William Carleton

Author of "Fardorougha the Miser," &c. &c.

From The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 17, Number 97, January 1841

ONCE more we enter the apartment, on the walls of which we have placed the portraits of the men of our day, whose memories Ireland will not willingly let die. Already we have taken one by one, from those walls, the portraits of the great and the noble; the venerable judge--the successful lawyer--the busy and the fretful politician--the veteran defender of our country; to record their names and their resemblances in the imperishable memorial of our Magazine. We now approach to take down from the niche in which we have placed it with especial care--the portrait of one, upon whom, neither wealth nor rank have conferred their conventional distinctions--one, around whom none of those adventitious elevations which Burke well calls the "solemn plausibilities" of life have thrown the prestige of their dignity--but one who yet is known among men by an honour higher than any which wealth can purchase or rank can claim--one who is the master of the affections of men by the title of the genius that can sway the sympathies and reveal the secrets of the human heart.

William Carleton can vindicate his undisputed claim to the title of the novelist of Ireland. Whatever be his faults or his merits, he is alone. Of all who have written on the fruitful theme of Irish life and manners, there is none with whom we can compare him. He has copied no one, and no one rivals him; his style and his subjects are alike his own. Irish, intensely Irish indeed his stories are, but utterly unlike any thing that ever before them had been given to the public under the name of Irish stories. There is none, we repeat, with whom he can be compared: he stands alone as the portrayer of the manners and customs of our people--as the man who has unlocked the secrets of the Irish heart, and described the Irish character, without caricature or exaggeration, by that mighty power of genius which portrays reality while it frames its own creations--and produces those wonderful conceptions, which are at once fiction and truth.

Carleton has been in the poetry of his prose to Ireland what Burns has been to Scotland in the poetry of his verse. There is in both the same exhibition of the better feelings of the people--the same heart-touches of the scenes of the happy fireside--the same satire on the follies and faults of the people, if it be right to use the term satire to descriptions in which no feeling of unkindness mingles. The faults and the follies are there, but they are all coloured by the glow of the virtues that are ever portrayed on the same canvass.

It is impossible, indeed, not to feel the strong and singular analogy between much of the history, as well as the genius of Burns and Carleton. Both were born in the humbler walks of life--both won for themselves fame and distinction by efforts that made them known at once--both knew well the people among whom their youth was passed--both had known the difficulties and sorrows which were the inheritance of genius upon earth--both have had their faults originating, perhaps, in circumstances nearly similar. The time, perhaps, is not yet come, when the parallel can be completely traced out--both must rest in their grave before both can be spoken of with equal freedom.

It is singular, that the house in which the subject of our present sketch first saw the light, bears a striking resemblance to that in which the Scottish poet was born. William Carleton was born in the eventful year 1798, on Shrove-Tuesday, in the townland of Prillisk, near the town of Clogher, in the county of Tyrone. His parents, of whose memory he speaks almost with a superstitious veneration, were, in the rank of humble but respectable farmers, and Roman Catholics. His early education was obtained in such schools as the vicinity of his birth-place afforded--one of his early instructors was the original of Matt. Kavanagh. Fortunately, however, for him, he was placed under the instructions of the Rev. Dr. Keenan, a Roman Catholic clergyman, who is, we believe, still alive and a parish priest in the diocese of Down. But, perhaps, the best and the most valuable part of his education, he derived from his mother. His parents were both persons of strong natural sense: his father, although the farm which he held did not exceed fourteen acres, was universally respected, and we have heard his son tell, with tears in his eyes, that his funeral was the largest ever seen in that part of the country; a tribute, which only an Irishman can thoroughly appreciate. But it was from his mother that he inherited his genius--from her, too, he learned his fondness for the tales and traditions of his country. He often states, that he has spent whole days in listening to her, singing old Irish songs, from the poetry of which, her son first, perhaps, derived his passion for romance.

In his early days he mingled in all the sports and exercises of the peasantry, and then it was that he witnessed those scenes which none but himself has ever yet truly described.

The ambition of every Irish Roman Catholic farmer is, to have one at least of his sons in the church, and this was the destination, to which his friends had devoted W. Carleton. The author of "Fardorougha" was at one period of his life to all appearance destined to have been a good and jovial parish priest--a prominent personage, no doubt, at one of those Station dinners which he afterwards so graphically described. Fortunately, however, his better genius prevailed; before the time came for his entering Maynooth, the death of his father left him more to his own control, and some years after the same period serious and insurmountable doubts of several of the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church determined him for ever against the clerical profession.

