Books referred to in this essay: Raymond Murray, The Burning of Wildgoose Lodge, Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, 2005, ISBN: 0951149024; Gordon Brand, ed. William Carleton the Authentic Voice, Colin Smythe, 2006, ISBN: 0861404629; Helen O’Connell, Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement, Oxford, 2006, 9780199286461; Peggy O’Brien, Writing Lough Derg From William Carleton to Seamus Heaney,Syracuse University Press, 2006, 0815630735
In June 1931 the task of reviewing Rose Shaw’s recently published Carleton Country for The Catholic Bulletin provoked the Professor of Education at University College Dublin, Father Timothy Corcoran SJ, to an outburst unusual in the explicitness of its anger and contempt. Although the book under review combined anthropological photography of exceptional beauty with an unusual, if uneven, collection of south Tyrone folklore, the reviewer was not appeased. Launching into his subject, he asserted that the extant portraits of the individual from whom Miss Shaw’s work had taken its title, the nineteenth century writer William Carleton, “indubitably convey the repellent nature of that self-willed and self-sufficient apostate”.
For Corcoran, a prominent if scarcely representative Catholic intellectual, the most salient fact about Carleton was his conversion in the 1820s from the Catholicism into which he had been born to evangelical Protestantism. The Bulletin’s editor was not given to moderation of expression, and the fact that Carleton’s early stories and tales had been written in support of a campaign of proselytism aimed at the Catholic poor amounted in his eyes to an intolerable affront. Carleton, he asserted, although of “excellent Catholic and democratic stock”, had “elected the path of the pervert. Miserable indeed, in all its petty malignity and abuse, is the record, set down by himself, of how he contrived, in every line he wrote in the proselytising press for many years, to vilify and misrepresent his own Catholic origins and the Church that he so persistently and deliberately contemned”. The reviewer went on to characterise the Ulster writer as “an apostate hack worker in the vile service of Ascendancy and Souperism” whose works, “those amorphous and sinister outpourings of the apostate’s mind”, were “poisoned streams” flowing from a “turbid, conceited, demonic imagination”.
Sentiments of this kind, although unparalleled in the coarseness of their articulation, were not unique to Corcoran. In 1848, a little over eighty years earlier, the Young Ireland journalist Joseph Brennan, writing from Kilmainham where he had been imprisoned for his part in events of that year, was equally emphatic. The background to Brennan’s observations was the acceptance by Carleton in 1847 of a government pension of £200 per annum. This had been an adroitly managed business as, to the consternation of his friends, Carleton, who had long presented himself as a conservative in politics and a supporter of the union, briefly became a contributor to The Irish Tribune, a newspaper at the extreme end of the nationalist spectrum, while maintaining with almost comic implausibility that he was a simple literary man who understood nothing of such matters. This lightly coded message, transmitted against a background of famine, political radicalisation and incipient disorder, was understood by the authorities, who appreciated the importance of keeping Ireland’s most popular writer from the ranks of the disaffected. As a result the government pension, which he had been unsuccessfully seeking for a number of years, was granted without delay. Brennan, who, because of his profession may have known of payments being made by the Dublin Castle administration to somewhat less salubrious inhabitants of the Irish literary world, such as James Birch, the notorious editor of The World, was unimpressed. “You ask,” he wrote to a correspondent, “for a pen and ink sketch of Carleton … My impressions of his character are not favourable. He belongs to the ugliest class of beasts in existence – placemen. When Tom Moore got a pension, he became a pen shunner, a great deal better than making a sacrifice of his talent at the shrine of Mammon – prostituting his powers to the highest bidder as Carleton does.” To this he added that Carleton was “a mere trader in politics” and that his face was “red and unintellectual”.
The responses of Corcoran and Brennan, to which others of the same kind – ranging from Cardinal Cullen’s suppression of the Carlow College Magazine in 1870 for publishing The Red Haired Man’s Wife, via Roger McHugh’s view of 1938 that Carleton wrote his first story with “starvation standing at one elbow and with [his evangelical editor] the Reverend Caesar Otway at the other”, to Patrick Kavanagh’s assertion of 1945 that “he became a Protestant for reasons that are to be found in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital” – could be added, testify to a distinct unease with Carleton in sections of Irish society.
To all appearances, these views were not shared by Ireland’s newly emergent mass readership: Carleton was the favourite reading matter of the ex-Gaelic peasantry who, as the nineteenth century progressed, the national schools were transforming into readers. His popularity is evident in the huge number of editions of his works, both in Ireland and in crudely printed, pirated editions for an immigrant readership in the United States. In the 1880s WB Yeats, at that point a keen observer of local taste who himself had aspirations to connect with a popular audience, reported that “his Paddy Go Easy, and the three volumes of extracts from the Traits and Stories and Irish Life and Character, are on the counter of every little stationers shop in the island”. Other indicators of popularity range from the way in which Carleton characters, such as the tailor Neal Malone and the land agent Valentine M’Clutchy, became proverbial as images of, respectively, misjudged courage and heartlessness, to the choice in 1919 by the Film Company of Ireland of the novel Willy Reilly for filming against the iconic setting of Patrick Pearse’s Saint Enda’s.
Writing in 1925 of Ulster half a century previously, the Fermanagh nationalist Cahir Healy recalled how the “charm and romance of his works had made Carleton famous in the eyes of poorly educated country folk of those days”. To this Healy added that his books were “eagerly sought after even in other lands, and wherever the Irish peasants found a home”. Carleton’s works featured, alongside Robert Emmet’s speech, as prized cultural accoutrements in Finley Peter Dunne’s portrait of an Irish working class community in the Chicago of the 1890s. When, in the 1930s, the new Irish state embarked on the task of intensive collection of folklore, workers from the Folklore Commission encountered Carleton stories narrated as oral tales in Irish and English language redactions. For this to have happened, at various points in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tradition-bearers from Donegal to Cork must have encountered Carleton stories, most probably by hearing them read aloud, and found them sufficiently congenial to include in their own repertoires. Such stories seem to have slipped into the local oral tradition so that, when encountered by the Commission’s collectors, knowledge of their printed origin had been forgotten. While the evidence is thus miscellaneous, it suggests that those whom Victorian commentators called “the lower Irish” took huge pleasure in Carleton’s works and that these must have answered to something in their experience and aesthetic expectations.
It would be tempting, but probably mistaken, to postulate a distinction between a nationalist and clerical elite, which deplored Carleton’s personal history and disagreed with his opinions, and the warmer response of a popular audience. While the energetic and purposeful attempt, undertaken from the 1820s onwards, to gain mass conversions to Protestantism from among the ranks of the peasantry constituted a particularly disquieting challenge to the world view of the Irish country people who were its object, the Protestant crusade was deeply resented at all levels of Catholic society. Carleton’s association with the project during the early stages of his career, when as a contributor to Caesar Otway’s Christian Examiner he provided a fictional embodiment of the critique of Catholicism promoted by the champions of the second reformation and mocked the religious imaginings of the Catholic lower classes, was widely noted. His behaviour seems to have been particularly resented in his native south Tyrone, where pride in his success and fascination with the local roots of his fiction, combined with an implacable judgment on his abandonment of Catholicism. In various parts of Ireland the challenge represented by the evangelical missionaries was countered by the resources of an oral culture, as those who changed faith were made the object of a hostile stereotype, articulated along a range extending from vituperation to poetry. Carleton came from a family in which poetry and keening were cultivated over several generations with, in his lifetime, this complex of skill being associated with the female line. In the 1840s a family member wrote to tell him that his sister Mary had composed a lament on learning of his apostasy. As, in the Gaelic tradition, the keen, or lament, was an extempore poetic composition, declaimed over the dead, we may assume that Carleton understood fully the cultural weight his sister’s act possessed.
A generation earlier a figure such as Carleton might have been handled, as was the case with the notorious Leitrim apostate Filip an Ministeoir (Parson Brady), via the language of legend and portrayed as an amiable opportunist who secretly assented to the truths of the faith he had publicly repudiated. In the circumstances of the nineteenth century, with Carleton having left such a massive paper trail, solutions of this sort were no longer possible. Moreover, following the publication of the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry between 1830 and 1833, it was clear that the young man who had entered the world of literature by this most improbable of routes was a fiction writer of extraordinary gifts. From an early stage Irish Catholics, who were among his most enthusiastic readers, responded to his body of work with a remarkably sophisticated act of discrimination. Carleton’s former co-religionists chose to trust the tale and not the teller, delighting in the combination of wild extravagance and luminous realism with which he rendered the world of his youth, while ignoring the baggage of opinions which accompanied this remarkable feat of mimesis. This response found its most authoritative articulation in the essay on Carleton which Rev Patrick Murray, Professor of Theology at Maynooth and one of Ireland’s leading clerical intellectuals, contributed to the Edinburgh Review in 1852. The essay, written by an Ulsterman, who recalled his youth in Monaghan as a very similar place to the world portrayed by Carleton, was generous in its evaluation while arguing that the accompanying opinions were superfluous. In responding in such terms Murray could be seen as making explicit distinctions which were usually left unvoiced, but seem to have informed the nineteenth century Irish reading of Carleton.
