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“The Historian of his people”. Is this an accurate description of William Carleton?

“The Historian of his people”. Is this an accurate description of William Carleton?

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This essay will address Carleton’s authority as legitimate ‘chronicler’ of the Irish peasantry as an ‘insider’, primarily in his introduction to the Traits and Stories; and then how and why in several of his ‘traits and stories’ contradicts this, as he becomes the ‘outsider’ distanced and conflicted by the complexity of his task, his agendas and his identity.
This essay will address Carleton’s authority as legitimate ‘chronicler’ of the Irish peasantry as an ‘insider’, primarily in his introduction to the Traits and Stories; and then how and why in several of his ‘traits and stories’ contradicts this, as he becomes the ‘outsider’ distanced and conflicted by the complexity of his task, his agendas and his identity.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
Matthew CallaghanENG 30240: 19
th
Century Literature and CultureEssay 1: “The Historian of his people”. Is this an accurate description of WilliamCarleton?
What is an historian? The OED defines it very simply as “an expert in or student of history
1
.It is such an ambiguous and loaded term that it is impossible to declareabsolutely that William Carleton was an historian or that he wasn’t . What is for sure isthat Carleton considered himself as such, and perhaps we should take him at his word,albeit with a pinch of salt. It would certainly seem that a key part of his mission as awriter was a preoccupation with preserving the stories and traditions of an Irish culturalidentity which he felt was quickly disappearing. But he was also a lot of other things: afictional writer with an ambition to make a name for himself; the self proclaimed creator of a national Irish literature, although written in English; a converted protestant with acatholic inflicted chip on his shoulder 
2
; and a man torn between an instinctive anddefensive pride about his Irishness, and a sense of embarrassment and awkwardnessabout just that identity. As an historian he was a very complicated figure. The questionthen becomes not whether or not he is the historian of his people, but rather, with whatsuccess does he accurately represent his people as their historian. This essay will addressCarleton’s claims of authority as legitimate ‘chronicler’ (perhaps a better word) of theIrish peasantry as an ‘insider’, primarily in his auto-biographical introduction to the
Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry
; and then will look at how and why his writingin several of his ‘traits and stories’ contradicts what he sets out to do, as he becomes the‘outsider’ distanced and conflicted by the complexity of the nature of his task, hisagendas and his identity.Carlton begins his autobiographical introduction by stating that “it will benaturally expected…that the author should endeavour to prepare the minds of his
1
OED "historian
n.
"
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary
, Twelfth edition . Ed. Catherine Soanes andAngus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Oxford Reference Online
. Oxford UniversityPress. University College Dublin. 24 February 2009<http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t23.e26272>
2
See Howes
 
readers… for understanding more clearly [the] general character, habits of thought andmodes of feeling” of the Irish peasantry. He goes on to explain how it “is a task which theauthor undertakes more for the sake of his country than himself” and how he ‘rejoices’ inthe opportunity to remove “many absurd prejudices which have existed for timeimmemorial against his countrymen” (Carleton i). What is this “time immemorial” if nota reference to history; and those “many absurd prejudices” if not its horrendousmisrepresentation; and that “task which the author undertakes” if not a declaration of hisintent to rewrite it as it should have been, removed of the “gross and overchargedcaricature” with which he had always been associated? From this very first page of whatis a very dense and passionate but also paradoxically light and logical passage, Carletonis declaring himself ‘chronicler’ of the Irish people “as they exist and are depicted in thesubsequent volumes” (i).This misrepresented history is largely the history of literature which “passed fromthe stage into the recesses of private life” (iii), moving from stereotype to prejudice, fromobject of ridicule to object of contempt, for as Carleton declares (perhaps somewhat presumptuously) “the man you laugh at, you will soon despise” (iii). The Irishman hadalways been portrayed as “the buffoon of the piece, uttering language which, wherever itmay have been found, was at all events never heard in Ireland”(ii). He defends theIrishman’s reputation for a lack of articulacy as being the result not of some innatestupidity of the Irish race, but of “having to use a language which they do not properlyunderstand” (ii). After all he argues “the language of our people has been for centuries,and is up to the present day, in a transition state.” He also points out the distinct lack of education in Ireland, which led to the development and perpetuation of those stereotypes.“The Irishman was not only
not 
educated, but actually punished for attempting to acquireknowledge in the first place, and in the second, punished also for the ignorance created by its absence” (xviii). He also seeks to explain, if not justify, much of the agrarianviolence committed by the Irish peasantry, not as inherent qualities of the people but asthe desperate measures taken by people in desperate means “treated with apathy andgross neglect by the only class to whom they could or ought to look up for sympathy and protection” (xx). “God forbid that I for a moment should become the apologist of crime”(xix) he says but “is it any wonder, then… that neglect, and poverty, and ignorance
 
combined should give to the country a character for turbulence and outrage?” (xviii).Indeed, any country with the same conditions would produce the same trends, he argues,and apart from the fact that Ireland had such low levels of personal and domestic comfort“there is no doubt that the
historian
would have a much darker catalogue of crime torecord than he has” (xviii my italics). Here the idea of historian is literally expressed, andit is interesting that he is referred to only in his function of recording violence or crime.What Carleton sets out to do is write the back-story, the people and the stories behind thehistorical events. Thus as those British authors had ‘created’ such a misdirected history of Ireland, and the Irish people, Carleton intended to write a better and more accurate one.The key point here is that both histories, the traditional one and the ‘better’ version, are being written through literary forms, rather than a historical one, and this producesvarious problems which will be dealt with in later paragraphs.He also takes great pains to justify his suitability and authority as an interpreter and recorder of the ‘traits and stories of the Irish peasantry’. He wished to give “proofssufficiently valid, that I come to a subject of such difficulty with unusual advantages onmy side, and that , consequently, my exhibitions of Irish peasant life, in its mostcomprehensive sense, may be relied on as truthful and authentic” (viii). He talks of his parents: his father “the teller of old tales, legends and historical anecdotes”(viii), as theguardian of the stories and histories of the past which he passed down to his son; and hismother, who “possessed the sweetest and most exquisite of human voices” (ix) and withwhom “I very much fear that some valuable [old songs], both as to words and airs, have perished” (ix-x). As such, Carlton sees himself in a unique position, having been witnessto this ‘perishing’ culture, he is able to record it in his writings, and as he says, since hischildhood “I have hardly since heard…any single tradition, usage or legend, that…was perfectly new to me or unheard before, in some similar or cognate dress” (ix).This claim to authenticity – itself reminiscent of the language of historiography -is a theme which is mentioned repeatedly, but who is he trying to convince? Is he tryingto win the trust of his English readership in terms of his reliability as go-between, or is hetrying to justify himself to his own people, as being their qualified representative despitehis use of the English language and his constant referral to ‘them’, what ‘they’ do, andwhat is ‘theirs’? It would seem that the former is the more likely conclusion. As he states

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