Carleton, William (1794–1869), novelist and short-story writer, was born, probably on 4 March 1794, in Prillisk, near Clogher, Co. Tyrone, the youngest of fourteen children (eight of whom survived) of James Carleton, a catholic tenant farmer, and his wife Mary Kelly. James Carleton also worked as a flax-dresser and, although often classed as ‘peasants’, the family were of above average means in their community. Both parents were Irish speakers and had extensive knowledge of the stories and songs of Irish-language oral culture. William displayed early intellectual aptitude and acquired his education in a variety of hedge schools. His career ambition at one point was to become a priest. Not having settled to any occupation as a young man, however, he left home in 1818 and found occasional work as a tutor before arriving in Dublin in about 1819.
At some point after his arrival in Dublin, Carleton converted to protestantism. Through his friendship with the Fox family he began to build a career as a teacher and was also introduced to his future wife, Jane Anderson. He held a number of teaching jobs in Dublin, Mullingar, and Carlow, but had no success in any (being in fact arrested for debt on one occasion in the 1820s), but in 1827 he met the writer and magazine editor Caesar Otway (qv) and at the latter's suggestion wrote a number of stories for the Christian Examiner. The short stories for the Christian Examiner grew into a very successful series entitled Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, the work for which Carleton is best known. The first series was published in 1830 and a second series in 1833.
In the course of his career Carleton's work was published in a variety of journals and periodicals, whose political complexion ranged from the tory unionism of the Dublin University Magazine (in which Fardorougha the miser (1839), appeared first in serial form in 1837–8) to the romantic nationalism of the Nation. It was Carleton's friendship with Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), rather than any commitment to Young Ireland politics, that facilitated his relationship with the editors of the Nation, but it was nonetheless a highly significant development in his career. The influence of Thomas Davis (qv) and others encouraged him to address political and social themes in his novels Valentine McClutchy (1845), The black prophet (1847), and The emigrants of Ahadarra (1848). Carleton published prolifically, producing over twenty titles in his lifetime, including fourteen novels and a number of collections of tales and stories, many of which were reissued in a variety of editions over the years. The 1840s were the high point of his career: during this decade he enhanced the reputation he had established as the author of Traits and stories through the publication of his successful and well-regarded novels, and in 1848 he was granted a government pension. The long list of signatories to the petition on Carleton's behalf is astonishing not only for the eminence of the signatories, representing a cross-section of Irish intellectual and political life, but for the way in which it cuts across political and religious divides. The writing Carleton produced after The tithe proctor (1849), however, does not reach the quality of his earlier work, and in spite of his pension he experienced continual financial difficulties, arising in part from the need to support a large extended family. At his death he left behind him an unfinished Autobiography, which later formed part of David James O'Donoghue's (qv) The life of William Carleton: being his autobiography and letters; and an account of his life and writings from the point at which the autobiography breaks off (1896), and which remains the only reasonably comprehensive biographical account of the writer.
Carleton's works are indispensable for the study of nineteenth-century Ireland. Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, in particular, has been valued as a social document from which readers gain an insight into social and religious practices including wakes, weddings, faction-fights, secret societies, superstitions and popular beliefs, and so on. Carleton's importance in the history of Irish writing, however, rests not only on his claim to have a uniquely privileged access to the peasant world he depicted in his stories and novels, but also on the competing and often conflicting political and religious affiliations displayed in those works. The origins of his career give an indication of the dramatic tensions in his life and writing. In his Autobiography he claimed that his experiences while on a pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg in 1817 (recounted in fictional form in the story ‘The Lough Derg pilgrim’) ‘detached me from the Roman Catholic faith’, and the stories commissioned by Otway, an enthusiastic proselytiser for protestantism, contained overt and extensive anti-catholic propaganda. This propagandising function is in tension with Carleton's claims, in the general introduction to a revised, two-volume edition of Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry (1843), that his representations of peasant life are ‘scrupulously correct and authentic’, and that he, uniquely, is able to describe Irish peasants ‘as they are’, because he alone knows the people and has participated in the customs and practices of daily life that he describes. This, Carleton says, is ‘the only merit which I claim’. His perspective is an unusual and valuable one, given the distance and condescension which often characterises the representation of the lower-class Irish in this period, although the instability of his political and religious affiliations is equally as instructive an insight into the history and culture of nineteenth-century Ireland.
Instability is also evident in the language of Carleton's texts, in which a quite densely rendered Hiberno-English idiom, often featuring transliterated phrases in Irish, contrasts with a self-consciously literate and sometimes overpowering narrative voice. Among his Traits and stories, those singled out for special praise include ‘Wildgoose Lodge’, which takes as its subject a real-life incident involving the activities of a catholic secret society, the ‘Ribbonmen’, and the comic ‘Denis O'Shaughnessy going to Maynooth’, in which he provides, in the person of the ludicrously self-important protagonist, what can be read as a satirical portrait of his own younger self. Although some have considered Carleton's novels inferior to his short fiction, they offer fascinating examples of the ways in which Ireland and Irish conditions could be treated within the generic constraints of the novel form, with The black prophet attracting attention particularly because of its focus on the experience of famine.
As the list of signatories supporting Carleton's request for a government pension indicates, he achieved recognition and acclaim in his own lifetime. His work was admired by one of the pioneers of the Irish tale, Maria Edgeworth (qv), who added her name to the petition just two years before her death, saying that his writing gave ‘with masterly strokes and in such strong and vivid colours the pictures of our country's manners, her virtues and her vices’ (Donoghue, ii, 108). Edgeworth's admiration for Carleton is particularly noteworthy because Carleton himself records the strong and favourable impression made on him by a chance reading of her Castle Rackrent. Carleton's achievement was also hailed by W. B. Yeats (qv), who edited a selection of his short stories and described him as ‘the great novelist of Ireland, by right of the most Celtic eyes that ever gazed from under the brows of story-teller’.
Carleton died of cancer 30 January 1869, survived by his wife and two daughters; his daughter Rose predeceased him the previous year. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin. A portrait by J. S. Slattery is in the NGI. There are seventy-five letters addressed to Carleton in the D. J. O'Donoghue papers in UCD archives (MS LA15) as well as Carleton correspondence and papers in NLI. His novels are listed and their contents summarised in Loeber and Loeber's Guide to Irish fiction (2006).