Among the latter’s admirers was Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr Donahue who, although a Chicago ward politician, was practically illiterate and liked to have Carleton read aloud to him by his daughter Molly. His commentary on his favourite author, while scarcely well informed, constituted a nice riposte to the views of Joseph Brennan. “The Queen was so impressed with his wurruks that she gave him a pinsion of wan thousand pounds sterlin a year, an’ he didn’t have to write another line.” In the same decade that Mr Donahue voiced this opinion, documents included in DJ O’Donoghue’s biography made clear, to all but the most naive of readings, that behind an appropriate drapery the awarding of Carleton’s pension was politically motivated. In common with the other Irish inhabitants of Dunne’s Archey Road, Mr Donahue was a nationalist. He was thus faced with the task of reconciling the pleasure he derived from Carleton’s works with the evident fact that the latter had been purchased by Dublin Castle. His elegant solution was to turn Queen Victoria into an admirer rather like himself and the pension an appropriate expression of gratitude to an accomplished storyteller.
The author who provoked such varied acts of reading was, as he records in his autobiography, born on Shrove Tuesday 1794, in the townland of Prillisk, in the parish of Clogher, Co Tyrone. In the preface he wrote for the 1842 republication of the Traits and Stories, which amounts to his fullest and most probing account of his own art, he laid particular stress on the role of his parents in shaping his personality as a writer. In a famous passage he described his father as possessing a memory which was:
a perfect storehouse, and a rich one, of all that the social antiquary, the man of letters, the poet, or the musician, would consider valuable. As a teller of old tales, legends, and historical anecdotes he was unrivalled, and his stock of them was inexhaustible. He spoke the Irish and English languages with near equal fluency. With all kinds of charms, old ranns, or poems, old prophecies, religious superstitions, tales of pilgrims, miracles and tales of pilgrimages, anecdotes of blessed priests and friars, revelations from ghosts and fairies, he was thoroughly acquainted. And so strongly were all of these impressed upon my mind, by frequent repetition on his part, and the indescribable delight they gave me on mine that I have hardly ever since heard, during a tolerably enlarged intercourse with Irish society both educated and uneducated – with the antiquary, the scholar, or the humble senachie – any single tradition, usage or legend, that, as far as I can at present recollect, was perfectly new to me or unheard before, in some similar or cognate dress.
The future author’s mother, Mary Carleton née Kelly, cultivated a distinctly different area of the oral tradition, being famous locally as a keener, singer and reciter of poetry. Her family, we learn, “had all been imbued with a poetical spirit, and some of her immediate ancestors composed in the Irish tongue several fine old songs and airs, just as Carolan did – that is, some in praise of a patron or a friend, and others to celebrate rustic beauties who had been long sleeping in the dust. For this reason, she had many old compositions that were peculiar to her family, which I am afraid could not now be procured at all, and are consequently lost. I think her uncle, and I believe her grandfather, who were long dead before my time, were the authors of several Irish poems and songs, because I know that some of them she sang and others she only recited’.
One view of Carleton’s fiction is that its genesis is to be found in the complex of oral narratives, genres and styles which he first encountered via his parents and that it was reinforced in the wider community in which he passed his youth, as modified and refracted in the print culture of Dublin of the 1830s. It is a view which had the author’s own endorsement. Caesar Otway reported his claim that it was from his mother that he inherited his genius, while he himself concluded his account of his father in terms which explicitly linked the old man’s stories with his own future career as a writer. What rendered these, he wrote, “of such peculiar advantage to me in after life, as a literary man, was, that I heard them as often in the Irish as in the English, if not oftener; a circumstance which enabled me in my writings to transfer the genius, the idiomatic and conversational spirit of the one language into the other, precisely as the people themselves do in their dialogues …” While both parents were gifted performers, in one central respect Mary Carleton’s engagement with the tradition differed from that of her husband. Whereas he narrated in both Irish and English, the genres which she practised belonged exclusively in the case of keening and poetry, and almost exclusively in the case of song, to the Irish language, with performance in English undertaken only occasionally and with some reluctance. The whole tenor of Carleton’s account of his mother suggests a degree of engagement with, and sensitivity towards, the Irish language which is absent from his description of his father. James Carleton’s tales and legends crossed the language frontier with apparent ease and, as they were known to his son through narration in both Irish and Hiberno-English, could readily be incorporated into his fiction. In contrast, that area of the tradition which he inherited from his mother was so meshed with the Irish language that it could only be made available for fictional purposes either obliquely or as a result of a conscious act of translation. The limitations of translation emerge at the point in the preface when, having described his mother’s skills as a singer, Carleton added:
I remember on one occasion when she was asked to sing the English version of that touching melody ‘The Red-haired Man’s Wife’, she replied, ‘I will sing it for you, but the English words and the air are like a man and his wife quarrelling – the Irish melts into the tune but the English doesn’t’ – an expression scarcely less remarkable for its beauty than its truth. She spoke the words in Irish.
The observation, which was evidently transmitted as a remembered remark within the Carleton family, is a haunting one, which encapsulates in a striking image something of the loss entailed in the transition from Irish to English. The insight was itself a commonplace among tradition-bearers. The great Ulster collector Éinri Ó Muireaghsa reported of the old people he met, who were saturated in storytelling and poetry: “Is minic adubhairt duine acu liom ar aistriuchán Béarla ’fághail damh uaidh ar shean fhocal ghonta nó ar líne chasta filidheachta; ‘Och níl aon chraiceann ar an mBéarla.’” (“One of them would often say to me, when I asked them to translate some condensed proverb or a complicated line of poetry into English, ‘Och, there’s no craiceann on the English.’”) Craiceann, literally skin, was an aesthetic term used by Irish speakers to indicate that quality in a composition or utterance which gave it polish and finish and made it pleasing. Éinri Ó Muireaghsa’s tradition-bearers might, in context, be seen as complaining that English lacked allusiveness and failed to convey the full meaning of Irish prose or verse. This sense of diminution, although particularly acute in relation to Irish, was arguably implicit in the wider transition from orality to the stylistics of modernity and the silence of print. Mary Carleton’s memorable comment, recalled half a lifetime latter by her son, points thus to what is surely the central question in relation to the works of William Carleton: how much of the densely oral culture of his youth came over into his fiction and what, either by way of craiceann or content, was lost or transformed as a result of the shift to print?
As collectors throughout Europe were discovering during Carleton’s adult lifetime, not everyone who was exposed to the tradition in their youth became an active bearer, with the result that in any community storytellers were comparatively few. The Tyrone storyteller Francis McAleer remarked, remembering his own youth, “not all of them would listen to the stories. Some of them wouldn’t bother their heads to listen; they’d be playing cards. But I always took a great interest in them.” The tremor of affection and insight which so frequently marks Carleton’s references to storytelling suggests that he belonged to the minority that were sufficiently drawn to the tradition to make it their own. Looking back on his youth he recalled it as an “impressionable period” when “my imagination was filled with every possible variety of ghost stories, fairy legends, and histories of witches and witchcraft” and that he had an “irrepressible anxiety to hear the old stories and legends”. As described by folklorists, the characteristic pattern by which an individual became a storyteller involved an apparently passive period, in which the aspirant absorbed and mastered the narratives, before stepping onto the public stage as a performer. In Carleton’s case the first reference to his telling stories occurs when, as a young man, having been obliged to leave his native place because of the break-up of his family and the agricultural depression which followed the ending of the Napoleonic wars, he passed a period in Louth as tutor in the family of a well-to-do farmer. During the evenings, when he was received by neighbouring families, he discovered that the only recompense he could make for their kindness was storytelling.
The young man who undertook this task was a somewhat different figure from his father. He had been intended for the priesthood, and had become literate in English and Latin. He had done so, however, in an oral setting, with the results that the skills acquired were of a different order to the interiorised literacy of modernity. The more popular of the chapbook texts studied in the hedge schools, as part of the process of mastering written English, were provocations to spectacular mnemonic feats so that, as Carleton later recalled, in his youth he had some of a History of Irish Rogues and Rapparees and the whole of The Battle of Aughrim “off by heart from beginning to ending”. In a culture of performers, the purpose of such acts of memorisation was public recital, as printed texts were repeated at the fireside on winter evenings alongside more familiar fare such as hero tales and fairytales. Latin proved equally congenial, not only to the tiny minority who had mastered the language but to the unlettered majority who constituted their audience. It not only had its own richly textured body of lore, but the rhetorically based contentiousness of the schoolmasters and poor scholars, who were proficient in the language, proved consonant with the immense contentiousness of the surrounding culture. As a young wanderer who had mastered Latin, Carleton must have been seen in Co Louth, which was still extensively Irish-speaking in 1818, in terms of the hugely resonant stereotype of the poor scholar. It was certainly as a poor scholar that he engaged in storytelling. As he recalled:
The only equivalent I could bestow was the narrative of the old classical legends, which I transmogrified and changed into an incredible variety of shapes. I would have given them Irish legends, and sometimes did, but then the Irish legends did not show the ‘larnin’.’ I made one discovery, while leading this extraordinary kind of life and that was the power of my own invention. It did not indeed strike me very forcibly then, but since that time I have reflected on it with something like wonder. Finding that it would not do to go over the same ground so often, I took to inventing original narratives, and was surprised at the facility with which I succeeded. This new discovery was as great an amusement to myself as it was to my audience. I used to compose these fictions in the course of the day, while walking about, and recite them at the fireside in the evening.
