Hubert Butler’s vivid insights put him among Europe’s best writers: The Appleman and the Poet
This fifth volume of work covers Russia, Yugoslavia, Kilkenny and Irish religion
Kilkenny life: Hubert Butler and Maiden Hall, his family home, in Co Kilkenny. Photographs: Matt Kavanagh and Suzanna Crampton
The Appleman and the Poet
If the Lilliput Press had achieved nothing else for Irish intellectual life than introduce and celebrate Hubert Butler’s essays (and it has done much more), the country would still be deep in its debt. In 1985 Antony Farrell launched his fledgling publishing venture with Escape from the Anthill, a volume of essays by Butler, who was born in 1900 and was living at Bennetsbridge, near Kilkenny. He had after an adventurous youth spent decades market-gardening, occupying himself (sometimes controversially) with local affairs, and quietly but incessantly writing.
Reading that first collection was a revelation, not only for the resonant range of the subjects, stretching from St Petersburg in the early 1930s to Vienna after the Anschluss, but also for the beautifully inflected and sometimes lacerating style of the writing, and the way that the widening circles of thought always looped back to Butler’s ancestral Nore Valley and embodied his serenely dissident views on Irish life.
Three further classic collections followed, to mounting acclaim from figures such as Joseph Brodsky, John Banville and Neal Ascherson; an extraordinarily resonant oeuvre is completed with this fifth volume, The Appleman and the Poet.
There is very little sense here of scraping the bottom of the apple barrel. Some essays were published in such Butlerian outlets as Peace News, the Bell, Hibernia, and the Journal of the Butler Society, but many of them were previously unpublished, and they all richly deserved to see the light of day. They cover his experiences in Russia and Yugoslavia, life and people in Kilkenny, coruscating reflections on Irish varieties of religion, and much more.
The analytical cut and thrust is as scintillating as ever, and so is his ability to skewer a complex history in one swift metaphorical sentence. On Trieste: “A Free State was established after the war in an attempt to reconcile the Yugoslav ally and the Italian enemy. The task was difficult and in a few years the occupiers wearied of waiting for the dove of peace to walk into the neat hutch they had prepared for it.” On the teachers he met in a Soviet school in the early 1930s: “They were alike in nothing except that they all had a more than average share of intelligence and knowledge, and most of them seemed to be conscientiously spending it in furnishing a new generation with the practical ability to suppress everything that gave meaning to their own education.” On the “mutilated” Ireland of the 1970s: “Sinn Féin Ireland, the second child of the Gaelic revival, is now as dead as the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and there is nothing but Anglo-American culture to unite us.”
Flashes of pessimism Such flashes of pessimism are not entirely characteristic, and he sustains an inspirational belief in small countries and nonmetropolitan cultures making a difference to the larger world. This reflects his own angle to the Irish universe and his exasperation with the less perceptive aspects of his own tradition. Instead of acting as “mediators between the English and the Irish, acting as a filter through which only so much Anglo-Saxon culture could pass as the Irish genius could assimilate without destroying itself”, the Anglo-Irish “preferred to be Kulturtrager in the arrogant German way” and were thrown out. He implies this was not undeserved; an uncharacteristically savage portrait of one of his kinsmen, a drunk Irish peer, eloquently bears out the point.
He is equally scathing, however, about the self-effacing and trimming tendency of Irish Protestant culture in the Republic; and as Robert Tobin’s indispensable critical biography of Butler has shown, Protestant dissidence is central to Butler’s intellectual core. In a long 1955 reflection on Protestantism in this collection, he states that Yeats’s famous “no petty people” Senate speech on divorce should for Irish Protestants rank with Milton’s Areopagitica. Always opposed to partition, he is remarkably prescient about developing attitudes to Northern Ireland in Britain and the Republic. Elsewhere he is equally prophetic about the rise of fundamentalism in the United States and what it bodes for politics.
Paisley and Paisleyism start featuring in these essays as early as 1969. If Butler is, as Fintan O’Toole’s perceptive foreword suggests, “a man in a gap”, one of the definitions of that gap is the interstitial place occupied by a Protestant nationalist trained in the early-20th-century co-operative movement, who has lived on into a more confrontational and less idealistic age.
Butler was acutely conscious that the new order is also the age of the specialist “expert” and the exploitative multinational corporations. A 1975 essay in this book identifies the latter as “the new Strongbows, invited from across the sea”, adding: “Can one doubt that the Pfizers and the Courtaulds and all the rest of them will marry all Dermot’s daughters and take all Ireland for their dowries?” And so they did.
One longs for his commentary on Ireland’s roller-coaster history since his death, in 1991. But a kind of posthumous life has been created by the steady stream of publications since then, among which this volume will take a prominent place.
Illuminating history Perhaps further finds may be made, in the atmospheric house by the River Nore whose presence pervades so many of these pages. Given Butler’s sparkling characterisations, mordant family portraits and extrasensory feeling for the passing historical moment, it is hard not to believe that there is an unpublished novel lying on a shelf somewhere. If discovered, it might resemble William Gerhardie’s The Polyglots (Butler’s own favourite fiction) or a historical epic in the style of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Joseph Roth or Miklos Banffy. He certainly stands with such figures, as a major European writer whose unwavering and unnerving insight illuminated the dark corners of the century he was born with.