ON THIS DAY – DRIVETIME – 20 FEBRUARY, 1794 – Birth of William Carleton


One of the great Irish writers of the 19th century, William Carleton, was an author who made a huge impression early on in his career and is still most famous for the first book he ever published. Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry came out when he was in his early thirties. To literate Dubliners Carleton was a Protestant writer whose full-time job was as a clerk in the Church of Ireland Sunday School office. He was noted for his satiric takes on certain Roman Catholic rituals like penitential pilgrimages to Lough Derg. By the 1830s Carleton was a well regarded middle class Protestant writer with an eye for detail and dialogue who had managed to capture perfectly the vagaries, eccentricities and violence of the Irish Catholic peasant.

Which is why Carleton’s real background is doubly interesting. He was born into Catholic peasant stock in Co.Tyrone in 1794. He received much of his education in a variety of local ‘hedge schools’, informal educational establishments in the era prior to organized primary education. His early life was far from unproblematic. His family was evicted from their small-holding in 1813. Carleton himself, despite his later impeccable Protestant respectability, had at one time been a member of a local agrarian secret society. When his academic abilities had been noted he had also been aimed at the priesthood. But Carleton made his own choices rather than follow the road laid down for him by birth, tradition, and the will of others. If we are to believe the story ‘The Poor Scholar’ he reacted against the idea of the priesthood after being discouraged by a portentous dream

He left Tyrone in 1817 and worked as a hedge schoolmaster himself for a time before trying his luck in Dublin. He had little more than half a crown in his pocket. His luck held, he made some opportunistic adjustments to his life and prospered for a while. Though he had some early failures. He sought to join the army, for example, but it was suggested to him by a regimental Colonel that such a life might not be the best one for him. He had made his application in Latin.

Carleton has given us characters like Willie Reilly and his dear Colleen Bawn and the Squanders of Castle Squander while also writing a fictionalized but searing account of the Great Famine, The Black Prophet, published in the dark year of 1847.

Never a man given to political consistency he once offered to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to link Daniel O’Connell to agrarian crime but still managed to befriend the romantic nationalists of Young Ireland and contribute to their newspaper The Nation. Despite, or perhaps because of, his own Catholic birth, his writing on the subject of religion and politics, was virulently anti-Roman.

He died in 1869, the year William Gladstone dis-established the Church which he had joined in the 1820s.

Never good with money he had relied in the twilight of his life on a government pension after a successful petition from a wide range of Irish political and religious figures, including the the fiery Belfast Protestant evangelical preacher Dr.Harold Cooke and the President of the Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth College.

Carleton never quite extracted his foot entirely from the camp into which he was born, in Clogher, Co.Tyrone 219 years ago, on this day.