There is much in this account that is familiar; the transmogrifications which the classical legends underwent at a young storyteller’s hands recall the transformations which Vladimir Propp saw as being at the heart of oral creativity, while his arranging of his material in his mind prior to recital recalls accounts given regarding other oral narrators. It was not, however, these features, but rather the extraordinary powers of his own invention, that, looking back, Carleton chose to highlight, in what he evidently saw as a prefiguring of his career as a writer of fiction. In recalling what took place in these terms, he may have telescoped what was in reality a much longer process. While we do not have access to the stories narrated in Louth, we may be certain that, like other storytellers, Carleton felt the need to observe the basic requirement governing oral narrative occasions, that he should retain the attention of his audience. To have done so, the contents of his stories, no matter how novel, must have in some way been acceptable to them. Moreover, as one performing without access to a text, he would have been constrained by an oral compositional grammar and observed those structurally predictable features known as the epic laws. As Roman Jakobson observed: “A writer may create in opposition to his milieu, but in folklore such an intention is inconceivable.” It was not therefore, as he may have believed, as a fireside entertainer in Louth, but more than a decade later in Dublin that he “transmogrified and changed” his stories into “an incredible variety of shapes”. It was only when freed from the simultaneity of composition and performance, and from the pressure resulting from the immediate presence of an audience and the need to satisfy their expectations, that Carleton found himself free to embroider his stories, to add or subtract as creative impulse, propagandistic intent or commercial calculation dictated. The fiction which resulted was marked, in ways whose outline can be discerned but whose detail has yet to be charted, by compositional habits the author had interiorised in his youth and which were remote from the conventions of the Dublin magazine press. He thus stood on the border between orality and typographically-based literacy, and his fiction can be seen as embodying the imperatives of both. It was a relationship of huge uneasiness and immense fascination, whose tensions were never resolved and perhaps were not resolvable. There is little in Carleton that would justify Helen O’Connell’s claim that, as a result of the project to which he was committed, “improved English would amend narrative and even the subject matter of the stories, displacing the diffuse and erratic oral culture of the past”. Fairy tales, which were among the best loved and most prestigious of genres, were characterised by their formalism and lucidity. The diffuseness of Carleton’s narratives is probably the result of the relaxation of oral controls, without the substitution of an adequately interiorised print-based grammar in their place.
Looking back in old age, Carleton recalled his first major work, the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, as an explosion of memory, as scenes, events and individuals he had previously known flooded back, so that all that was required was for him to provide what he termed “a linked embodiment” for the tales to emerge. As Irish country people shaped their own experiences in terms of legends, jests, anecdotes and the informal, personal narratives known as memorates, this flood of memory assumed a generically patterned narrative shape, with the result that to dip into almost any of the major Irish collections of lore is to find something which glosses his works. Although Carleton at times conceived of his enterprise as a form of naive ethnography, asserting that his stories contained more “facts” about Ireland than any previously published work, he was nothing if not opportunistic in his search for material and cannot be reduced to a single source, as his sea of story extends from refracted folktales, via Victorian melodrama to the most commonplace clichés of commercial fiction and, indeed, improving tales. At its heart, however, are the narratives and other oral forms of the pre-famine Irish countryside, embracing familiar genres from fairytales to local legends, but also such less easily categorisable recitals as “arguin’ Schripthur”, “a hate at histhory”, and “the norrations of Illocution”. Because of Carleton’s circumstances, the works of this most rationalist of writers possessed a medieval, indeed at times almost Rabelaisian, dimension, and could avail of rhetorical energies and strategies that had long since been drained out of English literature, having been last heard somewhere on the other side of the seventeenth century dissociation of sensibility. The multiple voices of his fiction encompass the stylised intensities of keening, curses and blessings, encomium and satire, genealogical recital, the knowing extravagance of tall English, public prayer, elaborate wordplay and the extension of metaphor, professional love talk, badinage and other forms of adversarial jousting, verbal wit and high spirits, together with a non-functional delight in the use of language for its own sake. Carleton’s characters aspire to outtalk their interlocutors and have a seemingly endless ability to produce striking remarks and retorts. The value they place upon this ensemble of skills is evident in the enthusiasm with which particularly memorable utterances are repeated and in the admiration they extend to gifted speakers. One has “a tongue that would out face a ridgment”, another is “sweet-tongued”, while a third has “a tongue dripping with honey – one that would smooth a new pickled millstone”. They are nothing if not verbalists, who are not given to reflection or inwardness, and conceive of society as a forum for public oral performance. His fictional community thus emerges as a language-focused place, in which speech is the primary medium through which reality is apprehended and controlled.
Although the nineteenth century Irish were intensely interested in Carleton, in the twentieth century interest slackened, as the world he portrayed grew remote and his works were allowed to pass out of print. Occasional moments of engagement, from Daniel Corkery’s guarded approbation in his sifting of authors in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, via Eamon de Valera’s inclusion, in his address in February 1933 to mark the opening of the Athlone radio station, of “William Carleton, a novelist of the first rank”, together with Swift, Burke, Goldsmith, Grattan and Tone as writers whose works, “though far less characteristic of the nation than that produced in the Irish language, includes much that is of lasting merit”, to An Gúm’s translation of two his novels, Fardorougha the Miser and the Black Prophet, into Irish, seem more echoes of late Victorian taste than signs of fresh interest. Carleton was not a beneficiary of the shift in the second half of the twentieth century from popular reading to academic study. Although there were exceptions, most notably Benedict Kiely, Maurice Harmon, Barbara Hayley and Declan Kiberd, the dying away of an older generation who, as Patrick Kavanagh recalled, knew Carleton from a time when copies of his works were to be found, together with Old Moore’s Almanac, on the back window of small farmers’ houses in south Ulster, was not replaced by sustained critical attention. The recent appearance of a number of studies devoted to him and his milieu suggest that this long hiatus may be coming to an end.
In Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement Helen O’Connell presents a lucid and impressively documented challenge to prevailing naturalistic readings of Carleton, arguing for an alternative perspective which locates him within an improving discourse directed at the rural poor in the first half of the nineteenth century. In her view the roots of his art are to be found not in the folktales, poems and verbal imaginings of a still half-Gaelic south Ulster, but in a body of conventions and textual practices associated with the didactic tales of the tract societies and which represented an adaptation to local circumstances of the example set in England by Hannah More and the Association for Discountenancing Vice. This reading places Carleton in the company of such figures as the Quaker Mary Leadbeater and the Church of Ireland clergymen William Hickey (Martin Doyle) and Charles Bardin, whose deeply instrumental and pedagogic tales instructed the rural lower classes in the virtues of moderation, literacy, thrift, foresight, cleanliness, hard work and an appreciation of their place within the scheme of things. The utilitarian narratives of this group are seen as constituting a critique of what the improvers saw as the “irrationality and barbarity of oral culture”, which they aspired to replace by fictions which would be rational, improving and bereft of embellishment.
Where Carleton is concerned Helen O’Connell’s claims are unambiguous: his fiction emanates, in her view, from within the written conventions of the improvement discourse and does not provide an authentic representation of pre-famine oral culture or of the society he knew in his childhood and youth. Faced with such claims one reflects that it could only be the most naive of readings which saw Carleton’s fiction as an innocent transcription of a remembered rural world, if only because of the transforming effect of the transition from orality to print and the medley of genres, voices, styles and intentions which his stories present. He was, moreover, deeply implicated in the religious and political disputes of the pre-famine decades, was never without opinions, and the desire to instruct and argue was a constant presence throughout his career. It is certainly the case that stories which answer to the improvement model can be found, extending from a number of his early contributions to the Christian Examiner and Dublin Family Magazine, via “Larry M’Farland’s Wake” in the Traits and Stories, to a group of tales he wrote in the 1840s as a contribution to Thomas Davis’s Library of Ireland. The question at issue is not therefore the presence of didacticism, for it is plainly there, but rather the weight to be attached to this as compared to other impulses and influences.
