and Stories" and the Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Irish Tradition (1983)
Margaret Kelleher, ‘Prose Writing and Drama in English; 1830-1890’ (2006) - Remarks on Carleton
Sundry Critical Commentaries chiefly by Irish Writings on the Writings of William Carleton (1841-1996)

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The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1996)
ed. Robert Welch; asst. ed. Bruce Stewart
“William Carleton” (1794-1869) - a bio-critical article
Father Butler ... Traits & Stories and other works by Carleton

[ You can greatly extend your knowledge of this writer by browsing in RICORSO - online. ]

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Extracts from the Life of William Carleton (1896; rep. as Autobiography of William Carleton, 1996)

Classic authors: ‘[...] if ever a schoolboy was affected almost to tears, I was by the death of Dido. Even when a schoolboy, I did not read the Classics as they are usually read by learners. I read them as novels - I looked to the story, the narrative, not the grammatical or other difficulties. The field was new to me, and consequently presented a singular charm to me. The truth is, I read the classics through the influence of my imagination, rather than of my judgement.’ (D. J. O’Donoghue, [ed.,] Life of William Carleton, p.73.)

British mercy: ‘For nearly a century, we were completely at the mercy of our British neighbours, who probably amused themselves at our expense with the greater licence, and a more assured sense of impunity, in as much as they knew that we were utterly destitute of a national literature.’ (Preface, Autobiography; q.p.; cited by Tess Hurson [MA Teaching Material], UUC 1997.)

Irish marriage: ‘There is not a country in Europe where so many rash and unreflecting marriages are made as in Ireland; the habit has been the curse of the country. The youngsters manage their “runaways” in the following manner; they first determine upon “running away”, which is only another phrase for getting married: the lover selects the house of some relation or friend of his own, and after having given notice to that friend or relation of his intention, and having gained his assent, he informs the friend of the night when he and his sweetheart will come to their house as a “running away couple”; and in order that they may not be without the means of celebrating the event with a due convivivial spirit, he generally places a gallon of unchristened whisky in their hands. The night of their arrival at the house of that friend or relation is of course a jolly one. On the next morning the friend or relation goes to their respective families and discusses the fact of their “runaway”. The girl is then brought home to her family and remains there until the marriage takes place.’ (The Life of William Carleton: Being His Autobiography and Letters [with] An Account of His Life and Writing from the Point at which the Autobiography Breaks Off, by David J. O’Donoghue, Vol. I, p.94.)

The Irish Famine: ‘But why talk of exaggeration or contradiction? Alas! do not the workings of death and disolation among us in the present time give them a fearful corroboration, and prove how far the strongest imagery of Fiction is frequently transcended by the terrible realities of Truth?’ (The Black Prophet [1847] London: Lawrence 1899, Preface, p.viii.)

Literary famine: ‘During some of the years of the Irish famine, such were the unhappy circumstances of the country, that she was exporting provisions of every description in the most prodigal abundance, which the generosity of England was sending back again for our support. So was it with literature. Our men and women of genius uniformly carried their talents to the English market, whilst we laboured at home under all the dark privations of a literary famine.’ (Traits and Stories, William Tegg edn. 1865, Preface., Vol. 1, p.v.)

Last of the Romans: ‘The only names which Ireland can point to with pride are [Gerald] Griffin’s, [John] Banim’s, and - do not accuse me of vanity when I say it - my own. Banim and Griffin are gone, and I will soon follow them - ultimus romanorum, and after that will a lull, an obscurity of perhaps half a century, when a new condition of civil society and a new phase of manners and habits among the people - for this is a transition state - may introduce new fields and new tastes for other writers, for in this manner the cycles of literature and taste appear, hold their day, displace each other, and make room for others.’ (Letter to Dr. T. C. S. Corry, 1863, quoted in O’Donoghue’s Life of Carleton, 1896, Vol. II, p.293.)

[ See also Quotations in RICORSO > William Carleton > Quotations - online.]

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