Novelist. He was born 4 March 1794, in Prillisk, near Clogher in Co. Tyrone. His parents were small farmers and he was the youngest of fourteen children. They spoke Irish and English and had an interest in local history, story-telling, singing, and folklore. He was educated in hedge schools and he later at a classical school run by Rev. Dr Keenan. This seems to be a preparation for the priesthood but he abandoned this and spent a good deal of his time idling. He left home and travelled around the county, taking temporary jobs as a teacher. When his family was evicted in 1813 he had joined the Ribbonmen, a secret agrarian society. He soon abandoned that, and remained a supporter of the Union throughout his life. He worked as private tutor to the children of a comfortable Co. Louth farmer. After reading La Sage’s romantic Gil Blas, Carleton was fired with an enthusiasm to travel and see the world. He did not get far. He failed to get a teaching post at Clongowes Wood College, went to Dublin, and became a Protestant. It seems that this had little to do with religion: he wanted respectability and security in life. He held a few more temporary jobs as a teacher and then became a clerk in the Church of Ireland Sunday School Society. He later applied to join the army, addressing his application to the colonel in Latin. Around 1822 he married Jane Anderson, the daughter of a Protestant schoolmaster.
Through the Association for Discountenancing Vice, Carleton got teaching posts in Mullingar and Carlow. He soon returned to Dublin. He had been writing short stories and essays since his secondary school days. He drew on his knowledge of Irish life to write sketches for the Christian Examiner, an evangelical and anti-Catholic paper published by Rev. Caesar Otway, who encouraged him to write. Here his first article was entitled ‘A Pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory’, based on his own youthful pilgrimage to Lough Derg. This was the start of a long and successful career as a novelist. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830–3) won him a great reputation. He became friendly with the poet and scholar Samuel Ferguson and became well known in Dublin’s literary world. He was an important contributor to the Dublin University Magazine, an important cultural journal, launched in 1833 by Isaac Butt, Caesar Otway, Samuel Ferguson and others. In 1837–8 it published his novel Fardorougha, the Miser as a serial. This is a tale of the Irish passion for land
Carleton offered to help Robert Peel to combat Emancipation and Catholicism in Ireland and to prove that O’Connell, the Catholic Association, and the priests were involved in agrarian crime. He denounced the Irishman, that ‘creature of agitation’, as ‘a poor, skulking dupe’ who was at once ‘insolent and arrogant’. However, in 1843 he decided to write for the Nation and for the Irish Tribune, papers dedicated to the cause of Irish independence. He got to know Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and others in their circle. He knew most of the men who led the disastrous Young Ireland rising of 1848 and regarded them as ‘insane politicians’. He never supported Young Ireland’s nationalism. Carleton’s concept of nationality was broad and avoided the traditional associations of race and creed. He cherished what was unique or valuable in Irish life, and records with wonderful fidelity the English speech of the country people of his day.
His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry is based on his knowledge of the character and folklore of the people he grew up with or met on his travels. It gives an accurate and vivid description of life in rural Ireland in the early nineteenth century and offers a special insight into the experiences and minds of the people he knew best—small farmers, labourers and craftsmen. It was an instant success, often reprinted. Pleased with the great response to his first major work, he published Tales of Ireland in 1834. Many of Carleton’s novels—for example, Valentine McClutchy (1845), Willy Reilly and his Dear Colleen Bawn (1855), and Redmond Count O’Hanlon, the Irish Rapparee (1862)—deal with pressing social and political issues of the day. His most famous novel, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish Famine (1847), set during the Great Famine, describes the moral and social ills of Irish society and the horrors of famine. It is a powerfully emotive and provocative account that quickly became a bestseller. Other stories were prompted by the land problem and secret societies—themes and events that dominated people’s minds.
Although Carleton was prolific and successful, he was always short of money because of his family expenses and his heavy drinking. Friends and admirers, including other prominent writers such as Maria Edgeworth, petitioned the Government to give him some financial help, something that was common for public figures at this time. He was granted a civil list pension of £200. This was a Whig ploy to keep him from writing in advanced revolutionary nationalist newspapers. This did not solve his money problems and copyright disputes and disagreements with his publisher did not help. Financial insecurity affected his writing. He accepted too many commissions and his writing suffered as he struggled to complete them quickly. Despite his great popularity in London (several publishers sought his work), he still had debts of several hundred pounds. His attempt to raise funds by public readings was hindered by his failing health, and the British prime minister Disraeli refused to put up his pension. Nevertheless, Carleton continued to write until his death in Rathmines, Dublin, on 30 January 1869.
Modern literary critics describe his post–Famine work as poor in quality and often sentimental and moralising, except for his unfinished Autobiography. His works are important sources for life and attitudes in nineteenth-century Ireland.
Autobiography, Biography & Studies. William Carleton, The autobiography of William Carleton (London 1968). D. J. O’Donoghue, The life of William Carleton: being his autobiography and letters: and an account of his life and writings (2 vols, London 1896; repr. New York & London 1979). Benedict Kiely, Poor scholar: a study of the works and days of William Carleton (London 1947). Thomas Flanagan, The Irish novelists, 1800–1850 (New York 1959) 255–330. André Boué, William Carleton: romancier irlandais, 1794–1869 (Paris 1978). Robert Lee Wolff, William Carleton: Irish peasant novelist (New York 1981). Eileen A. Sullivan, William Carleton (Boston 1983).