It may be that the improvement topic can best be approached via the experience of Carleton’s nineteenth century readers. Dominated as this is by the motif of recognition, it hardly confirms Helen O’Connell’s view that “his peasant characters and settings are more shaped by the improvement fiction of writers such as More and Leadbeater than by his own memories of rural life in Co. Tyrone”. The characteristic response of Carleton’s contemporaries, particularly if they came from Ulster, was one of delighted recognition of the accuracy of his portrait, together with a brisk dismissal of the accompanying editorial commentary. Thus, in his article of 1852, Patrick Murray affirmed that “Those who have in early life dwelt among the Irish peasantry … meet again, in the pages of Carleton, the living personages of long past days.” This high praise was combined with barely controlled irritation at Carleton’s tendency to break in “upon the narrative with a little lecture on the relations of landlord and tenant, the importance of education, the duty of forethought and economy, and the like”. Charles Gavan Duffy, who took the view that Carleton had been alienated from his own community by bigots, can have been in no doubt as to the subversive intent of his first story, “The Lough Derg Pilgrim”, with its attempted desacralising of the great pilgrimage centre of old Catholic Ulster. He nonetheless assured the author, having himself made the pilgrimage, “that the truth and extraordinary accuracy of my description of it surprised him more than anything he had ever read”. This combination of recognition and recoil was at its sharpest in Carleton’s native Clogher, where the disgrace of his apostasy was most keenly felt, yet where readers were best placed to verify his variously formulated claim that his stories resembled “a coloured photograph more than anything else”. It finds surprising expression in the person of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who had been born near Clogher in 1797. Although his contemporary’s writings “particularly charmed” the archbishop, he is reported as taking the view that the “school of intellectual hostility to all things Catholic”, associated with such figures as Caesar Otway, Mortimer O’Sullivan and Tresham Gregg, “had permanently ruined the faith of poor, ignorant, Carleton”. This response was widely shared. Writing in the early twentieth century one commentator, who seems to have had access to local information, recalled Carleton’s return to his native place in 1848 after an absence of three decades:
Many thought that Carleton’s ‘conversion’ was a temporary eclipse of faith, brought on largely by poverty and eccentricity, and wanting in conviction and permanence. But the peasants of his northern home knew, by some sort of intuition, that his apostasy was final and unforgivable. They liked his books, the stories of their own lives, of their lanes, their fields, their joys and sorrows, but when the author visited his old home his reception his reception was very chilly. Carleton’s kind heart felt and could not understand the coldness of his old neighbours. His books were read in every cabin, drawing tears and laughter as the various characters were ‘spotted’. The readers recognized themselves, their neighbours, their speech and customs, but a horror fell on them when they thought of ‘the young priest’ … who had turned Souper.
The testimony to a response which combined affection with censoriousness is strikingly consistent and suggests that Carleton’s nineteenth century readers found in his works qualities that were missing from the (apparently widely diffused) exemplary tales of Maria Edgeworth, Mary Leadbeater and Mrs SC Hall. Although his popularity declined in other parts of Ireland the habit of spotting local affinities lingered in twentieth century Tyrone. In a delightful contribution to William Carleton The Authentic Voice, Pat John Rafferty recalls how his own father, a shopkeeper from Carrickmore, was in the habit of addressing his customers with names drawn, as seemed appropriate, from characters in Carleton. Pat John records that when, a generation later, he himself began to read Carleton, “I found myself on ground familiar to me and in comfortable communication with the characters he depicted. I have discussed this point with several of my contemporaries who have read Carleton and it is astonishing to find their reactions to the language and peculiarities of expression in Carleton’s writings are entirely similar to my own – they too felt at home.” It goes without saying that none of the other improvers discussed by Helen O’Connell were remembered in these terms, suggesting that, in spite of its undoubted prominence in his fiction, improvement was not at the core of Carleton’s enterprise.
The dualism which so marked the nineteenth century response to Carleton was not an imposition, brought to his works by his readers, but rather echoed qualities which are at its structural heart. The nature of his fiction could be defined by the fact that it is written in two distinct dialects of the English language. These are standard English, which is the language of the author, and Hiberno-English, which is used by his characters. As encountered in his works the former is a written language, that is to say its content and syntactical form – the what and how of saying – are controlled by its relationship with the continuum of writing, print and reading. It is designed to be read rather than spoken and, at its most characteristic, finds little place for human voice at any point between the author’s consigning of his words to the manuscript page and their decoding in printed form by the reader. Hiberno-English is wholly a spoken language, whose style and content are intimately related to its radical orality. By radical is meant that it exists only in speech and has no agreed written form. It is present in all its plenitude in the pages of the Traits and Stories only because of the author’s elaboration of an improvised system of notation designed to represent its spoken character. Carleton’s immense, lifelong engagement with Hiberno-English is, in its entirety, a written imitation of a spoken language; hardly as much as a sentence or a phrase is unspoken. Because of the limitations consequent on its oral status, Hiberno-English is not used as a vehicle for authorial narration, analysis or commentary, such reflective procedures being the business of the standard language.
The method employed in the Traits and Stories of alternating passages written in standard and in dialect was fundamental to Carleton’s method and was maintained in the decades which followed. (It was abandoned only at the end of his life, when the Autobiography was written in standard English.) Standard and Hiberno-English divide the fiction between them and coexist side by side attending to their respective business. They are the medium for radically incompatible discourses and, while we may become habituated to the resultant dualism, the sheer oddity of their presence on the same page remains an ineradicable characteristic of Carleton’s oeuvre. Their verbal difference, which derives from their status as written and spoken languages, carries with it incompatibilities of value and world view. There is, in consequence, a striking discontinuity between what the characters say of themselves, and of their lives, and what the author chooses to say about them. Their self-awareness is enacted through the medium of the formulae, whose recurrent patterns constitute a mental as well as a verbal grammar and are the point at which the controlling ideas of their culture declare themselves. The standard English of the author is language from outside and above the peasantry which is brought to bear on peasant experience. It enabled Carleton to mount a commentary on the world of the formula-users of a kind which would have been impossible, or at the very least was never undertaken, within the verbal constraints of dialect speech. When he uses standard English one social class is perceived by another for, while it is pre-eminently the language of narration, it also includes in its brief such functions as deprecation, admonition and control. Printed standard English made possible ways of thinking which are outside the range of oral culture, resulting in an account of the peasantry which is remote from the customary concepts and categories of those described. The author’s use of the standard language facilitated the deployment of an elaborate ideological vocabulary, and an accompanying level of abstraction, which differs in kind from the procedures and modes of orally-based thought.
In the Traits and Stories the business of storytelling is accompanied by an extended commentary on peasant attitudes and behavior whose function is strategic, in that it advises a non-peasant audience on how they should exercise control over the countryside. From one point of view the collection may be seen as addressed to a presumed readership whose interest in the countryside derives from the ownership of land, or at least is identified with the interests of the rural establishment. For this reason it needs to be informed regarding the nature of peasant society and the character of the peasantry if the exercise of social control is to be rendered effective. This important, if unoriginal, business, conducted in standard English is, however, accompanied by a remarkably comprehensive and faithful recreation of the peasant world view through the agency of formulaic speech. This immense mass of direct speech – whose rendering must surely be considered a revolutionary, if untidy, mimetic innovation – contains within itself the constellation of values and attitudes which constitute the peasant understanding of life and society. As a result two ideologically and verbally distinct discourses, one emanating from the peasantry and the other from their superiors, coexist in uneasy juxtaposition within a single composition.
For extended periods within Carleton’s stories and novels dialect and standard coexist without significant interaction. They alternate spatially upon the page in a manner reminiscent of macaronic poems and, while they refer to the same narrative situations and characters, have curiously little to do with one another. It is as if they inhabited different moral and aesthetic categories, or as if two quite different storytellers were successively telling the same story. Such an account of a bilingual fiction, whose verbal strands may be parallel but are never convergent, may appear to be modified by those occasions in which the author, writing in standard, addresses himself to what his characters are saying in dialect. These moments of apparent interaction, in which standard bears down on dialect or more occasionally dialect is permitted to respond to advice tendered in standard, are notably unilateral in character and are marked by the absence of exchange. Such moments confirm the hermetic nature of the two languages. The world views which they respectively embody are radically incommensurate and defy effective communication across linguistic barriers. Standard and dialect may address one another, but each is unaltered in consequence of the exchange.
While exchanges between standard and dialect are enacted in a variety of guises in Carleton’s fiction, all are notable for the contrast between the fluency and ease of one mode of speech and the ungainliness of the other. Dialect is alive, observant, and implicated in the business of daily living, while standard is remote and frequently pompous. Because of the unequal power relationship subsisting between speakers of the two, the function of dialect in such encounters is to conserve an area of autonomy for the peasant by the use of flattery, irony, indirection and evasion. Such exchanges are, at best, holding operations in which the formidable range of performance styles and strategies which the formula-users have at their disposal are not on display. Only on those occasions when the speaker of standard is not physically present, and thus cannot hear what is said, or when the standard speaker addressed is an outsider who possesses little or no local power, can the limited range of language as concealment be abandoned for the more flamboyant and congenial use of language as aggression. Both evasion and aggression were tactics which could assume unexpected forms.
