William Carleton

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Carleton, William, an author, distinguished for his just delineation of the character of the Irish peasantry, was born on Shrove Tuesday, 1798, at Prillisk, near Clogher, County of Tyrone. He was the youngest of fourteen children. His father, a small farmer, was a man of considerable intelligence, endowed with a surprising memory; his mother used to sing the old Irish songs with wonderful sweetness and pathos. "From the one," we are told, "he gleaned his inexhaustible store of legendary lore, from the other that sympathy and innerness which have thrown a magic spell round the creations of his brilliant and fruitfull fancy." He attended a hedge school, travelled as a "poor scholar," and fed his literary taste by reading all the books he could lay hands on. He was destined for the Catholic priesthood; but was prevented from entering it by his father's death and by some conscientious difficulties, that led, we are told, to his joining the Established Church.

He gained some classical knowledge at the school of Dr. Keenan, a parish priest in the diocese of Down, and became tutor in a farmer's family in Louth. A perusal of Gil Blas roused within him the desire of seeing more of the world; and throwing up his situation, he found himself in Dublin with only a few pence in his pocket. Without any definite plan, he sought everywhere for employment, even of a bird-stuffer, of whose art he was obliged to confess complete ignorance. Driven to extremities, he contemplated enlisting, and addressed a Latin letter to the Colonel of a regiment, who dissuaded him from his intention, and gave him assistance. Chance threw him in the way of the Rev. Caesar Otway, who, recognizing his abilities, persuaded him to try authorship. He contributed a tale, "The Lough Derg Pilgrimage," to the Christian Examiner.

This was favourably received, and soon by his writings and tutorship he attained a respectable position and married. When about thirty, Carleton published a collected edition of his Traits and Stories ofthe Irish Peasantry, by far the most brilliant of his works. Fardarougha the Miser, his first novel, followed. The facility with which he wrote was exemplified in 1845, when on the death of Thomas Davis, who was to have supplied Mr. Duffy with a number for his series of monthly publications, Carleton filled the gap on six days' notice with Paddy Go-easy. In the Black Prophet, a tale of the Famine, he has portrayed the Irish female character with matchless strength and pathos. The latter part of his life was clouded by poverty resulting from irregular habits. He enjoyed a Civil List pension of £200, and latterly lived at Woodville, Sandford, near Dublin, where he died, 30th January 1869, aged 70. He was buried at Mount Jerome. In his delineations of Irish peasant life he stands perhaps unrivalled. What he may have wanted in literary power was made up by that actual experience of the scenes and incidents he writes about; and he was enabled to catch a certain raciness in the Irish character, since almost obliterated by famine, emigration, and by wider knowledge of the world, and book-learning.

His later publications were in no degree equal to the Traits and Stories. His tales are spoken of in Blackwood as "Admirable truly, intensely Irish. Never were that wild, imaginative people better described; and amongst all the fun, frolic, and folly, there is no want of poetry, pathos, and passion."

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

241. Men of the Time. London, 1856-'75.

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