Happy birthday to William Carleton, the man famed for his depictions of life in Ireland during the Great Hunger. He was born on this day, February 20, 204 year ago.
Famed 19th-century Irish writer William Carleton was born on February 20, 1794, in Clogher, Co. Tyrone, acclaimed for his depictions of life in Ireland throughout the early 1800s and later through the years of the Great Famine. His most famous work is said to be “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry,” a collection of ethnic sketches of what he deemed to be the stereotypical Irishman.
Born the youngest of a massive 14-child family, Carleton’s father was a Catholic tenant father who greatly influenced his son's writing, as an Irish-language speaker, and a storyteller with a remarkable memory. It is even rumored that such was his father’s excellent memory he knew the full Bible off by heart.
His mother was also a noted singer who sang in Irish and many of the scenes of rural Ireland that Carleton later wrote about in his novels and sketches were formed from his childhood experiences in Co. Tyrone, from hedge schools to his relationship (and hatred) of the Catholic Church.
Despite only receiving a basic education from attending various hedge schools while he and his family moved from place to place with their father searching for work, Carleton would earn great success through his writing once he eventually moved to Dublin, although the fame would unfortunately never make him rich.
The majority of his learning was acquired from a curate named Father Keenan, who taught a classical school at Donagh, Co. Monaghan, and Carleton had hoped to eventually enter the church by first winning a scholarship to become a poor scholar. An ominous dream, however, convinced him otherwise.
His thoughts of ever entering the priesthood were brought to a very abrupt end following his excursion on a religious pilgrimage when he was 19, and he would eventually renounce Catholicism completely to become a Protestant.
After a time spent as a tutor in Co. Louth, the moment had eventually come for Carleton to take to the capital city and he arrived in Dublin with just two shillings and sixpence in his pocket.
His range of professions whilst in Dublin was certainly eclectic and he spent periods of time as a bird-stuffer, attempting to become a soldier, and working at a clerkship in a Sunday School office before his writing started to earn some attention.
He made his name in 1830 when he published his most famous work, and his first full-length book, “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry,” releasing a second series in 1833, and “Tales of Ireland in 1834.
He focused heavily on the image of the stereotypical Irish “Paddy”, alienating many Catholic Irishmen through his depictions of them as drunks and placing a heavy emphasis on gang violence among the tenant classes.
Read more: The Great Hunger before the Irish Famine
Despite being born into a Catholic family, and claims that he only converted to Protestantism to garner the favor of those who would sponsor his art, Carleton denounced the efforts of Daniel O’Connell in fighting for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, accusing him of inciting violence against the Protestant class, a crime he believed most Catholic priests were also guilty of.
Writing constantly until his death, Carleton left behind the stories of his childhood in Tyrone for his biographer David James O'Donoghue to complete and publish in “The Life of William Carleton …” in 1896.
He was never to be a rich man, however, and the later years of his life were defined by the alcoholism that he was so eager to portray among his sketches and poverty that was only slightly lessened by the awarding of a pension of £200 in 1848.
The successful petition by a list of Ireland’s most eminent people to award him this pension is an everlasting tribute to the regard in which many people within Irish society held him. The list is said to have included the President of the Catholic College at Maynooth, the Orange leader Colonel Blacker, Daniel O’Connell’s son, and Oscar Wilde’s father.
In 1820, the writer married Jane Anderson and they had several children. He died at his home in Ranelagh on January 30, 1869, and is buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin.
Have you come across Carleton's work before? What did you make of it?