In charting the fortunes of the Irish language in print, Helen O’Connell makes frequent use of Niall Ó Ciosáin’s groundbreaking study Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750-1850. One episode discussed by Ó Ciosáin, which does not attract her attention, throws unexpected light on how the admonitions delivered by the improvers were received by those whose lot it was to be improved. This occurred when in 1835 the Irish scholar Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin translated Richard Whately’s Easy Lessons on Money Matters into Irish as Reidh-Leighin air Ghnochuibh Cearba for the Irish Society. After its publication it was discovered that Ó Coinnialláin had interlarded his translation with extensive quotations from Middle Irish verse and prose which, needless to say, had no precedent in the text of the Whig archbishop. The strategy of the Irish scholar was, in its sheer insolence and implied assertion of a set of countervalues, almost unglossable; it is hard to see it as other than a subversion of Whately’s message of economic individualism. Animating Ó Coinnialláin’s eccentric act of deconstruction was the huge, one would suspect unconditional, value he attached to his Gaelic patrimony. At a time when little importance was attached to Irish, this particular aspect of his response could be seen as personal to himself or, somewhat more broadly, the vestigial Gaelic learned class to which he belonged. In his disinclination, however, to transmit the nostrums of early Victorian economics in the form they had been given, Ó Coinnialláin could be seen as possessing a wider, indeed emblematic, significance and as suggesting that the advice tendered by the improvers was experienced as peremptory and uncongenial and regarded with considerable suspicion. In some part of his mind these sentiments seem to have been shared by William Carleton.
The ambiguities we have traced surfaced with particular force in one of Carleton’s earliest stories, “The Brothers”, which appeared in The Christian Examiner of 1830. Helen O’Connell places this work firmly within the improvement discourse, tracing its genealogy, via a Kildare Place Society tract of ten years earlier, The Brothers, or Consequences: A Story of What Happens Every Day, to Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tract of 1795, also entitled The Brothers. In Carleton’s story the forces within Irish rural society resistant or impervious to improving and evangelical claims are represented by Ned Gallagher, one of the pair from whom the work takes its title. This unfortunate young man, who bears a considerable symbolic burden, is deprecated for the length of the tale as a card-player, a poacher, a Ribbonman, and for his drinking, singing and dancing. (His brother, who is his antithesis, receives a Protestant education, converts to that religion, becomes a gentleman and learns to speak standard English.) Although Ned is the object of Carleton’s unremitting authorial malice, he is nonetheless afforded a small, but significant, measure of verbal freedom. He is essentially the representative of certain festive elements in the popular culture which were widely deplored by the property-owning classes and which Carleton, for his own reasons, wished to associate with peasant Catholicism. His role as playboy figure is signalled in the various irreverent scraps of song which litter his speech. The carnival aspect of his personality is even more clearly suggested when, in a moment of high spirits, he draws upon the language of wake games, (one of the most widely deplored and bacchanalian features of peasant culture) to raise a laugh at the expense of the parish priest: “Who’s this with a head on him like a bladder of lard … The priest of the parish has lost his cap, some say this and some say that – but I say the priest an’ myself will have a dance. Come yer Reverence, cut the buckle.” It is significant that in this severely dualistic work, which is built around a series of cultural, linguistic and religious antitheses, Ned Gallagher’s most explicit challenge to the dominant ideology of the tale should be articulated in the Irish language. In a moment of drunken exuberance he sings:
‘Och-go vickha ma’n lha a veish toirh or wick,
Arrum Rhee Shorsah broiutha lhug
Putthaghee yohmen scarhe ehr bohor,
Mise failh vaish lhe brodho shud;
Agus oh vanithee woil boiroh orth?’
Ned Gallagher is undoubtedly the most attractive figure in a disordered and distasteful story, which is marked by a coercive strain of anti-festive ideology. His association with these sanguinary and deeply subversive verses, which look forward to the defeat of King George’s army, yeomen’s intestines scattered by the roadside, and the hunting down of the gentry, represents in miniature all of those elements within the popular culture, which because they were so closely meshed in the Irish language, were resistant to elite browbeating. It is significant that, while Carleton almost invariably provided English translations of passages of any length in Irish, on this occasion he chose not to do so. We may reasonably assume that his phonetic rendering of these verses in Ulster Irish was impenetrable to the majority of readers of The Christian Examiner. Ned Gallagher’s sentiments represent an outburst of insurgent male energy that must surely qualify Helen O’Connell’s identification of Irish with the recessive and the feminine. As, however, Carleton delivered his two most insubordinate male Irish speakers, Ned Gallagher and Phelim O’Toole, to the gallows and transportation, it is a qualification with limited import. It does, perhaps, suggest that the retreat of Irish from the public sphere to the woman’s domain of the home and the mother-child relationship was not unconnected with the coercive use of state power.
By embodying mentalities impervious to gentry control, Irish represented an imperfectly known and autonomous domain, which, as is clear from the pages of The Christian Examiner, was perceived as a code which had to be broken if ruling groups from outside the world of the peasantry were to exercise control over the countryside. For Ned Gallagher, as for a range of male characters extending from Phelim O’Toole to the illegal distiller Teddy Phats, the advantage of Irish was its impenetrability, so that even if overheard it could not be understood by those in authority. With the shift from Irish to Hiberno-English this cover ceased to be available, with the result that the use of Irish for concealment had to be replaced by a range of other tactics. The latter are on display, with subversive effect, in another of Carleton’s early stories, “The Glen of Derrygolah”. This belongs to that strand in his fiction which might be described as a recreation of the Renaissance genre of the mirror for magistrates, as he tenders advice to a resident landlord class on the attributes they should cultivate if they are to exercise effective control over their tenants. The story, which it is not unduly reductive to describe as a neo-feudal daydream, tells how the landlord of Derrygolah, while on his evening stroll, comes upon the sons and daughters of his tenants dancing on the green. He lingers for a while, banters with the young men, dances with one of the girls, listens while the fiddler plays his favourite tune and reproves the slovenly agricultural habits of a tenant who is in arrears with his rent. This little vignette, with its benevolent landlord and deferential tenants, clearly represents an idealisation of the relationship between both parties and we may suspect that its harmonies were remote from the social and economic realities in the actual townland of Derrygolah in Carleton’s native Truagh.
The strategy proposed in the story is one of cultural knowledge rather than coercion: the economic power of the landlord class is mediated and made acceptable because of their intimacy with the world of those over whom they rule. The landlord’s easy familiarity with the culture of the peasantry is evident in his dancing with them, listening to their music and, above all, in his capacity to meet them at the level of language, as he deflects “blarney” addressed to him in dialect and insists on the primacy of instructions delivered in the standard language. He does not, however, manage to get the last word. After he has departed, having delivered a lecture replete with admonitions and reproofs, the recipient of his advice comments in the accumulatory terms characteristic of formula-users: “if he was to go out wid a spade in his fist of a frosty mornin’ – and had nothing but a basket of dry praties to sit down to – and a thin pair o’ breeches on him – and brogues that would let in the wather on his feet – may be he’d be as loath to work as another.” The procedure of the speaker in framing his response has a representative significance. Instructions given in an abstract and generalising standard English (“it is not so much the time you actually lose, as the idle and careless habits you contract in attending such places, that injures you”, “I’m disposed to help those most that I see inclined to help themselves.”) are reformulated in dialect and thereby translated into immediate life terms. The effect of this transition, which plunges the advice into the existential, is to dissolve its import.
A clue to the ability of Carleton’s characters to escape his control, and to the strange autonomy enjoyed by his voices, may be found in the standardised word clusters, or formulae, which are one of the fundamental compositional elements in their speech. Although the characters rarely speak continuously in formulae, they cannot speak without them. As a result any passage of direct speech in the Traits and Stories will be found to be heavily and consistently formulaic. Reliance on formulae has large implications for the kind of story which can be told; formula use facilitates certain kinds of narrative and narrative actors while precluding, if not undermining, other possibilities. The formulae are not a neutral medium, rather a narrative-cum-aesthetic grammar is implicit in their use. Carleton brought an unremitting authorial commentary to bear on his own version of peasant Ireland and there is little of importance that his characters do which escapes his didactic comment. With the exception, however, of proverbs and proverbial sayings, which embody overt and generalised attitudes, his formulae were not subject to this scrutiny. For Carleton formulae were central to the process of composition and it would appear that his use of them was largely automatic and unexamined. His was a variant of the relationship which any non-literate has with the formula stock of his native dialect. It seems that he composed in much the same way as they did and that, in some sense, the formulae flooded his mind as part of the act of writing. The ear of the native speaker governed usage so that in any particular case a formula was chosen not as the result of a process of conscious deliberation but because it seemed inevitable and right in context.