He still, however, continued outwardly to conform to the Roman Catholic faith; partly because his conviction had not settled down to Protestantism, and partly from an unwillingness to offend the feelings of relatives. About this period accident threw into his hands a copy of Gil Blas. He has often said that it is impossible to describe the influence which this novel exercised upon his imagination. Full of enthusiasm, and ignorant of life, he determined to throw himself, like Gil Blas, upon the world, and with scarcely a penny in his pocket he left his native valley to seek his fortune. His first destination was not however romantic. His classical education--such as it was--enabled him to enter into an engagement as private tutor in the family of a wealthy farmer of the name of Murphy in the county of Louth. It is to this engagement that we are indebted for one of the most powerful of his stories, "the Burning of Wild-goose Lodge." When our author reached his new destination, the body of Devan, one of the men executed for that horrible crime, was still hanging in chains near the place of his new abode. This spectacle was one not likely to be soon forgotten by an enthusiastic and imaginative mind, and from the details then current in the country relative to the terrible tragedy, Carleton gathered these incidents, which he has worked up with such unrivalled power into, perhaps, the most thrilling of his tales.

With the termination of his engagement he was again thrown upon the world, and the desire for adventure naturally directed his steps to Dublin, where he arrived, as he himself has told the public, with just 2s. 9d. in his pocket. His first resource was his old occupation of teaching; and free now to follow the judgment of his conscience, with convictions strengthened by maturer years, he openly though not ostentatiously embraced the Protestant religion, and continued for some years to earn a competence, by steadily pursuing his useful and laborious occupation.

Accident at last made, perhaps himself, certainly the world aware of the existence of the genius which was destined inseparably to associate his name with the literature of his country. A chance introduction to the Rev. Caesar Otway, was the means of rescuing this extraordinary man from the privacy in which he had lived. Detailing to that reverend gentleman the particulars of a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, in which in his early days he had borne a part, the other suggested to him to write down the account as he mentioned it. The other said hesitatingly "he would try." HE TRIED--and the result of the trial was the "Lough Derg Pilgrim," which was published in the "Christian Examiner;" its success was decisive and instantaneous; it was rapidly followed by the story of "Father Butler," which appeared in the same periodical under the same signature of Wilton. From that hour the biography of Mr. Carleton is in the annals of our literature.

In 1829 he published his first series of "Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry," the work upon which, until the appearance of "Fardorougha," his fame rested. This rapidly ran through several editions, and was followed in 1832 by the second series. In the meantime his contributions to Magazines had been various; several of them were collected together in one volume, in 1834, under the title of "Tales of Ireland," containing among others the exquisite tale of "The Dream of a Broken Heart," a story displaying, perhaps, more of the beauty of purity, more knowledge of the highest and holiest feelings of the human heart and more sympathy with those feelings, than any other within the whole range of British literature.

Of his large contributions to our own pages, we need not speak. The principal of these has been republished in a separate shape and one in which it can be much better appreciated than by appearing at intervals in the pages of the Magazine. "Fardorougha" we do not hesitate to pronounce the first of Mr. Carleton's works. It is his first attempt at the continuous effort of the novel. Many who admitted his power in the short and detached tales of which his previous works had been made up, yet questioned his ability to sustain the unity of character and the continuity of plot that is necessary for the novel. In "Fardorougha" he tried it, and his triumph is complete.

There is not, out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott, a character in the whole range of fiction, that will bear comparison with the Miser, while the same truth that marks all his writings, is adhered to here. The most perfect description of the ribbon confederacy that has ever appeared, is to be found in the pages of this magnificent romance.

Such has been the life of William Carleton up to the present moment. To complete the sketch, it only needs to add, what most persons who know any thing of our literature will anticipate, that during the years in which he has made his noblest additions to it, he has not been exempt from the difficulties which attend on the pursuits he has chosen, nor, truth compels us to add, free from the eccentricities--the imprudences, and the faults which too often are the attendants on genius.

An essay on the genius and character of Mr. Carleton's writings is obviously beyond the limits of such a sketch as this; and yet, without some allusions to the distinguishing features of the productions of his pen, even this sketch would be incomplete.

