AN APPRECIATION OF HUBERT BUTLER
Reading Hubert Butler can be a disturbing experience. How was it possible that so
elegant a writer, so passionate a humanist, so universal a spirit, had to wait until he
was in his eighties to get the international recognition he deserved?
It could be that in his homeland (and he was an Irishman before all else), as a member
of the Irish landed gentry, an agnostic Protestant in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic
country, he was, for many years, read through a veil of resentment: who does he think
hes speaking for? Why should we listen to him? Doesnt he know the days of the
Protestant Ascendancy are over?
Of course, he had his admirers in Ireland in that narrow strip where the literary and
more open-minded academic world met, but Butler no doubt offended even in this restricted
forum by reason of his effortless elitism and independence of spirit. He did not begin
writing seriously until he was in his forties, published his first book when he was
seventy-two, and throughout his life, never had to please an editor, the critics, or a
university tenure committee. He never seems to have been commissioned by editor or
publisher and wrote about those matters that most touched and pleased him.
Although he was conscious of the difficulties of doing scholarly work without the
resources near at hand of a first-rate library or minds of a similar bent, he believed he
was maintaining an old tradition of the amateur historian and country antiquarian working
in isolation, as opposed to the ranks of what he would have called the self-interested and
subsidised specialist, by which he meant university men and women and the state employees
who controlled national monuments and museums. In this respect he could be quite
aggressive, in an implacably polite way: the universities and academies, he claimed, were
often the enemies of inquiry and culture and this was especially the case in the fields of
anthropology and archaeology, two of his key interests.
Butler was able to fulfill his own ideal: the settled man with his own fields, his
place in a long line and proliferation of Anglo-Norman Butlers, too sure of himself to
need to compete, too convinced of the rightness of the causes he took up to need to bother
about what those in power said or thought. He was, in every way, his own man.
This self-confidence was the product of an upper-class upbringing and education and of
an unstrident, dispassionate mind. He was steeped in the history and culture of Ireland
and knew most of his eminent Irish contemporaries. But what makes his patriotism
exceptional is that he had travelled and lived in regions far from his native County
Kilkenny. He was thus able to see the world through the prism of his own background and,
at the same time, experience Ireland, and the tensions of its early years as an
independent state, through the experience of other European countries emerging from the
wreck of the Hapsburg and Tsarist empires.
His first-hand knowledge of Irish grievances and of civil war, in which the houses of
many of those close to his family (including one belonging first to his grandmother, then
his uncle) had been destroyed, gave him a key to the complex situations which existed in
eastern and central Europe, notably in the former Yugoslavia, a country which fascinated
him and which inspired several long essays. It would have helped the general public to
understand the reasons for the recent horrors there if Butlers writings on ethnic
cleansing and forced conversion and the persecution of the Serbs and Jews in Croatia had
been reprinted: a great missed publishing opportunity.
Butler was born in 1900, and when his first book came out, in 1972, his publishers described him as a classical scholar of Oxford and a
Slavist. He has done all the things usual to the scholar-journalist of his
generation. He has broadcast on the BBC and...contributed to many journals, English and
Irish, founded local societies and participated in all the fierce controversies of the
day. He has visited China and Siberia and USA and written about them. He has taught
English literature in Yugoslavia and Cairo and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He has lectured
on Irish literature at the Union of Writers in Moscow. But for the past thirty years he
has lived at home in the house where he was born. It looks across the Nore valley towards
the cult-centres of a dozen saints, whose lives he has closely studied. He has found them
more interesting and relevant to us than anything he has seen in four continents.
Butlers own A Fragment of Autobiography, written in 1987,
filled out the background of his early years. Like most of the children of the Anglo-Irish
ascendancy in Ireland, he was educated at English schools. From the start he showed an
original turn of mind. His early enthusiasm for trigonometry arose from his realization
that there was an abstract world which ran parallel to the treacherous concrete one
and could not be reached from it. I had stopped believing in Heaven and everything I had
been told about it.... Here in trigonometry was an escape route I could believe in.
This love affair ended during his first term at Charterhouse, a private school near
London, when in broad daylight the Cambridge-educated teacher told his class
about functions: the subject was no longer numinous and mystical and I scarcely
minded not understanding. Instead, he studied Greek. It was about this time, too,
that, passing through a Dublin still smoking after the Easter Rebellion, he
decided: I was an Irish Nationalist. This led to constant quarrelling with my
He enjoyed his time at Oxford, when all my thoughts and hopes were about
Ireland. About this time he began to meet the leading figures in the Irish literary
and political renaissance, including Yeats and Sir Horace Plunkett, who urged Butler to
join the Irish county libraries, which in those days were run by an organization that
covered the whole of Ireland without division. Butler says he had a motorcycle and
discovered the varied beauties of my country and the rich diversity of its
people. This choice of a career ran counter to his familys ideas. His father
wanted him to take over the running of the estate; his mother hoped he might enter the
British Foreign Office where a distant relative, Lord Grey, had been the minister in
charge of foreign affairs.
