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.
The breadth of Butler’s interests and concerns is remarkable, even for a writer whose career spanned the greater part of one of the most violent and tumultuous centuries the world has known. His travels took him from the Kilkenny of his childhood to China in the 1950s, from his years working on the literary magazine the Bell in Dublin in the 1940s to the right-to-life debates of 1980s America. Yet an abiding theme of the essays is the fatuousness of our modern-day concern for the universal at the expense of the particular:
. . . I go on believing that the strength to live comes from an understanding of ourselves and our neighbours or the diaspora that has replaced them. If we could focus on them all the curiosity and wisdom that we disperse round the world, as we focus all the rays of the sun through a burning glass on a pile of dead leaves, there is no limit to the warmth and life we could generate.
Although he is fully conscious of the dangers of blinkered parochialism, his vision is all of a piece. Whether he is writing about wartime atrocities or local history, the slaughter of the Jews or Celtic hagiography, he speaks with unfailing authenticity. In this he is a member of a dying species.
A constant theme, a kind of keening lament throughout almost all of the essays in this volume, is the decline of the “Ascendancy”, whose heir he was. He believed, with sorrowful passion, that the Anglo-Irish reneged on their responsibilities after the War of Independence in 1920 by allowing the Catholic lower middle class to take over entirely the running of the country. After all, he points out, the history of Ireland in the past 300 years shows that it was the Protestant thinkers and men of action who fought hardest for Irish independence:
The Irish with the defeat and flight of their ruling classes became a peasant people ashamed of their native language, which they associated with subjection and poverty. It was the nineteenth-century scholars and writers, mainly men of Anglo-Irish stock, who first gave it dignity and honour.
This Yeatsian assertion is not untrue – but it is not the whole truth. Writing on Wolfe Tone, the Protestant revolutionary condemned to death after the 1798 Rising, Butler acknowledges that Tone’s rebellion was “an utter calamity”:
The Irish Parliament, corrupt and unrepresentative but at least Irish, was dissolved; the Orange Order, seeing no tyranny but Popish tyranny, swept away the last traces of that Protestant Republicanism of the North on which Tone had based his hopes of a United Ireland. The Catholic Church in Ireland became increasingly segregationist, and it was considered godless for a Catholic Irishman to be educated alongside his Protestant compatriots. The Irish people, whose distinctive character the 18th century had taken for granted, lost its language and, after the Famine, many of its traditions. A period of industrial expansion was followed by one of poverty and emigration. Finally, the partition of Ireland in the 1920s set an official seal on all the historical divisions of our country, racial and cultural and religious, which Tone had striven to abolish.
Wolfe Tone’s political aspiration had been to mould the Irish into one nation in which Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter would play their equal parts irrespective of creed or lack of it. That dream, and the similar dreams of the Protestant scholars and writers who followed Tone, “could not stand up to the Gaelic dream of Patrick Pearse” – leader of the 1916 Rising – “for it had been sanctified in blood. Now that dream too has faded . . .”
How to account for this catastrophic failure of nerve on the part of the Anglo-Irish gentry? Butler believes it was partly due to the “brain drain” caused by the departure for England throughout the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th of the finest Ascendancy minds and spirits. Another reason was partition:
It reduced the Protestants of the South to political helplessness. The majority clutched nostalgically at the shadows of vanished things, at property and privilege and ancient political loyalties. Imperceptibly they became not more Protestant, as [GB] Shaw anticipated they would, but less. Sometimes they seemed not to live in Ireland at all but in a little cocoon woven of ancient prejudices.
One does not have to be a Sinn Féin supporter to acknowledge that partition has been a disaster for Ireland, if not politically then certainly spiritually. As Butler contends:
Without the Protestant North we have become lopsided. We lack that vigorous and rebellious northern element which in the 18th century was responsible for both our nationalism and our republicanism. And without the South the North has become smug . . .
Would matters have been otherwise had the Anglo-Irish minority, south and north, kept its nerve, prevailed on its most capable members to stay in Ireland, and seized on a position of responsibility in the new state as Butler believes it was their duty to do? Perhaps. Yet there are many nationalists in Ireland today – not all of them extremists – who would say, who do say, that it was precisely the likes of Butler, the civilised, landed gentry, the descendants of those “19th-century scholars and writers” he extols, who had to be if not got rid of then neutralised, cordoned off behind the yew hedges surrounding their demesnes, in the fastnesses of their leaf-shadowed drawing rooms, if the “new” Ireland created in the 1920s was to forge its own, native version of itself.
The Ireland of Éamon de Valera and the Roman Catholic bishops was not graceful, these nationalists would say; it had scant wit, scorned a well-turned sentence, cared nothing for the fate of far-off nations with unpronounceable names; yet the road it has travelled over the past 90 years has been its own road, however harsh the going.
Butler did not live to see the Belfast Agreement and the gradual cessation of hostilities between the armed wings of the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. Nor did he witness the euphoria, excesses and depredations of the so-called Celtic Tiger, or its sudden, shocking demise.
Like the rest of us – like most of the rest of us – he would have welcomed the end of violence in the North and the coming together of politicians from both communities in an alliance which, however uneasy, has held together and is working with a degree of success that would have been unthinkable in the years when Butler was writing.
He would be appalled, but surely not surprised, by the economic calamity that has occurred in the Republic and that seems set to endure possibly for generations. Yet through all this he would have held fast to his conviction of the supreme significance of the independent, meliorist spirit, rooted to place and always conscious of the imbrications of history in which it finds itself enfolded.
I do not doubt that a new generation, with fresh ideas and the vigour to carry them through, will solve some of our problems, and yet in times of troubled peace like ours, when the old idealisms have lost their magic, the future, I believe, lies with the solitary individual . . .
Butler is a vigorous thinker and a marvellous writer, one of those rare figures whose mild tone masks a steely resolve. Rarely does he raise his voice – he does not need to, so incisive are his perceptions and so corrosive is his wit. With him, to read the writer is to know the man, and to know Hubert Butler is to understand a little more about oneself and a great deal more about the world.
John Banville will discuss Hubert Butler’s work with Fintan O’Toole in the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin at 6.30pm on Wednesday. No tickets are needed, but if you would like to attend, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Butler’s collections The Eggman and the Fairies and The Invader Wore Slippers, both edited by John Banville, are available from nottinghilleditions.comfor £10 each, plus delivery