Because of his literacy Carleton may be seen as a strange, indeed in Irish terms unparalleled, instance of an oral artist whose performance depended on the fluency and skill with which he could weave together the formulae which were his stock in trade. A more precise account of the matter might be that, while Carleton himself was not an oral performer, for he was clearly a writer, his characters were. The substance of his art lay in his ability to engage in a near total identification with his characters, thereby recreating on the printed page the dynamics of performance. Although observant and insightful regarding popular speech, in some way that remains elusive Carleton combined this with the uncritical spirit which characterises the relationship between the speaker and his body of formulae. Such a view of orally-based thought implies a near identification between the formula-user and the incessant stream of formulae which, for him, constitute the substance of discourse. If we conceive of Carleton as such a formula-user, we would appear committed to viewing him as immersed in a world of formulae and unlikely to attain the critical distance necessary to analyse the material out of which he constructed his fiction. In such a view he was like any other speaker within an oral society for whom formulae were at once so familiar and inevitable as to be beyond criticism. He stands in a performer’s rather than an author’s relationship with the formulae.
In seeking to understand why, by and large, Carleton’s formulae escaped his otherwise unremitting ideological vigilance a second, less elaborate, explanation supplements the view outlined above. While the formulae are frequently value-laden and provide a map or demarcation of the mental world of those who employ them, their significance is cumulative, emerging by way of patterns of recurrence and contrast, and can scarcely be deducted from any single instance examined in isolation. Carleton had a sophisticated interest in dialect speech. However, his process of composition, which entailed the production of masses of written material within short time scales, may at times have limited his understanding of his own procedures. Thus, although his observations regarding particular idioms were frequently acute, it would appear that he was less fully conscious of the significance of the patterns of repetition which are an integral part of formulaic speech performance.
The view proposed above receives oblique support from the most powerfully ideological of Carleton’s stories, “The Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman”, better known by its subsequent title “Wildgoose Lodge”. The story is based loosely on the burning alive of Edward Lynch and seven members of his household by a group of up to one hundred Ribbonmen from Louth and adjoining counties on the night of October 29th and 30th, 1816. Among Carleton’s works, “Wildgoose Lodge” is unprecedented in the silencing of the voices of its characters, as the rough equivalence between standard and dialect was abandoned in favour of the domination of the tale by the standard English of its reformed narrator. In his fascinating The Burning of Wildgoose Lodge, Raymond Murray provides a richly documented reconstruction of the local hatreds which led to the killings and the extended aftermath, as the local gentry, in their incarnation as magistrates, tracked down, tried and hanged the chief perpetrators in spectacular acts of exemplary public theatre that were clearly intended to shock and awe. When, two years later, Carleton passed through Louth, he saw, and left a riveting account of, the tarred and gibbeted bodies of the Ribbon leader Patrick Devaun and his associates, hanging at crossroads throughout the country. In 1830, when as a writer he returned to these events, he claimed that his story was based on what he heard and saw while in Louth. This claim was unfounded; “Wildgoose Lodge” is a work bereft of either a history or a sociology as, for the purpose of demonising the attackers, the burning was abstracted from the local circumstances which gave it its meaning.
As Raymond Murray’s reconstruction makes clear, it was evidence given by Edward Lynch, and his son-in-law Thomas Rooney, at the Dundalk summer assizes of 1816, resulting in the hanging of three local men, which precipitated the attack on Wildgoose Lodge later in the year. As this circumstance, which may have been linked to a dispute over Lynch’s daughter, and which is surely indispensable to an understanding what happened, was incompatible with the frozen hysteria of Carleton’s vision, it was omitted from his tale. Throughout most of rural Ireland in the pre-famine decades, figures such as Lynch and Rooney, who had brought about the death of three of their neighbours, would have been in danger of retaliatory violence. As all concerned, including the law officers of the Crown, knew, it was Lynch and Rooney’s breach of codes of inter-peasant solidarity, and in particular the prohibition on informing, that justified in the eyes of their attackers the horrendous violence inflicted on them. Not only did this knowledge find no place in Carleton’s dark polemic but, in a telling act in what was otherwise a speech-based fiction, the voices which might have articulated it were excluded. Far from being neutral speech units, the formulae were heavy with meaning and could be seen as miniature enactments of the moral universe of those who made use of them. To have admitted them, even for the purpose of disparagement, would have been to have given voice to the self-understanding of the Louth Ribbonmen and opened up an alternative perspective within the most totalising and controlled of his works.
Like Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin, Carleton’s heart, at times at least, does not really seem to have been in the business of instruction. A recurrent pattern involved his embarking on what gives every appearance of being a didactic tale, before being overtaken by the pleasure of narrative and abandoning his moral in order to develop the story line. Thus “The Geography of an Irish Oath” begins as an exemplary tale extolling economic individualism and primitive capitalist accumulation, before veering off into a delightfully shapeless narrative, involving an equivocal oath against alcohol, whose origin can be traced to stories connected with the life of St Colm Cille. It was perhaps an acknowledgment that the intentions of the earlier story had not been fulfilled that in 1845, when commissioned to contribute to the Young Ireland-sponsored Library of Ireland, he returned to the schema underlying “The Geography of an Irish Oath”, which he rewrote as Parra Sastha, or the History of Paddy Go-Easy and his Wife Nancy. This tells of the transformations of the relaxed Go-Easy household at the hands of Parra’s wife Nancy when, following her marriage, she introduces the habit of washing, improved agricultural methods, and – her most revolutionary innovation – literacy, to her in-laws. As a number of the less easily stomached aspects of old Irish agricultural life are portrayed in the tale with something approaching microrealism, and as the unreformed Go-Easies constitute almost platonic embodiments of filth, laziness and ignorance, the tale inevitably gave offence. The response of the usually gentle O’Donovan Rossa, when he read the book, may be taken as characteristic. Parra Sastha, he asserted, “is a dirty caricature of the Irish character; but the writer of it … died in receipt of a yearly literary pension from the English government. He earned such a pension by writing that book alone.”
Rossa encountered Parra Sastha as a young man in a remote corner of the far south, supporting Yeats’s observation that the story was to be found on the counter of every little stationers shop in the island. It seems significant that, of the three didactic tales which Carleton contributed to the Library of Ireland, it should have been Parra Sastha, rather than the pedestrian anti-Ribbon Rody the Rover,or his depressing tract against alcohol, Art Maguire, that earned this popularity. This was almost certainly because, within the framework of the tale, Carleton developed a vein of almost surreal comedy (as when, immediately before his wedding, Parra Sastha and his best man exchange clothes), that had curiously little to do with the main didactic business. It was this vision of the hero as a bemused Gaelic Buster Keaton, who ambles from one absurdity to the next, rather than the author’s advice on the importance of cleanliness in the dairy, which gave the tale its extraordinary popularity. Éamon Ó Tuathail’s Sgéaltá Mhuintir Luinighcontains an unexpected clue to the character of the popular reading of Parra Sastha. This is a collection of lore which, between 1929 and 1932, Ó Tuathail transcribed in the parishes of Termonmaguirk and Upper and Lower Baldoney from some of the last speakers of Tyrone Irish. His chief informant, Eoin Ó Cianáin, who had been born in 1857, included an extensive section of Parra Sastha, retold as a folktale, in his repertoire. Like other oral narrators handling literary material, the latter proved a ruthless editor, discarding literary embellishment and focusing upon narrative at the expense of other elements in the text. While Carleton’s comedy, which Ó Cianáin evidently found deeply congenial, survived this process, nothing of his didacticism remained. One suspects that for the Tyrone storyteller, as for others throughout Ireland, Parra Sastha proved a familiar figure, who was easily assimilated to an oral tradition which delighted in absurdity and had its own ample cast of fools and innocents.
One reason why the improvers studied by Helen O’Connell appear to have had such a limited impact on the rural poor who were their target audience may have been that nineteenth century Ireland had its own articulate body of exemplary material relating to the meaning and purpose of human life. This was to be found in the extensive religious literature, rich in moral reflection and exhortation, which was transmitted orally in prose and verse, primarily in the Irish language. While this literature had multiple purposes, arguably at its core was the injunction to practise charity. At the level of narrative it found its most astonishing embodiment in stories of the kind collected in Seán Ó Suilleabháin’s Scéalta Craibhtheacha, in which Mary, Joseph and the Child are portrayed as poor Irish-speaking wanderers, frequently without enough to eat, whose lives are set against a background indistinguishable from the communities inhabited by the storytellers and their audiences. As has been widely noted, faced with wideranging changes in Irish religious life, as the nineteenth century progressed this body of lore became increasingly marginalised. It retained its grip longest on the imaginations of the poor, among whom the most traditional-minded sections of the population were to be found, and for whom the meanings encoded in the lore had the most obvious relevance to their own lives. One suspects that for this class, possessed as they were of a spiritual resource of immense gravity and depth, the injunctions of the improvers, in so far as they were aware of them, must have been experienced as barren and trite. The tales of Maria Edgeworth and Mary Leadbeater were certainly a poor preparation for the travails which were to overtake the poor in the 1840s.
