Carleton and the Monaghan connection

By Seamus McCluskey

Described by many writers and historians as ‘The Walter Scott of Irish Literature’, William Carleton was born at Prillisk, near Clogher in Co. Tyrone, on Shrove Tuesday 1794, the youngest of fourteen children. His mother was both a lovely singer and a fluent Irish speaker and, from her, Carleton learned many of the old Irish love-songs and tragedies of his native land. He also learned and could converse fluently in Irish but, strangely, would use little of the native tongue in his later writings.

Carleton would eventually become one of the greatest Irish writers of the 19th century and was described thus by Sir Shane Leslie: - “Of all the Irish novelists Carleton survives supreme. In language, molten and style-less, he describes what was then no doubt the world’s finest peasantry. He was the Walter Scott of the humble Irish peasant. Professor York Powell thought that in many passages he surpassed Sir Walter by sheer sublimity of gloom and grandeur. His ‘Traits and Stories’ delineate inimitably the customs and humours and dialects of his time.”

From an early age Carleton was intended for the priesthood and, at age fifteen, he set off on foot from Aughnacloy, heading for Munster and a classical education that would enable him to later enter Maynooth. He got as far as Granard in Co. Longford where he found lodgings for the night but, following a dreadful nightmare in which he saw himself being gored by a massive bull, he wakened up in a dreadful sweat and the following morning, instead of continuing his journey to Munster, headed back to Clogher and home. For some reason he took this as a sign that he was not meant for the priesthood but he still lodged for a classical education.

After a few years at home doing as little as possible, he discovered that there was a classical teacher named Fr. John Keenan, who ran a classical school at Glennan, between Emyvale and Glaslough in Co. Monaghan. What was even better, this priest was actually a distant relation of his own. He immediately set out for Glennan where he met Fr. Keenan and arranged to become one of his pupils. Interestingly, in his Autobiography he describes his meeting with Fr. Keenan, stating that the priest treated him - “to a bumper of as a good poteen as ever ran through the eye of a still.”
“My beloved Co. Monaghan”

Carleton spent three years, 1811 to 1814, under the tuition of Fr. Keenan, a period which he later described in a letter to his sister, written a short time before his death. thus: - “had my beloved Co. Monaghan been as full as local songs as it was of religious and political songs, I would never have left it.”

It was also during his period in North Monaghan that he got the inspiration for one of his best known stories “The fair of Emyvale”. In that same novel, he nick-named the old Monaghan jail, which stood where Monaghan Courthouse now stands as ‘Johnny Short’s Hotel’, a name that would stick for many years thereafter. Johnny Short had been the prison governor, who also had a unique arrangement with his inmates - he would release the thieves and pick-pockets on fair days and market-days, when the rich farmers from the surrounding countryside would all be in town, on condition that they would share their spoils with him on their return in the evenings. Apparently, the arrangement worked well as there are no records of any prisoners absconding while being accorded this privilege.

While in the North Monaghan area also, Carleton became familiar with the stories of the notorious land-agent named Dacre Hamilton, and his cruelty to tenants on estates in the vicinity of the town. Carleton would use this in his story “Valentine McClutchy”, his pseudonym for the detested Hamilton.
In 1814 Fr Keenan left Co. Monaghan to open a much larger school in Dundalk, and Carleton completed his classical education with a Fr. Thomas Campbell in Errigal Truagh parish. He then decided to leave for Dublin where he might be employed as a teacher. In his autobiography he writes, describing his departure: - “I never slackened by pace till I had gone a distance of more than twenty-five miles, some miles indeed beyond the town of Castleblayney. Near Castleblayney a widow kept a ‘carman’s inn’ for many years. I had also been told that there was a distant relationship between our families and hers. I knew, besides, that a niece of hers with whom I was well acquainted had been residing with her and I resolved to call with them. I did so, and nothing could be more affectionate or hospitable than their reception.”

He slept in Blayney’s Bed
Surprisingly, the woman of the house told him that he would not sleep there that night but would instead sleep in a fine dwelling nearby. Pointing it out to Carleton, she said: - “that’s Lord Blayney’s Shooting Lodge and you’ll have the honour of sleeping in his bed this night,” which Carleton duly did and which he thus describes in his autobiography - “and rightly soundly I slept in it.”

The following day Carleton proceeded to a house in the parish of Killanny, most of which lies in Co. Monaghan, but portion of which is also in Co. Louth. A former school-friend of his, Edward McArdle, was now Parish Priest of Killanny and resided there with a family called Cassidy. The house was situated about three miles from Carrickmacross and also a short distance from the celebrated ‘Wildgoose Lodge’ which had been the scene of a dreadful tragedy the previous year, when a family named Lynch had been burnt in their home by a band of Ribbonmen. Carleton, who met some of those involved would later write an account of this outrage in this tragic story of the same name - ‘Wildgoose Lodge’.

The inspiration for this story came to Carleton one day while he was in Killanny and had gone out for a walk to the small village of Corcreagh in South Monaghan, only to come across a number of soldiers and what he describes as a tar sack dangling from a high beam of wood ... “the sack kept gently dangling backward and forward in obedience to the wind and I could perceive lone drops of slime shining in the light, and dangling from the bottom.” He was informed that this was a gibbet and that the pitched sack contained the body of a man named Paddy Devaun, one of those accused of the murder of the family in Wildgoose Lodge. The scene had a traumatic effect on Carleton - hence one of his best known stories.

This, however, was not the only gibbet Carleton would see in the parish of Killanny. He would later record: - “Sometimes two bodies, or rather two sacks, might be seen hanging after the manner of Devaun. On more that one occasion I have seen four. The gibbets were set up near the residences of those who had been convicted of the crime.”

Getting a lift in a herse
Carleton then found employment as a tutor to the children of the family of a Mr. Pierse Murphy, also in Killanny parish. There he would get the inspiration for yet another of his wonderful stories, and the very large Murphy farm he later described as belonging to the ‘Bodagh Buie O’Brien’ in his story “The Miser”. Here too, Carleton frequented a respectable public house in Corcreagh, owned by a Peter Byrne and his brothers. While drinking there he met a bling piper named Gaynor, whom he later called “Talbot” in the ‘Gunn and Cameron’s Journal’. He also describes many of the house dances that he attended in this South Monaghan parish and where he joined in the local dances, describing his own dancing prowess thus -” In reel, jig or hornpipe, I was unapproachable,” for which he was duly rewarded with a bottle of the hard stuff from a local shebeen.

Carleton eventually decided to leave Killanny and head for Dublin. Following receipt of his first quarter salary from the Murphy’s he went to Carrickmacross where he bought some new clothes. He then travelled to Dundalk, getting a lift to that town in the back of a hearse. Arriving at the house of his former tutor Fr. John Keenan who had been extremely ill for a period previously, the ailing priest saw him arrive in the hearse and taking umbrage at what he perceived as a Carleton insult to his state of health, refused to let him enter. Peace soon prevailed however, and Carleton got lodgings for the night and set off for Dublin the next morning, thus ending his connection with Co. Monaghan for good.
These are just some of the Co. Monaghan connections and stories that figure prominently in Carleton’s writings. The novels are included in his truly magnificent “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”. His first ever story “The Freeholders of Derrygola” is a Monaghan story, while his poem “The Churchyard Bride” tells the story of the legendary ghost that was reputed to haunt old graveyard at Errigal near the Blackwater in North Monaghan. No wonder that this great writer was much admired by Patrick Kavanagh of Inniskeen, and many would say that he was even imitated by that great Co. Monaghan writer of the modern era.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2003