CARLETON, WILLIAM (1794-1869), Irish novelist, was born at Prillisk, Clogher, Co. Tyrone, on the 4th of March 1794. His father was a tenant farmer, who supported a family of fourteen children on as many acres, and young Carleton passed his early life among scenes precisely similar to those he afterwards delineated with so much power and truthfulness. His father was remarkable for his extraordinary memory, and had a thorough acquaintance with Irish folklore; the mother was noted throughout the district for the sweetness of her voice. The beautiful character of Honor, the miser's wife, in Fardorougha, is said to have been drawn from her.
The education received by Carleton was of a very humble description. As his father removed from one small farm to another, he attended at various places the hedge-schools, which used to be a notable feature of Irish life. The admirable little picture of one of these schools is given in the sketch called "The Hedge School" included in Traits and Stories of Irish Peasantry. Most of his learning was gained from a curate named Keenan, who taught a classical school at Donagh (Co. Monaghan), which Carleton attended from 1814 to 1816. Before this Carleton had resolved to prosecute his education as a poor scholar at Munster, with a view to entering the church; but in obedience to a warning dream, the story of which is told in the Poor Scholar, he returned home, where he received the unbounded veneration of the neighbouring peasantry for his supposed wonderful learning. An amusing account of this phase of his existence is given in the little sketch, "Denis O'Shaughnessy." About the age of nineteen he undertook one of the religious pilgrimages then common in Ireland. His experiences as a pilgrim, narrated in "The Lough Derg Pilgrim," made him resign for ever the thought of entering the church, and he eventually became a Protestant. His vacillating ideas as to a mode of life were determined in a definite direction by the reading of Gil Blas. He resolved to cast himself boldly upon the world, and try what fortune had in store for him. He went to Killanny, Co Louth, and for six months acted as tutor in the family of a farmer named Piers Murphy, and after some other experiments he set out for Dublin, and arrived in the metropolis with 2s 9d. in his pocket. He first sought occupation as a bird-stuffer, but a proposal to use potatoes and meal as stuffing failed to recommend him. He then determined to become a soldier, but the colonel of the regiment in which he desired to enlist persuaded him - Carleton had applied in Latin - to give up the idea. He obtained some teaching and a clerkship in a Sunday School office, began to contribute to the journals, and his paper "The Pilgrimage to Lough Derg," which was published in the Christian Examiner, excited great attention. In 1830 appeared the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (2 vols.), which at once placed the author in the first rank of Irish novelists. A second series (3 vols.), containing, among other stories, "Tubber Derg, or the Red Well," appeared in 1833, and Tales of Ireland in 1834. From that time till within a few years of his death Carleton's literary activity was incessant. "Fardorougha the Miser, or the Convicts of Lisnamona" appeared in 1837-1838 in the Dublin University Magazine. Among his other famous novels are: Valentine McClutchy, the Irish Agent, or Chronicles of the Castle Cumber Property (3 vols., 1845); The Black Prophet, a Tale of the Famine, in the Dublin University Magazine (1846), printed separately in the next year; The Emigrants of Ahadarra (1847); Willy Reilly and his dear Colleen Bawn (in The Independent, London, 1850); and The Tithe Proctor (1849), the violence of which did his reputation harm among his own countrymen. Some of his later stories, The Squanders of Castle Squander (1852) for instance, are defaced by the mass of political matter with which they are overloaded. In spite of his very considerable literary production Carleton remained poor, but his necessities were relieved in 1848 by a pension 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. He died at Sandford, Co. Dublin, on the 30th of January 1869.
Carleton's best work is contained in the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. He wrote from intimate acquaintance with the scenes he described; and he drew with a sure hand a series of pictures of peasant life, unsurpassed for their appreciation of the passionate tenderness of Irish home life, of the buoyant humour and the domestic virtues which would, under better circumstances, bring prosperity and happiness. He alienated the sympathies of many Irishmen, however, by his unsparing criticism and occasional exaggeration of the darker side of Irish character. He was in his own words the "historian of their habits and manners, their feelings, their prejudices, their superstitions and their crimes." (Preface to Tales of Ireland.)
During the last months of his life Carleton began an autobiography which he brought down to the beginning of his literary career. This forms the first part of The Life of William Carleton ... (2 vols., 1896), by D.J. O'Donoghue, which contains full information about lis life, and a list of his scattered writings. A selection from his stories (1889), in the "Camelot Series," has an introduction by Mr W.B. Yeats. He must not be confused with Will Carleton (b. 1845), the American author of Farm Ballads (1873).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)