Butler left the library service and began his period of European wandering. He became
sufficiently fluent in Russian to translate a novel by Leonid Leonov, and his translation
of Chekhovs THE CHERRY ORCHARD was performed in London in 1934.
In 1938 he was working at the Quaker centre in Vienna, helping,
as far as resources permitted, Austrian Jews to escape the Nazi terror. He later said this
was the happiest period of his life.
In 1941, Butlers father died and he returned with his wife,
Peggy, the sister of the great actor-manager Tyrone Guthrie, to County Kilkenny. He did
not farm. Instead, he allowed his brother to take over most of the land while he started
reinvigorating local cultural life of Kilkenny. Butler helped to revive the archaeological
society, and in the 1960s, became involved in the creation of an art
gallery in Kilkenny Castle.
It was after his return to Ireland that Butler began to contribute to magazines, mostly
Irish, with limited readerships. In time he wrote for the Dublin papers and broadcast on
Irish and British radio. When his first book came out, his restricted audience was further
reduced by the esoteric subject: TEN THOUSAND SAINTS: A STUDY IN IRISH AND
This book, published by the Wellbrook Press in Kilkenny, attempted to rationalise what
might be called the excess of saints in early Irish history. The book was based on
Butlers conviction that the 10,000 saints, though key
figures in the unravelling of our past, were, like the ancestors, not real people but
ingenious and necessary fabrications of the mind.
Patiently, like a man fitting together a giant jig-saw puzzle, Butler grouped the
ancestors and the saints with the different continental tribes which, he believed, had
come to Ireland.
The work was the fruit of years of research and meditation and was not a complete
surprise to those who had read Butlers earlier, often provocative, essays on the
same theme. In his introduction to the book, Butler deplored the absence of response to
his writings (even when I make absurd mistakes) and asked whether this was
because archaeology, as our grandfathers knew it, is dead? Or was it that
the old reverence for the Irish saints is totally gone?
The questions were still unanswered when, in 1985, another
publisher, The Lilliput Press, of Dublin, brought out the first selection of Butlers
essays, ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL, and showed the general reader the
real range of Butlers interests and sympathies.
It was the beginning of Butlers international fame. The book won the
American-Irish Foundation Literary Award in 1986 and was followed by
a second collection, THE CHILDREN OF DRANCY, in 1988
(it won the 1989 Irish Book Award Silver Medal for Literature) and a
third, GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE, in 1990.
The three books follow, more or less, the same formula: essays on Irish subjects
counterpointed with essays about the world outside Ireland, the one illuminating the
Within a range of themes as varied as this, every reader finds subjects of special
interest. For me the most illuminating are those essays in which Butler treats of Irish
matters often written against the accepted wisdom and what might be called the collective
pressure of the time.
It is salutary to be reminded during these years of the celebration of the new Ireland
-- freed by its membership in the European economic union of domination by Britain, and
apparently having entered what some call a post-Catholic phase -- how restricted, how
narrow, the early years of Irish independence were: there was strict censorship of books,
divorce and abortion were forbidden, and Irish neutrality often seemed to lean over
backwards to absolve the Germans of their excesses. Thus, the first photos from the Belsen
concentration camp were widely regarded as British propaganda fakes. Butlers
reminder of it makes very uncomfortable reading.
During this period he spoke up for the minority, although he knew that speaking openly
in the circumstances of the time could rekindle old hatreds and prejudices. He also
refused to allow his own class, the Anglo-Irish, to be written out of Irish history. He
liked to remind his readers that it was the people of his kind who had been the backbone
of Irish nationalism, and his arguments were often spiced with tiny details intended to
shake the new assumptions about who were the real Irish, who were the real nationalists.
In a review of Brian Ingliss WEST BRITON, a book he did not
much admire, Butler stressed the role of small Protestant minorities in creating the idea
of both American and Irish independence. He cites the unorthodox Anglicans from Virginia
and the unorthodox non-conformists from Massachusetts who were at the head of the American
campaign for independence, and then recalls that when the War of Independence broke out,
Belfast Protestants lit bonfires and sent congratulations to George Washington while
Dublin Catholics sent loyal messages to George III. Ireland might
not be the dull, divided little island which it is today if those groups, north and south,
to whom the idea of independence is chiefly due, had played a greater part in its
Butlers most spectacular falling-out with the powers of Irish bigotry was in 1952. It arose from his horrified interest in what had taken place in
Croatia during the Nazi occupation, when the puppet Croatian government -- staunchly Roman
Catholic and anti-Semitic -- started its campaign against the Serb Orthodox minority and
The Croatian Minister of the Interior, Artukovitch, was the master-mind behind the
campaign in which 750,000 Orthodox and 30,000
Jews were massacred, and 240,000 Orthodox forcibly converted to
Roman Catholicism. Because of the cruelty of this operation, Artukovitch was later known
as the Himmler of Yugoslavia.