Genuine humour has never been found in any one who had no heart to sympathise with the sorrows of his kind; and there are many writers who have exhibited in their writings, powers of a high order, both comic and pathetic; but the possession of both these powers is not enough for the man who is to describe Irish character, he must blend them. It is the singular anomaly of our people, that mirth and sorrow are often so blended together, that the colours of the one insensibly mingle with those of the other; an anomaly not understood by strangers, and which has often made them, in their ignorance of our nature, describe us as heartless and unfeeling. The "[greek inscription]" of the "blind old man," describes much of the sorrow, as it does much of the mirth of our island; and he who would describe Irish character as it is, must not only be both humorous and pathetic by turns, but, strange as it may seem, at once, both. It is one of the mysteries of the national heart with which a stranger intermeddleth not--upon the darkest picture of Irish grief, the wild and mirthful eccentricities of our people must throw the gleam of their strange light, without yet disturbing the sombre colouring of the sorrow on which they fall, but with which they do not contrast. An Irishman mourns like the men of no other country under the sun; unjust, deeply unjust, would be the censure which would discover, in the strangeness, if you will the grotesquenessof his grief, the evidence of its insincerity, or its want of depth.

It is in this--in the perfect blending of humour and pathos, that Mr. Carleton's triumph is complete--it is this which makes him alone the storyist of the Irish heart. Others may have described merriment--others may have described grief; but he, and he alone, has described that strange mirth that mingles with sadness, so as not to make it less sad--the deep and intense feeling which tinges even the most joyous hour--making mirth and passion near akin; and therefore, he alone has described Irish life among our people.

To those who have never known that people in their domestic scenes, we fear we scarcely make ourselves understood; but there are passages in many of Mr. Carleton's stories which when read would make any one who has a heart to feel the deep mysteries of our natures, thoroughly understand us--where you would find grief depicted as uncouth, wild, and grotesque; but yet, without permitting you, for one instant, to forget the reverence due to sorrow,--we could point to pages that would illustrate this--pages, in which scenes of the most exquisite pathos are rendered more truthful, yet not less pathetic by flashes of humour, which never, for one instant, make your sympathy with the sorrow the less touching, or the less complete.--You learn something of human nature that you never knew before---you feel that it is the pencil of a master that has portrayed this strange union--that has been dipped in colours apparently inconsistent, and blended both into one rich and harmonious tint.

Mr. Carleton has done full justice to our people, but he has done no more; he has not exaggerated their virtues, and he has not caricatured their faults; he has described the Irish peasant as he is--a strange mixture of much that is noble with much that is base--generous and brave, yet often treacherous, always revengeful--with all the fond affections of domestic life, warm and tender around his heart, yet sometimes capable, under the influence of vindictive excitement, of acts that seem to imply the absence of every better feeling of our nature.

The truth of his sketches is greatly owing to the fact, that he knew, by personal intercourse, the people he describes--he had been trained with them--he had seen them in their moments of sorrow and of joy--of mirth and of depression--he had picked up their legends--shared in their superstitions--and acquainted himself with their heart. The poetry of their life had been his--their hopes and their sorrows had been his own. His characters are representatives of classes that really exist, nay, many of them have been drawn from observation; the Lough Derg Pilgrim is, we have already said, a sketch of what he endured himself, in going through the purgatory of St. Patrick; in Denis O'Shaughnessy there is, we could swear it, something of himself; in the noble piety of Mrs. O'Connor, in the Miser, we are sure we can recognise filial affection, tracing the character of her, to whose early instructions he owed his legendary lore. Many of the characters described in his writings are still recognised in the scenes of his early youth, and some of them are proud of their unexpected celebrity. The scenery is all from the vale of Clogher, and even some of the Findramore schoolmasters shadow forth, not very indistinctly, the tyrants who exercised their oppression on the boy, of whom they little dreamed that one day he would repay their cruelty by immortalizing their petty oppressions.

Viewing his writings merely as delineations of the working of human passion and human feelings, they hold a high place among those who have taught high and holy lessons to mankind in the form of fiction. They belong to that class of writings, which it is impossible to read without feeling the heart improved. "The Dream of a Broken Heart" we have already instanced. Perhaps we are singular in believing, that, in "Larry Mac Farland's Wake," there is as much deep and touching pathos as in any Irish story that has ever been given to the world. "Tubber Derg" is, of the shorter tales, perhaps the masterpiece--certainly it is rivalled only by the "Poor Scholar."

