A much travelled thinker rooted in his home place
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.