Regionalism Across the World in the Nineteenth Century
The Dilemma of William Carleton, Regional Writer and Subject of Empire
Barry Sloan (Emeritus Professor, University of Southampton)
peasantry, region, Ulster, colonialism, religion, history
William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry has long been recognised as one of the key nineteenth-century Irish literary texts and the masterpiece of a figure whose influence has extended to modern Irish writers such as John Montague and Seamus Heaney. Traits and Stories has been valued both for its vitality, humour and tragi-comedy and also as a unique record of the changing lives of the rural Catholic population in Ulster in the early years of the century. The circumstances of Carleton's own life also changed profoundly after he left Co Tyrone and sought to make his way as a writer among the Protestant literary class in Dublin. The implications of his decision to leave the Catholic church in favour of the established Protestant Church of Ireland have been of particular interest to critics who are divided in their views of the importance of this on his representations of Irish peasant life. This article focuses especially on the two longest commentaries Carleton wrote on his own work - the Preface to the first series of Traits and Stories published in 1830 at the beginning of his career, and the much more extensive Introduction to the definitive 'new edition' of the collected Traits and Stories of 1844, when he was an established literary figure. Using these texts, and making references to some of the stories, the article examines how they reveal the tensions between Carleton's sense of himself as an Irishman with a strong regional identity rooted in the north of country, and also as a colonial citizen of the British empire. It considers the importance of this dual awareness in his conception of his own position as a writer and on the way in which he presents his work with an eye not only to Irish readers, but to an English audience.
Barry Sloan is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Southampton. He has published extensively on nineteenth and twentieth-century Irish and English writing, most recently a chapter on 'Northern Irish Autobiography Since 1960' in A History of Irish Autobiography (2018), and a collection of essays, Rural-Urban Relationships in the Nineteenth Century: Uneasy Neighbours? (2016), co-edited with Mary Hammond.