Contents Contributors Resources Recommended Download Archive






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 he’s speaking for? Why should we listen to him? Doesn’t 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 Butler’s 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.”

Butler’s 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 family.”

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 family’s 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 Chekhov’s 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, Butler’s 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 EUROPEAN ORIGINS.

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 Butler’s 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 Butler’s 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 Butler’s essays, ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL, and showed the general reader the real range of Butler’s interests and sympathies.

It was the beginning of Butler’s 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 other.


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. Butler’s 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 Inglis’s 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 realization.”

Butler’s 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 Jews.

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 Butler’s account of his detective work in tracing Artukovitch’s 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. Butler’s 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 ANTHILL.

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 Butler’s 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,’ Bishop’s 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, “It’s 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:

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.
Joesph Brodsky. Paris: Anatolia Editions, 1994.
IN THE LAND OF NOD. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1996
INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996.

See also:

“The Artukovitch File”
A Little String Game”



contents download subscribe archive