William Carleton, Irish writer and novelist, is born in Clogher, County Tyrone on February 20, 1794. He is best known for his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, a collection of ethnic sketches of the stereotypical Irishman.
Carleton receives a basic education at various hedge schools. Most of his learning is gained from a curate, Father Keenan, who teaches at a classical school at Donagh, County Monaghan which he attends from 1814 to 1816. He studies for the priesthood at Maynooth, but leaves after two years. Around the age of 19 he undertakes one of the religious pilgrimages then common in Ireland. His experiences as a pilgrim make him give up the thought of entering the church.
Carleton’s vacillating ideas as to a mode of life are determined by reading the picaresque novel Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage. He decides to try what fortune has in store for him and he goes to Killanny, County Louth. For six months he serves as tutor to the family of a farmer named Piers Murphy. After some other experiments he sets out for Dublin, arriving with two shillings and sixpence in his pocket.
Carleton first seeks occupation as a bird-stuffer, but a proposal to use potatoes and meal as stuffing fails to recommend him. He then tries to become a soldier, but the colonel of the regiment dissuades him. After staying in a number of cheap lodgings, he eventually finds a place in a house on Francis Street which contains a circulating library. The landlady allows him to read from 12 to 16 hours a day. He obtains some teaching and a clerkship in a Sunday School office, begins to contribute to journals. “The Pilgrimage to Lough Derg,” which is published in the Christian Examiner, attracts great attention.
In 1830 Carleton publishes his first full-length book, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (2 volumes), which is considered his best achievement. A second series (3 volumes) appears in 1833, and Tales of Ireland in 1834. From that time until a few years prior to his death he writes constantly. “Fardorougha the Miser, or the Convicts of Lisnamona” appears in 1837–1838 in the Dublin University Magazine.
Carleton remained active publishing in Dublin magazines through the 1830s and 1840s writing many ethnic stories often drawn from the south Tyrone locality. He also writes a lot of fiction. During the last months of his life he begins an autobiography which he brings down to the beginning of his literary career. This forms the first part of The Life of William Carleton by David James O’Donoghue, which contains full information about his life, and a list of his scattered writings.
Carleton’s later years are characterised by drunkenness and poverty. In spite of his considerable literary production, he remains poor, but receives a pension in 1848 of £200 a year granted by Lord John Russell in response to a memorial on Carleton’s behalf signed by numbers of distinguished persons in Ireland.
William Carleton dies at his home at Woodville, Sandford Road, in Ranelagh, Dublin on January 30, 1869, and is interred at Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. The house, now demolished, is close to the entrance to the Jesuit residence at Milltown Park. Despite his conversion to Protestantism, Carleton remains on friendly terms with one of the priests there, Reverend Robert Carbery, who offers to give him the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. In the final weeks before his death, Carleton politely declines the offer, stating he had not been a Roman Catholic “for half a century and more.”
(Pictured: Portrait of Irish author William Carleton (1794-1869) by John Slattery (fl. 1850s))