Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fardorougha the Miser

William Carleton (1794-1896) was an Irish Catholic who converted to Protestantism, a middle-class man who presented himself as of Irish peasant stock. This contradictory character came to fame in 1830 with the publication of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. With several other writers of the pre-famine early 19th century such as John Banim (1798-1842) and Gerald Griffin (1803-1840) he is part of what is sometimes called the "Pre-Yeats Revival," as these writers were, like their mostly Anglo-Irish counterparts a century later, concerned to develop a distinctly Irish literature (although they wrote for the most part in English). In my view they are interesting as a window onto an Ireland that disappeared during the horrific 1840s.

Carleton is an Irish version of a character who frequently turns up in African and African-American literature, and who I encounter here in Puerto Rico. He is loyal to his country and its people but he is deeply conflicted. He has taken pains to "civilize" himself (I read the novel before researching him and I would have guessed he was Anglo-Irish), taking on the burden of the colonizer's education and language. He wants to contribute to moral uplift, but in practice this means condemnation of the self-destructive mores of the poor and oppressed people he aims to reform. Like members of the later Irish Revival such as Synge he was criticized for being too rough on the Irish. I recognized some of my colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico who are much rougher on the students than we extranjeros.

In the present novel we have two moral teachings. First there is the tragedy of the title character Fardorougha O'Donovan, who brings terrible suffering and near-destruction on his beloved son through his pathological relationship with money. Second there is some acute commentary on the moral decadence of the "ribbonmen" or "white boys," members of secret societies that evolved to enforce Irish notions of justice in the face of English legal oppression and then devolved, as such groups tend to do, into vehicles for gangsterish violence. Even in his discussion of these groups and their loss of moral bearings Carleton makes points that have universal application.

The novel is also fine for dialogue rendered in the period patois with lots of Irish phrases woven in and even occasional footnote translations. Apparently Carleton wrote an essay on Irish cursing and I am certainly going to try to get a copy of that. He has the love for the language that we expect from the Irish writer even though his own narrative voice is a somewhat overbearing faux-elevated English.

Other books related to this period of Irish history that have been subjects of previous posts here are Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French and Seamus Martin's Duggan's Destiny.