(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most popular of William Carleton’s short stories are contained in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, read and appreciated by diverse artists such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Edgar Allan Poe. Fairy tales, local legends, and episodes from his life and the lives of his neighbors constitute the subject matter of Carleton’s short fiction. Years after he left his native province, Carleton still wrote about it; in one story, “Ned M’Keown,” the characters’ names are the real names of his neighbors.

Of the nineteen tales edited for the five volumes of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, most record an event in the community, including “Shane Fadh’s Wedding,” “Larry M’Farland’s Wake,” “The Battle of the Factions,” “The Party Fight and Funeral,” “Tubber Derg,” “The Hedge School,” “The Station,” “The Midnight Mass,” “The Horse Stealers,” “An Essay on Irish Swearing,” “Wildgoose Lodge,” “Denis O’Shaughnessy Going to Maynooth,” and “Phelim O’Toole’s Courtship.” Carleton also describes people in stories such as “Mickey M’Rory, the Country Fiddler,” “Neal Malone,” “Rose Moan,” “Mary Murray, the Irish Match-Maker,” “Buckram-Back, the Country Dancing Master,” and “Bob Pentland, the Irish Smuggler.” Carleton’s fairy tales, a mixture of the real and the unreal, are generally not of a fantastic nature; “The Three Tasks: Or, The Little House Under the Hill,” “Frank Martin and the Fairies,” and “The Pudding Bewitched,” for example, dramatize the relationship between the country people and characters from the spirit world. Carleton presents a panoramic view of his culture, colored by his own perception of people and events. “The Three Tasks: Or, The Little House Under the Hill,” “The Lough Derg Pilgrim,” “Phelim O’Toole’s Courtship,” and “Tubber Derg” represent the range of his fiction.

“The Three Tasks”

In the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, the lead story, Ned M’Keown, introduces characters who, like Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims, tell stories to one another as they sit around Ned’s fireplace. The characters are not fictitious but are actual people who lived in the region described, and who are recollected from the author’s youth. “The Three Tasks: Or, The Little House Under the Hill” is the tale Ned M’Keown tells to entertain his visitors on a stormy night at Kilrudden. In the story, Jack Magennis meets a dark man and a pipe-smoking talking dog who offer Jack riches if he wins a card game but servitude if he loses. Since Jack “heard of men being made up entirely by the fairies, till there was no end to their wealth,” he agrees to play. When he loses, Jack asks for a year’s grace so he can provide for his widowed mother. At the appointed hour, the dog appears with a green ribbon and a spyglass about his neck and Wellington boots upon his hind legs to take Jack to the dark man’s castle.

At the castle, Jack is shown a long room with 365 hooks, all but one holding a man’s head. By nightfall, if he is to avoid decapitation, Jack must clean a stable that has not been cleaned in seven years. Unable to clean the stable, in his frustration Jack sings an Irish song and dances the hornpipe at triple time, attracting the attention of a beautiful young lady. Magically, she gets the task done, and Jack’s life is spared. He must accomplish two other tasks, however: to catch a wild filly and to rob a crane’s nest high in a tree on an island. The beautiful lady helps Jack to bridle the filly and get the crane’s eggs. In his haste, Jack leaves one of the lady’s toes, used to climb the tree, on the island. The master will know who has helped Jack, so the lady informs him that she must flee from the castle or be killed. Now in love with each other, the couple escapes on the filly’s back.

Following the traditional folk motifs of the chase, the pair eludes the pursuing villain and his party. On three occasions, Jack delays their progress. From the filly’s right ear, a dry stick, a pebble, and a drop of green water produce a forest, rocky roads, and finally a lake to drown the dark man. Arriving safely in Ireland, the beauty tells Jack that a cache of gold lies buried near his mother’s cottage. He finds it but forgets about the lady. Rich and famous, Jack is to marry the daughter of a nobleman. At the wedding feast, the talking dog appears followed by a man on horseback who claims the bride-to-be was pledged to him. Then Jack, his lips touched by the dog’s paw, suddenly remembers his adventures and finds his beautiful benefactor. A double wedding takes place. As Jack is to join his bride in the nuptial chamber, he is awakened by his mother from a long dream. He loses his bride but finds the gold, accounting for the Magennis wealth.

“The Three Tasks: Or, The Little House Under the Hill” illustrates the dual nature of the fairies; some will help people and others will harm them, a characteristic of the Irish oral literary tradition. Unlike the Scots, whose fairies are usually demonic, and the English, whose fairies were banished during the Age of Enlightenment, the Irish treasure them and invent a variety of adventures between humans and the good and bad inhabitants of the woods, water, and the air. Folk beliefs, because of the cultural acceptance of a preternatural world, are naturally a part of Irish realistic tales. Such stories often have three dominant themes: the relationship of the people to their church, land, and family, as demonstrated in “The Lough Derg Pilgrim,” “Phelim O’Toole’s Courtship,” and “Tubber Derg.”

“The Lough Derg Pilgrim”

“The Lough Derg Pilgrim,” first published in 1828 as “A Pilgrimage to Patrick’s Purgatory” in The Christian Examiner, an anti-Catholic journal of the Church of Ireland, appeared under Carleton’s pseudonym, Wilton. It was actually coauthored by Caesar Otway, the journal’s editor and an ardent foe of...

(The entire section is 2490 words.)