But we have already said, it is not to his shorter pieces that we look for the full exhibition of his powers. "Fardorougha the Miser," as it is the first sustained novel he has given to the world, so it is incomparably the best of his productions. The character of Una and her brother--the faithful and heroic love of the Miser's son--his faith in the ultimate triumph of his innocence--his calm endurance of the most trying griefs--the portraits of old Nogher--and the villain Bartle, all--all are unsurpassed; we would, at least say so, but for the other parts of the story, but before all, and above all we place the characters of the miser and his wife. Her high and holy piety--her mild and meek endurance--her fond attachment to her stern husband--are as noble a portaiture of female excellence, as any that has been given to mankind--and the terrible struggles of the miser, between love of gold and love of his son--the intermingling of the better feelings of his nature with the stern and repulsive traits of the miser's character--form as thrilling and as true a picture as ever genius has delineated.

But it would be a very incomplete and imperfect view of these admirable writings, which would consider them merely as works of fiction--they are, under the guise of fiction, descriptions of the social state of Ireland, drawn from the life, and conveying more knowledge on the subject of the condition of Ireland--the feelings, the superstitions, and the virtues and crimes of our countrymen, than could be found in many a long and laboured political essay. What evidence have all the Commissioners of Education collected, that throws half so much light on the state of Instruction among our peasantry, as the inexpressibly humorous sketch of the "Hedge School?" How can we so well understand the real character of the faction fights, that have shed torrents of blood in our land, as by reading the terrible description of the "Battle of the Factions?" It may be necessary to apprize our readers, that a faction fight and a party fight are things perfectly distinct--a faction fight is an engagement between two rival clans, generally of the same religion, and arising from some old hereditary feuds, utterly unconnected with politics or religion--a party fight is between those whose difference is not personal, but religious and political. The party fight, too, has its illustration in the melancholy but not untrue association of "The funeral and party fight." We regard then the tales of Carleton as portraits of Irish society as it is. It is a fact no less singular than true, that many a trait in our national character which has been slowly, and laboriously, and indistinctly brought to light in the course of long and tedious investigations, before committees of parliament, will be found to have been long before described with perfect truth in some one or other of these admirable stories.

It is impossible for the portrayers of our national condition not to tread upon debated ground. On the one hand there is the temptation to catch the applause of one party by softening down or disguising the truth as to the workings of the system of Popery and disaffection--on the other, the equal temptation to earn the approbation of the opposite party by exaggerating the evils, and magnifying the vices of that system. But while there is no flattery of his countrymen--no shrinking from describing the priesthood as it is,--in not one single line is there manifested a wish to exaggerate the faults or to insult the miseries of our people. Their faults are dealt with tenderly. Their truest friend became not their flatterer, and Mr. Carleton describes our people, as they are, with many faults, but yet with great and noble virtues. He passes through all these topics upon which Irishmen are most easily excited -- forgetting in the one enthusiasm of painting like nature, all the angry passions that are surrounding the objects which he portrays. It is impossible to read his stories without feeling this--you must be satisfied that his object is not to lower the priest, nor to hold up the person to odium, that he describes things as they are, and because they are--ministering to no angry passion of any party--truckling to no false liberality by concealing truth--but exhibiting that true liberality of sentiment and heart which, while it manifests plainly that the judgment disapproves of the follies and superstitions which are portrayed, yet shows that the heart remembers that in spite of all these follies and superstitions, virtues had existed, and noble and generous sentiments been cherished, and kindly feelings exercised by those from whom the author has conscientiously separated himself for ever. Truthfulness and honesty are stamped upon every page, as they are upon some men's countenances, irresistibly compelling you to believe them. We know indeed of no work on Ireland so free from party bias, of none in which so many and plain truths are told, without any intermixture of bitterness or ill will. Protestant they are in sentiment and tone--if they were not, the author were a hypocrite -- but no one can point out in all the author has written an angry or a bitter expression towards the friends of the religion of his youth, The value of these works is their calm and sober truthfulness--they bring you to the domestic life of the Irish peasant--they show you how he is bound by the ties of domestic affection--they place you beside him at the domestic hearth--they show him to you in his hours of recklessness, of devotion, and superstition--they take you with him to the shebeen house, the chapel, or the holy well--you accompany him to the wake, the funeral, and the ribbon lodge--you know him drunk and sober--in sorrow and in joy--in his wildest mirth and his deepest sadness--surrounded by all the influences which make our people what they are--they place him in contact with the priest, with the friar, with the illegal confederacy --and they leave you to form a judgment, just as if you had yourself been a witness of the scenes they describe.