Although in his conscious mind Carleton was committed to a wideranging programme of radical reform, in ways that are unclear but unmistakable, the mystery of charity was at the core of his fiction. Not only his characters, but in some sense he himself, accepted as axiomatic the traditional Christian view that, in Alan Bray’s phrase, “the point of religion – what it did for a living – was that it was an instrument by which neighbours, kin, and friends could succeed in living in peace together”. Moreover, in a pattern that John Bossy has traced in late medieval society, there is a recurrent linkage in his fiction between the celebration of the Christian sacraments and the flowering of charity. In the stories and novels, even those whose surface meaning is anti-Catholic, the sacraments are public events, in which the acting out of the rite can be seen as a metaphor for the renewal and consolidation of the bonds of charity between those present. These are moments in which the self-understanding of the society, its deepest and most cherished meanings, declare themselves and are made explicit. These meanings are not confined to isolated sacramental moments, but radiate out from them into the fiction, where they find their imperfect and all too human embodiment as ideals which influence, but do not determine, behaviour.
The complex of beliefs and values outlined here underlies one of Carleton’s best-loved stories, “The Poor Scholar”. This work could be seen as an instance of the novelisation of epic, as one of the countless legends of Ireland’s poor scholars was given a less generalised profile and relocated within the packed and variegated social landscape of early nineteenth century Munster. In this new setting it retained and acknowledged a relationship with its oral roots, as the exemplum on charity and its rewards, which is narrated in the opening section, echoes throughout the remainder of the tale. This reaches its climax in the concluding pages, when the farmer Lanigan, who had befriended the Poor Scholar on his journey south, lies close to death without the ministrations of a priest. It so chances that the young man, who has since been ordained, and is on his return journey to Ulster, calls on the house of his benefactor. It is only when he has administered the last rites that, in response to the dying man’s enquiry, he reveals that he is the Poor Scholar whom he had helped years before. Lanigan’s cry of gratitude and joy, when he receives this information, is the explicit recognition of a pattern confirmed, as he discerns “the hand of God” in the link between his own act of charity and the presence of the young priest at his bedside. “‘Praise an’ glory to your name good God!’ he exclaimed. ‘ … Now I know that I’m not forgotten, when you brought back the little kindness I did that boy for your sake, wid so many blessins to me in the hour of my affliction an’ sufferin’.’”
The dying man is quick to turn his deathbed into an exemplary event, drawing lessons from what has taken place for the benefit of his family. In so far as we can hope to have access to the minds of the pre-famine Gaelic Irish, their most fundamental values seem implicit in Lanigan’s advice to his children: “Remimber always to help the stranger, an’ thim that’s poor an’ in sorrow.” One suspects that for the groups included in Carleton’s category “the Irish peasantry”, the injunction to practice charity, for God’s sake, was experienced as a categorical imperative which lay at the bedrock of their moral being. No doubt, as in other societies, there was much falling short and ideals were imperfectly realised in daily life. The important point is that, as a pattern for human conduct, this view of life differed radically from the individualising vision of the improvers. Carleton, for his part, seems to have embraced both, without being aware of the contradiction between his opinions and his affections. Nowhere was this more apparent than in The Squanders of Castle Squander when, in the wake of the great famine, he surveyed the altered social landscape and concluded that the ancient character of the Irish should be effaced in the name of progress. A prominent index of progress, as understood by dominant groups in mid-Victorian Ireland, was the introduction of the poor law system and poorhouses in the late 1830s. Strangely, in The Squanders, this innovation, to which Carleton was in theory committed, far from eliciting his approbation, was the occasion for a plangent lament for the displacement of charity. In the nature of the case this was also a lament for the wandering poor who, as important bearers of the oral tradition, were intimately connected with his own art. Was, Carleton asked, in a series of questions to which no satisfactory answer was possible, the
well remembered beggar whose chimney corner tale amused the old and delighted the young, never more to be welcomed to the hospitable hearth, nor his solemn blessing on departure, on whose efficacy such simple confidence was placed, never again to sound in their ears …? Were all the various classes of the wandering poor who had subsisted so long on the virtues of the people, to be swept away to the sun-less wards of the poorhouse, and the land which they had traversed on the strength of Christian charity to be turned into a still and unchristian desert, where the wild rhyme of the prophecy man – the news of the cosherer – the love secrets of the matchmaker – the song of the boccach – and the battle of the old soldier, were never more to be heard?
The dualities, and apparent contradictions, which marked Carleton’s career, have continued to attract attention. One of the most recent reflections on the topic may be found in the afterword by Owen Dudley Edwards in William Carleton the Authentic Voice, a selection of papers delivered to the William Carleton Summer School in Clogher between 1992 and 2005. Dudley Edwards’s essay is a hospitable, not to say capacious piece, in which Carleton is variously glossed by reference to Wallace Stevens, Denis Donoghue, Patrick Pearse, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, James Joyce, GB Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Mark Twain, Dean Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, George Farquhar, Thomas Nashe, Somerville and Ross, Thomas Moore, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, James Fenimore Cooper, Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin, Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Wilson Croker, Anthony Trollope, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Piaras Mac Gearailt, George Moore, James Hogg, Walter Scott, Robbie Burns, Johann Gottfried Herder, the Grimms, Ivan Krylov, Geoffrey Chaucer, Madame de Pompadour and Billy Bunter. The effect is to leave the reader in a state of pleasant bewilderment.
The most striking element in the Dudley Edwards essay is the claim that Carleton may not have been the child of the woman he described as his mother, and that he was in fact “the illegitimate child of the girl who would be termed his eldest sister” and some male member of a neighbouring Presbyterian family called the Barnets. While Dudley Edwards describes the illegitimacy claim as a “story” current in Clogher, this is a misnomer and it can rather be identified as a piece of textual exegesis with a very specific local provenance. The evidence cited in support of the claim, which is entirely print-based, consists of some confusion regarding the exact date of Carleton’s birth, his position in the family as the last child of his mother (“if she was his mother”), and a passage in the Autobiography which tells how “a Miss Jane Barnet, daughter of a respectable Presbyterian farmer”, acted as godmother at his baptism.
The ambiguity over the date of Carleton’s birth will not bear the weight which Owen Dudley Edwards seeks to attach to it. Uncertainty over the exact date of one’s birth is common in pre-modern communities, unfamiliar with printed calendars and in which record-keeping by church or state authorities was haphazard. In these circumstances a common recourse was to fix the date of a child’s birth by reference to some vivid temporal mnemonic, commonly a feast of the church. While some of these, such as the birth on Saint Thomas’s Day, (July 3rd) 1856, recorded in the opening sentence of Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach, were fixed, others, such as Carleton’s Shrove Tuesday, were movable feasts and thus liable to generate confusion. In fact, even immovable feasts could be unreliable and it may be, in spite of the confidence of the opening sentence of his autobiography, that Tomás Ó Criomhthain was mistaken, as the parish records of Ballyferriter record his baptism as April 29th, 1855. As it is not presumably claimed that Ó Criomhthain was also illegitimate, the sensible conclusion would be that this is an area in which we should not be surprised to come across uncertainty.
In some way that is not quite stated, the role assigned to Miss Barnet at the baptism is taken as an oblique acknowledgment of a family link. This seems improbable. As is suggested in the essay on “Genealogical Formulae in Carleton’s Fiction”, contributed by the present writer to William Carleton the Authentic Voice, a coercive and unambiguous vocabulary, which turned on concepts of honour, shame and blood, governed the sexual behaviour of Carleton’s female characters. In writing in these terms he seems to have echoed the situation in the wider society. When Alexis de Tocqueville travelled in Ireland in July 1835, he was told by Dr Kinseley of Kilkenny that cases of illegitimacy were rare and that public opinion was so severe on the subject that a woman who was even suspected of misbehaviour was “lost for life”. When, more than a century later, Michael J Murphy collected on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission in Co Tyrone, he recorded a case of family complicity in infanticide, as a means of deflecting the shame which an illegitimate birth would otherwise have brought upon them. Against this background it seems most unlikely that the respectable Barnet family would have dispatched their daughter Jane to the christening as a means of marking the birth of an illegitimate child, begotten on a local girl by some Barnet male.
Carleton described the arrangement at his christening as “not uncommon in Ireland”, adding that in cases where a non-Catholic was invited to stand as a godparent, there would be a second Catholic godparent of the same sex, who would be “looked upon as the real sponsor”. In her introduction to the Autobiography, written towards the end of the nineteenth century, the mildly silly Mrs Cashel Hoey did not know what to make of the arrangement, which clearly irritated her and which she remarked was not orthodox. Whatever the exact nature of the procedure, which may have been imposed on the clergy or even have taken place without the knowledge of the officiating priest, its meaning seems reasonably clear. The invitation to Miss Jane Barnet is yet another example of the use of the sacraments to sponsor charity, in this instance by creating a symbolic bond of kinship between families of different religions. This is far more likely to have taken place in 1794, which is the date mentioned in the Autobiography, than in 1798, as postulated by Dudley Edwards, when relations between the communities in Ulster deteriorated as Ireland lurched towards insurrection.