After the war Artukovitch escaped to Austria and Switzerland, and then, in 1947, took up residence in Ireland, with the connivance of the Roman
Catholic Church and the Irish Government. A year later, armed with an Irish identity card,
he left for the United States. Shortly before that date, while visiting old friends in
Zagreb, Butler had been to a city library to read local newspaper accounts of life in
wartime Croatia. He came back to Ireland determined to expose those people in his own
country who had aided the war criminal to escape justice. A long essay, The
Artukovitch File, gives Butlers account of his detective work in tracing
Artukovitchs life in Ireland.
In 1952, at a lecture in Dublin about the persecution of the
Roman Catholic Church by the Yugoslav communist regime, Butler rose to remind the audience
about the Roman Catholic treatment of the Orthodox in Croatia, and the Papal Nuncio, who
was in the hall, walked out. There was a press campaign against Butler. So powerful was
local feeling against him that he felt obliged to resign from the Kilkenny Archaeological
Society, and only a handful of people were prepared to come to his defence. Butlers
stand was courageous and right.
His fearlessness is also well illustrated in an essay, Little K, written in
1967 but published much later. This was inspired by the tragedy of a
grand-daughter whose body has changed but her mental age remains the same.
Butler faces up to the issue of the way society treats people he calls mental
defectives and analyzes the arguments for and against some radical solution such as
euthanasia. It is a disturbing and lucid examination of the problem, and it could be that
the theme and the high seriousness with which is was treated inspired its choice for
republication in the first ANCHOR ESSAY ANNUAL 1997, edited by
Phillip Lopate, to be published later this year.
I never knew Butler during his years of travel but saw him in Ireland, at Maidenhall,
at a period when he was preparing the first batch of essays for publication. I received a
bundle of them, all photocopied, just before they came out as ESCAPE FROM
The Butlers were very sociable, and people came and went; and on one occasion, in the
midst of an animated conversation, Butler came into the room carrying a sheet of foolscap
paper, held by one corner, and a pen. He was composing one of his essays, and moved about
the furniture listening to his own sentences forming and also to what we were saying. It
seemed a special gift, to be able to write like that, carrying the theme in the head and
then, when the words jelled, putting them down at once, placing the foolscap on the
nearest flat surface. I have no idea if Butler usually wrote that way; but it was his
method that day.
His interventions were sometimes a bit intimidating. Of someone talking about
landowners who opened their houses to the public Butler asked, pointedly: Had you a
specific house in mind? He was also quick to correct what he took to be
mispronunciations, but in a manner as to arouse no offence. He conveyed the sense that
there was a right way and a wrong way, so why not choose to be correct?
The perfect example of Butlers calm assertion on a small point was a letter he
wrote to the Irish Times on the subject of a landmark, Spike Island.
Sir, the letter went, Lieutenant Commander Brunicardi (Letters June
21st) says that Spike Island was originally Inis Espaig, Bishops Island.
Hogan in his ONOMASTICON GOEDELIUM (p. 469)
interprets it as Inis Picht; the local saints were Fiachna and Gobban and
possibly Ruisen. Yrs. etc, Hubert Butler.
The possibly allows for error and the correction which, as I have shown,
Butler would have appreciated.
Butler and his wife enjoyed their friends and family, and, just occasionally in the
to-ings and fro-ings, there was an opportunity to raise points from the essays. He
refused, all the same, to expand on the Artukovitch affair; and Peggy, his wife, said,
Its all in the essay. Butler was disinclined to get excited about the
incident involving the Papal Nuncio, which had brought down on him strong social
opprobrium. He gave the impression that once he had written about a subject, he had no
call to revisit the emotions of the past. The present was too interesting.
I understand from those who were close to him that he retained his special mixture of
detachment and deep interest in events, people, and ideas until the very end.
Butler died in 1991. His family and friends have discussed the
writing of a full account of his life and works. Eleanor Burgess, who worked with him on
his research into the Irish saints, is his official biographer; but it is recognized that,
for her, this is a long term-project fitted into a busy life, and that the account may
well turn out to be more like a memoir. The problem of finding the ideal biographer
preoccupied his widow until her death last December. Her friends are planning a memorial
concert and art show in Kilkenny this August. __________________________________________
©Richard Jones, 1997.
A bibliography of Hubert Butler:
TEN THOUSAND SAINTS: A STUDY IN IRISH AND EUROPEAN ORIGINS. Kilkenny, Ir.: Wellbrook Press, 1972.
ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1985.
THE CHILDREN OF DRANCY. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1988.
GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990.
THE SUB-PREFECT SHOULD HAVE HELD HIS TONGUE, AND OTHER ESSAYS. London: Viking Press, 1990.
LENVAHISSEUR EST VENU EN PANTOUFLES. tr. Phillipe Blanchard. Pref.
Joesph Brodsky. Paris: Anatolia Editions, 1994.
IN THE LAND OF NOD. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1996
INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. New York: Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 1996.
The Artukovitch File
A Little String Game