Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
By the time he published The Emigrants of Ahadarra in 1848, William Carleton was considered the truest novelist of Ireland’s “awfullest hours,” and William Butler Yeats was to concede that the Irish novel began with Carleton. The Emigrants of Ahadarra was avowedly written not to amuse but to reform and inform. First published while Ireland’s potato famine was raging, the work is informative and readable. Its folkloric value is enhanced by Carleton’s exuberance and hyperbole, which are similar to the imaginative flights that created the ancient Celtic wonder tales.
The novel loftily defends virtue. Kathleen’s simple dignity and virtue are not cloying but almost biblical and contrast with the paler virtues of other characters. Bridget M’Mahon, Bryan’s mother, is also convincingly admirable and uniquely graces the story, which expounds human ideals. Landlords are near-ogres, members of secret societies, and Orangemen (although to a less prominent degree than in other of Carleton’s works), but many individuals are tenderly etched. The novel is realistic, and in the Spain of the same era it would have been classified as costumbrista owing to its museum-like presentation of customs.
Modern scholars sometimes criticize The Emigrants of Ahadarra for allegedly sloppy construction, mushy sentiment, and—curiously enough—vagueness of purpose. Carleton is also accused of inserting excessive scenery and folklore for their own sake rather than to augment the novel’s dramatic effect. Carleton did lack the benefit of proofreading by his publishers, but the novel accomplishes its obvious objective of dramatizing the life of the Irish country people of the time. Even its supposedly overdone rhetoric does not bore the reader.
It may be argued that readers have an accurate picture of the famine-ravaged Irish peasants from Carleton alone. Carleton was an enigmatic novelist who hated landlordism and the Penal Laws and who was a convert to Protestantism in a very Catholic land, but he scarcely owed loyalty only to his own pen, as some have asserted. Furthermore, some critics have conceded that they did not really know Irish life until they read The Emigrants of Ahadarra.
Carleton’s fiction is best known for its realistic pictures of Irish peasant life during the nineteenth century, and The Emigrants of Ahadarra is one of his best novels in this respect. The most noteworthy sections are the chapters describing such things as a “kemp” (a spinning contest among the peasant women), a country funeral, an election, and the illegal distillation of whiskey. While Carleton’s treatment of these matters is outstanding, the entire novel is filled with specific and colorful details of peasant life. The speech and character of the people, their homes, the farm routine, landlord-peasant relations, and whiskey smuggling—all are related with a view to giving the reader a true picture of rural Irish life in the nineteenth century.