Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carleton, William (1794-1869)

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CARLETON, WILLIAM (1794–1869), Irish novelist, was born at Prillisk, co. Tyrone, in 1794, and not, as some writers have stated, in 1798. His parents supported themselves and fourteen children, of whom William was the youngest, on a farm of only fourteen acres. Carleton used to say that his father's memory was a rich and perfect storehouse of all that the social antiquary, man of letters, the poet, or the musician, would consider valuable. He spoke the Irish and English languages with nearly equal fluency, and was acquainted with all kinds of folklore. His mother was famous for her musical talents. Carleton's earliest tutor was one Pat Frayne, the master of the hedge school, who appears as Mat Kavanagh in the ‘Hedge School,’ and Carleton bears testimony to the savagery of hedge schoolmasters generally. Being subsequently for a time under the charge of the Rev. Dr. Keenan of Glasslough, he made considerable progress in his studies, especially in classics. On the removal of Dr. Keenan to Dundalk, Carleton was compelled to return home. His parents had intended him for the church, and sent him as a poor scholar to Munster. He had travelled as far as Granard when he interpreted an ominous dream as a command to return to Tyrone. The incidents of this journey gave rise to the tale of the ‘Poor Scholar.’

Lough-derg was a place famed for many legends, and Carleton visited the spot to perform a station there. In the ‘Lough-derg Pilgrim’ he has given an exact transcript of what took place during these stations held in the summer months. Carleton's experiences at Lough-derg led him to the resolution never to enter the church. About this time there fell into his hands a copy of ‘Gil Blas.’ He now longed for contact with the world, and entered the family of Piers Murphy, a farmer in county Louth, as a tutor. He next went to Dublin in search of fortune with two shillings and ninepence in his pocket. Offering himself as assistant to a bird-stuffer, he was asked what he proposed to stuff birds with, and ingenuously replied, ‘Potatoes and meal.’ He determined to enlist, and addressed a letter in Latin to the colonel of a regiment, who dissuaded him from his purpose, and shortly afterwards Carleton obtained some tutorships. While engaged in tuition he met the lady whom he afterwards married.

For the ‘Christian Examiner,’ a Dublin periodical edited by the Rev. Cæsar Otway, a protestant clergyman, Carleton wrote a description of his pilgrimage to Lough-derg. Sketches soon followed each other in rapid succession, and in 1830 these were collected into a volume, and published under the title of ‘ Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry.’ Several editions were called for in three years, and a second series appeared in 1833. His sketches of the peasantry were followed by a collection of ‘Tales of Ireland,’ 1834. In some of the tales he evidently describes his own feelings and early experiences. Carleton produced in 1839 his ‘Fardorougha the Miser,’ which has been described as one of the most powerful and moving works of fiction ever written. ‘Fardorougha’ was dramatised and produced at a Dublin theatre, but the version annoyed Carleton, and led to an unpleasant correspondence between himself and the adapter, a lady named Magrath. He states ‘that there was not a publication of any importance in his time to which he did not contribute.’ The greater number of his sketches have been republished in volume form. In 1841 there appeared a collection of tales by Carleton, pathetic and humorous, containing the sketch entitled ‘The Misfortunes of Barney Branagan.’ This volume was succeeded in 1845 by a more elaborate work, entitled ‘Valentine m'Clutchy, the Irish Agent, or Chronicles of the Castle Cumber Property.’ This novel dealt with the land question. The work was extended in 1846 by the addition of ‘The Pious Aspirations of Solomon M'Slime.’ The machinations of secret societies were exposed in ‘Rody the Rover, or the Ribbonman.’ A Dublin publisher having projected a series of books under the title of ‘The Library of Ireland,’ Carleton came forward to supply a gap caused by the death of Thomas Davis. He produced in the course of a few days his story of ‘Paddy Go-easy.’ The Irish famine supplied Carleton with the materials for his ‘Black Prophet,’ published in 1847. It was succeeded by ‘The Emigrants of Ahadarra’ and ‘Art Maguire.’ In 1849 appeared ‘The Tithe Proctor,’ and in 1852 ‘The Red Hall, or the Baronet's Daughter,’ afterwards republished under the title of ‘The Black Baronet.’ This was succeeded by ‘The Squanders of Castle Squander,’ and at a brief interval by a volume of shorter collected tales. The last considerable works from Carleton's pen were ‘Willy Reilly and his dear Colleen Bawn’ (1855); ‘The Evil Eye, or the Black Spectre’ (1860); and ‘Redmond, Count O'Hanlon, the Irish Rapparee’ (1862). But for many years subsequently there appeared periodically volumes of this writer's collected sketches.

Notwithstanding Carleton's indefatigable industry he fell into difficulties. A memorial was addressed to government on his behalf, signed by persons of all ranks and creeds, including Maria Edgeworth, and on the recommendation of Lord John Russell he received a pension of 200l. per annum. Two of his sons went out to New Zealand. He died 30 Jan. 1869.

Carleton has been regarded as the truest, the most powerful, and the tenderest delineator of Irish life. Indignant at the constant misrepresentations of the character of his countrymen, he resolved to give a faithful picture of the Irish people; and although he did not spare their vices he championed their virtues, which were too often neglected or disputed. He was erratic in habit, and although he wrote much he was unsystematic and fitful in effort. Most of Carleton's works were translated into French, German, and Italian. There is as yet no collected edition of them in English, the various novels and sketches having appeared in one form at intervals in Dublin, and in another form in London. Many are now entirely out of print.

The following is a list of the works of Carleton which have been published in volume form: 1. ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry,’ two series, 1830 and 1833. 2. ‘Tales of Ireland,’ 1834. 3. ‘The Fawn of Springvale and other Tales,’ 1841. 4. ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry,’ new edition, with an autobiographical introduction, explanatory notes, and illustrations, 1843–4. 5. ‘Valentine M'Clutchy,’ 1845. 6. ‘Rody the Rover, or the Ribbonman,’ 1845. 7. ‘Parra Sastha; or the History of Paddy Go-easy and his wife Nancy,’ 1845. 8. ‘The Black Prophet,’ ‘The Emigrants of Ahadarra,’ ‘Fardorougha the Miser,’ ‘The Tithe Proctor’ (Parlour Library series), 1847. 9. ‘Art Maguire, or the Broken Pledge,’ 1847. 10. ‘The Clarionet, the Dead Boxer, and Barney Branagan,’ 1850. 11. ‘Red Hall, or the Baronet's Daughter,’ 1852. 12. ‘Jane Sinclair, Neal Malone,’ &c., 1852. 13. ‘Willy Reilly and his dear Colleen Bawn,’ 1855. 14. ‘The Emigrants’ (Railway Library series), 1857. 15. ‘The Evil Eye, or the Black Spectre,’ 1860. 16. ‘The Double Prophecy, or Trials of the Heart,’ 1862. 17. ‘Redmond, Count O'Hanlon, the Irish Rapparee, an Historical Tale,’ 1862. 18. ‘The Silver Acre and other Tales,’ 1862. 19. ‘The Fair of Emyvale and the Master and Scholar’ (Parlour Library series), 1870. 20. ‘The Squanders of Castle Squander’ (Library of Favourite Authors), 1873. Several of these works have passed through a considerable number of editions.

[Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, with an Autobiographical Introduction, 1843; Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature, 1880; Quarterly Review, September 1841; Freeman's Journal, Dublin, 1 Feb. 1869; Chambers's Cyclopædia of English Literature, 1876.]

G. B. S.