Other evidence would seem to weigh against the case advanced by Dudley Edwards. By a rule observed within the Irish church, illegitimacy was a bar to ordination. It seems inconceivable that the Carleton family would have intended William for the priesthood, and accepted the material sacrifices this entailed, if they knew that the circumstances of his birth precluded him from receiving holy orders. Carleton, as we have seen, was a controversial figure, who attracted unfavourable comment during the course of the nineteenth century. It seems unlikely, in a society in which polemicists were not slow to hurl discreditable personal information at opponents, that he would have escaped insult regarding his birth if he was known to have been “a bastard”. What is perhaps the most telling evidence against the illegitimacy theory is the description of his parents in the preface to the 1842 edition of the Traits and Stories, quoted in part at the beginning of this essay. The account of his mother is marked by a note of tenderness – Carleton speaks of hearing Trougha and Shuil Agra “from her blessed lips” – that a man would not use of a woman he knew not to be his mother. Caesar Otway, who met him as an adult in Dublin, described tears filling his eyes when he spoke of the funeral of his father. Again, we may ask, why he should have wept for one who was not his father?
Like others who travelled to Clogher, I heard speculation from a number of local people about a Barnet connection. When I asked my interlocutors about the source of this claim they invariably referred to Anketill Richardson, a Protestant gentleman farmer who had died in 1966. Richardson, who was keenly interested in Carleton and was first president of the Carleton Society, seems to have been something of a heroic figure who did much to promote Carleton’s reputation locally, at a time long before there were summer schools. The sense I made of things was that, in the Northern Ireland of the 1950s, Richardson, puzzled by an aspect of the religious history of his favourite writer, elaborated the Barnet hypothesis as an explanation. This may have been done in association with Robert Bratton, another local scholar of similar profile, who interested himself greatly in Carleton; the hypothesis certainly seems to have emanated from their milieu. Anketill Richardson was a much loved individual, who was clearly a liberal and civilised man, and the attempted explanation does him nothing but credit. It may, however, have been une question mal posée. While Carleton embraced a Protestant world view in Dublin, as works such as Valentine M’Clutchy and his autobiographical account of inter-ethnic relations in the wake of 1798 suggest, on the narrower ground of Clogher he remained emotionally a south Ulster Catholic. Moreover, a blood connection is not necessary to explain his predisposition towards Protestantism. As Keith Thomas and others have argued, the amount of scepticism, agnosticism, and religious indifference in pre-modern societies has been seriously underestimated. Collections of lore from various parts of Ireland suggest that, in communities throughout the country, individuals of a rationalist disposition, who were dismissive of supernatural explanations, were to be found. Carleton’s dealings with the oral tradition come from the deepest level of his personality and long preceded the Dublin experience, including his conversion. To judge by the legends he selected for retelling, and his attitude towards this material, his mental disposition fits the profile suggested by Thomas. Once a figure like Carleton, possessed of this cast of mind, was removed from the constraints of his native place, he would obviously be more inclined to religious enquiry than one such as Patrick Kennedy, a pious and conventional Wexford tradition-bearer, who arrived in Dublin at around the same time.
Carleton was attracted to evangelical Protestantism because of its distancing of the supernatural and also perhaps because of its textuality. For one who had recently inhabited the miracle-filled world of his father, the Protestant insistence that miracles had ceased with the ending of the apostolic age may have come as something of a relief. In fact, as his instincts were non-religious, evangelicalism proved to be only a temporary halting place. Although, in a thoughtful essay, John Kelly argues that The Black Prophet of 1846 was saturated in a bleak, Providence-focused Protestant theology, a case can be made, on the basis of evidence internal to the fiction, that by the 1840s he had embraced a form of unitarian deism and had ceased to be anything that could be recognised as a Christian.
While the illegitimacy hypothesis was understandable in the circumstances in which it was first elaborated, if persisted in it has the potential to misdirect Carleton studies. The way forward seems better represented by the work of scholars such as Raymond Murray, Peggy O’Brien and Helen O’Connell. Raymond Murray’s examination of social tensions in Louth in the wake of the Napoleonic wars will inform future readings of “Wildgoose Lodge”, while Peggy O’Brien’s tracing of how, over a number of generations, Irish and European writers have handled the Lough Derg theme can only send us back to Carleton’s story with fresh questions and insights. Helen O’Connell’s Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement is a distinguished work, which addresses a topic that had previously received little attention. While other perspectives are possible on the improvement discourse which is at the heart of her study, and it may be that as much enlightenment on the subject is to be obtained from a knowledge of pre-Tridentine popular Catholicism as from the pages of Raymond Williams, the theme itself is of immense importance. Although, I would guess, Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement owes a considerable debt in its understanding of orality to WJ Ong, the author’s reference to him (“simplistic and overly optimistic”) is somewhat condescending; she is more deferential towards Walter Benjamin’s “The Stotyteller” although, as anyone who has tried to apply the insights of that dazzling essay is likely to have discovered, it proves an uncertain guide to Irish storytelling.
The terms “liberal” and “liberalism”, which the author regularly applies to the improvers, are notoriously tricky. Nonetheless, as Mrs Cadwallader remarks in Middlemarch, we should try to talk in the same way as other people. It seems doubtful whether, in an Irish context, either the adjective or the noun can retain much usefulness when disconnected from the nineteenth century struggle to dismantle the power of an agrarian establishment that had its origin in the confiscations of the seventeenth century.
The author’s account of Young Ireland is likely to be contested. Thomas Davis and his associates were one of a number of elite groups during the period who attempted to influence a popular audience through the medium of print. All of these, with the widely remarked exception of The Nation, failed in their primary objective. Among the failures, the case of the Dublin Penny Journal is particularly striking, as its conductors, Caesar Otway and George Petrie, were more reflective in their strategy than most of their rivals, being described by the Dublin printer Philip Dixon Hardy as “two of the cleverest men in that line of business”. When, in 1834, Otway and Petrie withdrew from the editorship of the journal having failed to achieve their goal, Hardy concluded that the objective itself was unattainable. Against this background, the unparalleled success of Young Ireland in breaking through to a mass readership suggests that the outcome was due to some factor other than continuities with the vision of Maria Edgeworth and Archbishop Whately. The foregoing are, however, are comparatively minor disagreements, as the value of Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement lies in its demonstration of the centrality of improvement in elite thought in nineteenth century Ireland. As so much of Carleton studies consist in the reformulation of a limited body of questions and insights, it is particularly valuable in opening up a new and significant area of enquiry. Helen O’Connell’s improvers, who have left a record of their aspirations in the form of exemplary tales, were predominantly Protestant. Less easy to discern, but probably of greater consequence, was the impulse towards improvement within the Catholic community. This surfaces in the efforts of the O’Connellite leadership in the 1830s to stamp out faction fighting, Father Mathew’s crusade against drunkenness, Fenian opposition to Ribbonism and to localism, and in the much derided, but tolerated, phenomenon referred to in shorthand as “convent parlour”, whereby the convent-educated daughters of well-to-do farmers taught their parents to be less uncouth.
It may be that improvers, Protestant and Catholic alike, were engaged in a local variant of the much wider enterprise identified by Norbert Elias as the civilising process. If so, this was a journey that, like everyone else in western Europe, at some stage or other the Irish (including Carleton’s Denis O’Shaughnessy and his Poor Scholar) had to embark on, as we learned to use forks and spoons, to expel animals from the human dwelling, and, in our case, to move from the intimacies and exuberance of Irish, via Hiberno-English, to the standard form of the English language. Part of the resistance of the Irish poor, during the early stages of the process, to the designs of the improvers, may well have been aesthetic: possessed as they were of an imaginative corpus which included, in addition to the elegant and transparent prose of oral narrative, the “fine hard Irish” that storytellers liked to introduce into Fianaíocht and the baroque elaborations of “tall English”, they may have found the prose of the exemplary tracts drab and unexciting. It may be that Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin enlivened his translation of Archbishop Whately with heroic narrative and bardic verse out of sheer boredom and pity for his readers.
In Carleton’s case, it is possible to discern the tropes and themes of the improvement discourse, refracted through the medium of a culture more articulate, more satisfying, and, in its own terms, more sophisticated than that at the disposal of the improvers. In the end the improvers won, as they had to, but in circumstances remote from anything that might have been imagined by Whately or Maria Edgeworth. One result, as Helen O’Connell’s impressive reading of the Yeats-Gavan Duffy dispute suggests, was the emergence within the bloodstream of Irish nationalism of a strain of aggressive and deeply philistine utilitarianism. Thus it was that a society whose rural lower classes, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, delighted in the sheer gorgeousness of words and in a Bakhtinian multiplicity of voices, found themselves at the end of that century with sadly diminished (or, if less judgmental language is required, very different) cultural resources. At that stage, it may be that Carleton’s readers, whether in Ireland or in the great cities of North America, went to the Traits and Stories to reimmerse themselves imaginatively in a world they had already lost.
Brian Earls was a diplomat. He served in the Embassy of Ireland in Athens, Moscow, Warsaw and Ankara. His published work focused on the relationship between oral tradition and printed literature, principally in the nineteenth century. He died in 2013. This essay was first published in Spring 2007.