A much travelled thinker rooted in his home place
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