But to understand the spirit in which all this is done, the stories must be read for themselves. "The Station," shows how the writer can deal with the follies that are associated with the religion of the people, without bitterness or ill-will. And yet the description has told--since the publication of this abuse, the old fashion of the Station dinners has been rapidly passing away--and this quiet and not ill-natured exposure of the practices on these occasions has told more on its objects than could the publication of the severest strictures or the most fearful invective. If in ''Tubber Derg" or the "Poor Scholar," he has shown our virtues, as Burns has those of Scotland, in his Cotter's Saturday Night, "The Station" bears a strong, though, we are happy to add, not an exact resemblance to the Holy Fair. It is, for illustration of the real state of feeling, religious and moral, among our people, that these "Traits and Stories" are valuable; and high as is their merit as works of fiction--as descriptive of that little known mystery, the social state of our peasantry, they possess a merit of a still rarer land and a higher order.

But the limits of our sketch have already been exceeded, and we must rapidly draw to a close. Of fame Mr. Carleton has had much; but not perhaps equal to all that he has done--certainly, not equal to all that he may do. His works have commanded a rapid and extensive sale; and high indeed has been the praise bestowed upon them on both sides of the channel. But much is still to be done by Mr. Carleton both for himself and his country. Did we less highly estimate his powers, we would say that he has as yet won no laurels under which he can worthily repose. Industry--perseverance--reading--will place him far higher yet in the literature of his country; let these still be wanting--and his name will not die, but it will leave with his history a lesson of how little have great powers achieved--little or nothing compared with what they might. Ireland is still rich in unexplored and unknown materials for romance--her past history is invaluable--her present history supplies in every day's passing events, things which ought not to be left unsketched. What will posterity be willing to give for a sketch of the reconciliation meetings in Tipperary in 1828--of the tithe processions 1832--of the repeal processions in the city of Dublin the year before--of the crowds that flock to Father Mathew every week.--How many thousand scenes of past and present history, suggest almost instinctively the associations of romance. How much of the glorious scenery of our native land is still to be described--is still to be peopled with the creations of genius that would make pilgrims of other countries come to visit the spots familiar to them in romance. How many moral lessons are still to be taught our people--how many follies still to be rebuked--how many noble and generous traits to be embodied and immortalized in the creations of fiction. How many legends of our people are to be rescued from the insecurity of the tradition in which they are each generation receiving new tarnish or suffering cruel injury from decay? How many of the events of her past history supply materials for narratives in which we might be taught the great national as well as individual lesson to respect ourselves? Shall these themes be ever unimproved--and all these rich sources of the romance of Ireland lie like so many of her valleys desolate and waste.

Some public announcements, never fulfilled, attest that Mr. Carleton has contemplated efforts from which he has drawn back. Dilatoriness of habit, unsteadiness of purpose, and want of regular and systematic exertion have been not the least of the faults from which truth has obliged us to write him down not free.

But with all these faults, which are most injurious to himself, his country owes him much--she has paid him nothing--while pensions have been bestowed on others who have not done one half as much for the people of Ireland as Carleton has done; he has been left to the proverbial "changes and chances" of a literary life. Literature is of no party; and we do not wish to close this sketch with any remark that might appear ungracious; but we do believe in our hearts that had he been less steady or less inflexible in maintaining the principles, which his judgment has adopted, this would not have been the case.

His country we have said owes him much already, whether the debt may not be immensely increased depends upon himself.

The engraving which accompanies this in an admirable likeness[2]. In private, Mr. Carleton is not often distinguished by any of the humour which appears in his writings. His conversation is generally of a thoughtful and melancholy cast; and unless when he is excited distinguished by no very remarkable quality. At times, however, most frequently when drawn out to describe the scenes familiar to his early memory, he pours out in conversation a strain of natural eloquence in the touching simplicity of which and the fascination of its power, you recognise the storyist of the Irish heart.

Mr. Carleton has been some years married, and several children are growing up about him to inherit the name and the celebrity of the only man who has ever portrayed the home life and the home virtues of the Irish people.


[2] Unfortunately we are unable to provide the engraved portrait for this article as it had been removed from the original issue in our possession