He was born at Prillisk, Clogher, Co. Tyrone. His father was a tenant farmer, who supported fourteen children on as many acres, and young Carleton passed his early life among scenes similar to those he later described in his books. His father had an extraordinary memory and a thorough acquaintance with Irish folklore; the mother was noted throughout the district for her lovely voice. The character of Honor, the miser's wife, in Fardorougha, is said to be based on her.
Carleton received a basic education. As his father moved from one small farm to another, he attended various hedge schools, which used to be a notable feature of Irish life. A picture of one of these schools occurs in the sketch called "The Hedge School" included in Traits and Stories of Irish Peasantry. Most of his learning was gained from a curate named Keenan, who taught a classical school at Donagh (Co. Monaghan), which Carleton attended from 1814 to 1816. Before this Carleton had hoped to obtain an education as a poor scholar at Munster, with a view to entering the church; but in obedience to a warning dream, the story of which is told in the Poor Scholar, he returned home, where he was admired by the neighbouring peasantry for his supposed learning. An amusing account of this period is given in the sketch, "Denis O'Shaughnessy."
Aged about nineteen, he undertook one of the religious pilgrimages then common in Ireland. His experiences as a pilgrim, narrated in "The Lough Derg Pilgrim," made him give up the thought of entering the church, and he eventually became a Protestant. His vacillating ideas as to a mode of life were determined by reading Gil Blas. He decided to try what fortune had in store for him. He went to Killanny, Co Louth, and for six months acted as tutor in the family of a farmer, Piers Murphy. After some other experiments he set out for Dublin, arriving with two shillings and sixpence in his pocket.
He first sought occupation as a bird-stuffer, but a proposal to use potatoes and meal as stuffing failed to recommend him. He then tried to become a soldier, but the colonel of the regiment dissuaded him--Carleton had applied in Latin. He obtained some teaching and a clerkship in a Sunday School office, began to contribute to journals, and "The Pilgrimage to Lough Derg," which was published in the Christian Examiner, attracted great attention. In 1830 appeared the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (2 vols.), which immediately placed Carleton in the first rank of Irish novelists. A second series (3 vols.), containing, among other stories, "Tubber Derg, or the Red Well," appeared in 1833, and Tales of Ireland in 1834. From that time till within a few years of his death he wrote constantly. “Fardorougha the Miser, or the Convicts of Lisnamona” appeared in 1837-1838 in the Dublin University Magazine. Among his other novels are:
Carleton wrote from intimate acquaintance with the scenes he described, and drew with a sure hand a series of pictures of peasant life, unsurpassed for their appreciation of the passionate tenderness of Irish home life, of the buoyant humour and the domestic virtues which would, under better circumstances, bring prosperity and happiness. He alienated the sympathies of many Irishmen, however, by his unsparing criticism and occasional exaggeration of the darker side of Irish character. He was in his own words the "historian of their habits and manners, their feelings, their prejudices, their superstitions and their crimes." (Preface to Tales of Ireland.)
During the last months of his life Carleton began an autobiography which he brought down to the beginning of his literary career. This forms the first part of The Life of William Carleton ... (2 vols., 1896), by DJ O'Donoghue, which contains full information about his life, and a list of his scattered writings. A selection from his stories (1889), in the "Camelot Series," has an introduction by Mr WB Yeats.
He must not be confused with Will Carleton (b. 1845), the American author of Farm Ballads (1873).