William Carleton, born in Prillisk, County Tyrone, Ireland, on March 4, 1794, was educated in Irish hedge schools and later at the classical school at Donagh. As a young man he tried stonecutting, taxidermy, and other means of earning a livelihood, for his family was poor and he was the fourteenth child. Although his family had hoped he would become a priest, Carleton was so changed by a religious pilgrimage in 1813 that he gave up the idea of taking holy orders. A period of insecurity ensued, culminating in another pilgrimage, this time to Dublin, where he eventually found work as a writer. He married Jane Anderson in 1822 and became a member of the Church of Ireland. Subsequently, Carleton worked as a teacher and as a journalist, contributing to many Irish periodicals. He became famous as a writer when a collection of his stories was published as Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry in 1830. Several editions were sold, and in 1833 a second series was published. His novels met with less popular success, though the best of them—Fardorougha the Miser; Valentine McClutchy, the Irish Agent; and The Emigrants of Ahadarra—combine dark humor, scathing social commentary, and melodramatic events to give a searing and highly colored picture of Irish peasant conditions in the early nineteenth century. The Black Prophet was based on the Irish famine and typhus plague of the 1840’s and is typical of the novelist’s realism in writing about life in Ireland, especially among the peasants. The Emigrants of Ahadarra is an unsparing study of the landlord system. Most of the realistic detail in Carleton’s work was based on his own intimate knowledge of Irish life. Although he was a voluminous writer, he had constant financial difficulty until he was awarded a pension of two hundred pounds by Lord John Russell in 1848. Carleton died in Dublin on January 30, 1869.
Born to a poor, Catholic, rural family skilled in oral traditional literature and music, William Carleton was never formally educated; instead, he attended haphazard hedge schools along the roadside or in small buildings, operated by itinerant schoolmasters. Abandoning his peasant environment for Dublin, Carleton was eventually given the opportunity to write anti-Catholic stories and sketches. These became the basis for his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. He converted to Protestantism, married, and begot a large family, the support of which by his pen alone occasioned much hackwork. In time, Carleton’s work appeared in support of the whole spectrum of nineteenth century Irish cultural and ideological life, from the Tory Dublin University Magazine to the republican The Nation. Not even the granting, partly on political grounds, of a civil list pension alleviated his financial distress, and by the time of his death Carleton was a broken and embittered man.