A much travelled thinker rooted in his home place
Interviewer:Why did you decide to settle in Hull, so far from the centre?
Philip Larkin:The centre of what?
Hubert Butler is one of the great essayists in the English language, the peer of Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Orwell. This may seem a startling claim, given that Butler’s work is known to a relatively small coterie of readers. The narrowness of his reputation is due not only to his natural modesty – he was surely the least noisy of writers – but to the fact that, although he was a much-travelled man, he cleaved steadfastly to his home place.
“I have always believed,” he writes in the essay Beside the Nore, “that local history is more important than national history.” Even more damaging, to the ears of our globalised age, is his admission, or boast, in the introduction to one of his collections, that “even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, they are really about Ireland”.
Hubert Butler was born in Kilkenny in 1900, and died there in 1991. His people had been part of the first wave of English settlers who arrived in Ireland after King Henry II’s annexation of the country, in the 12th century. The Butlers were one of the leading Anglo-Irish families, mutating with time into the dukes of Ormonde, who maintained vast estates and built Georgian Dublin.
Hubert Butler was proud of his name and all that it signified; he founded the Butler Society, and was an assiduous editor of the society’s journal until his death. He also revived the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, an influential group in Irish historical studies that had lapsed for half a century.
Like many of his class, Butler was educated in England, at Charterhouse and Oxford. Returning to Ireland at the end of his college years, he worked in the Irish County Library Service, one of the great civilising institutions of the new Irish Free State of the 1920s.
Later, in the 1930s, he travelled widely in Europe, and worked as a teacher of English in Egypt and Russia. In the mid-1930s he spent three years in Yugoslavia on a scholarship from the London School of Slavonic Studies. He was a fine linguist, and translated a number of works by Russian authors, including The Cherry Orchard – his is still regarded by many critics as one of the finest versions in English of Chekhov’s masterpiece.
When his father died, in 1941, Hubert Butler settled in Maidenhall, the family’s not extensive but handsome Georgian mansion set amid the rich pasturelands of Co Kilkenny. Long before that he had determined where he would spend his life. “When I was a boy of 14,” he wrote, “I decided I was going to live in the place where I was born and where my father, grandfather and great-grandfather had lived before me.”
It was the obvious thing to do, he felt, since he was his father’s eldest son, and the house and farm in Kilkenny were well established. But there was another reason. As he wrote, with a mischievous twist,
Though we have long been unimportant people, the Butlers, of whom my family is a junior branch, had ruled the neighbourhood since the 14th century, and there is scarcely a parish in Tipperary or Kilkenny that does not bear some trace of our sometimes arrogant, sometimes kindly interference. Could I not interfere too?
His main literary legacy is the body of essays, on an impressively broad range of subjects, written over some 60 years for newspapers and magazines – some pieces remained unpublished in his lifetime, and seem to have been written simply for the pleasure of the exercise – but not gathered into book form until 1985, when Escape from the Anthill was published by Lilliput Press in Mullingar, the first of four volumes of the essays edited by Butler’s great champion, and the founder of Lilliput, Antony Farrell.
Hubert Butler was a very particular kind of Irishman. He liked to describe himself as a “Protestant Republican”, but the historian Roy Foster has suggested that a more accurate formulation would be “Ascendancy Nationalist”, and certainly the essays return again and again to the theme of nationalism as a positive force. He was also, as a writer and as a citizen, quintessentially European.