An ambiguous Irish imperialist

Biography In the Spring of 1864, a Napoleon groupie from Golden, Co Tipperary made a pilgrimage to St Helena, the remote South…

BiographyIn the Spring of 1864, a Napoleon groupie from Golden, Co Tipperary made a pilgrimage to St Helena, the remote South Atlantic island where his hero had died in captivity in 1821.

Enquiring among the locals if anyone remembered the exiled emperor, he was directed along the volcanic cliffs to the house of an old man who had washed up on the island 50 years before. Recognising a lilt in the wizened man's accent, he asked where he was from. "Did ye ever," came the reply, "hear tell o' Sligo?" Ireland is awash in such small-world stories of Pettigo parishioners meeting by a jukebox in Outer Mongolia, or of Corkmen who, while fortuitously sharing a urinal in Kansas City, discover they have relations on the same street in Fermoy. A country defined by emigration can find the world an incredibly shrinking place. But the Tipperary and Sligo men who stumbled upon each other on the isle of St Helena had the British Empire, rather than emigration, to thank for their meeting. The Sligo man was a retired soldier; the Tipperary man was the officer, William Francis Butler, whose extraordinary life tells the often forgotten story of Ireland's role in the making of an empire.

Martin Ryan's splendid biography of Butler shows how the rapidly expanding empire offered men of a certain class unprecedented opportunities for adventure, travel and intrigue. New technologies in railways and steamships, along with the development of the transatlantic telegraph, collapsed time and space for the Victorians, as messages and men ricocheted across the Atlantic. Butler was among these Victorian time and space travellers, gaining access to a wonderland of new colonies. The Tipperary boy who grew up sheltered by Catholicism and the Galtee mountains became the decorated officer who would hunt buffalo on the American plains, battle Fenians in Canada and Mahdists on the Nile, mush across the frozen North-West Territories, and command imperial forces in South Africa. He would count among his friends Garnet Wolseley (the prototype of Gilbert and Sullivan's "very model of a modern major-general", and a Dublin man), Empress Eugénie Napoleon, Victor Hugo, and the young Winston Churchill. That Ryan is a scriptwriter as well as an historian is evident in his energetic, exceptionally readable prose, capable of reproducing this imperial drama of shifting subjects, changing battlefronts and new frontiers. (The scriptwriter is occasionally too present in his docu-drama style, which can read as if it might have an accompanying soundtrack).

Butler's travels in North America introduced him, in this ever more knowable world, to one of the last places that kept opening outward and onward. "America," he observed, "is a great mind-stretcher." Astounded by the massive scale of the New World, Butler gushed with Whitmanesque enthusiasm for its big skies and boundless energy: "All these lakes, these immense prairies, these deep forests . . . all the throbbing of the life that one saw everywhere, on the road and river, in the cities, on the plains; this great march that was ever going on - all seemed to call with irresistible voice to throw one's lot into the movement". (Butler nearly did throw his lot in, tempted by an American entrepreneur to abandon his military career to seek a fortune in oil, in the days when these were still considered distinct pursuits). It was this experience of American distances that would influence Butler's later writings on Ireland, which he believed might have been a peaceable kingdom if only "the Boyne or the Bann were as wide as the Mississippi or the St Lawrence". When it comes to sorting out sectarianism, Butler argued, all you need is space.

Butler made several treks into the Canadian north-west, gathering information on the new territories of Alberta and Saskatchewan, reporting on their economic potential, and their vanishing native populations.

One such journey - 2,700 miles on horseback, by wagon and dog-sled - became the source for his bestselling travel book, The Great Lone Land. Victorian readers devoured Butler's tales of self-reliance and imperial manhood, his exotic accounts of discarding his hat and boots for parka and moccasins, and of sleeping rough in buffalo hides on the frozen tundra. More than just a Boy's Own adventure, the volume lashed out against British and American treatment of the Indian: "The possession of the same noble qualities which we affect to reverence among our nations makes us kill him . . . in a word, since he will be free - we kill him." Butler went on to make Chief Red Cloud the hero of his only work of fiction, in which the Sioux Indian befriends (who else?) an Irishman in the American West. Red Cloud was later translated into Irish and used as a school text in the Free State.

The Irish have always had trouble in deciding whether they are cowboys or Indians, builders or casualties of empire. Butler is a fitting image of this divided Irish subject: a Catholic Unionist and a Parnellite imperialist, a willing participant in the carving up of the world, and an outspoken critic of British policy in South Africa, the Balkans, Sudan and Afghanistan. He brought his Irish provenance to bear on such troubled places (describing the Transvaal as "another and a larger Ireland"), and understood Ireland in terms of his experience of empire. Condemning the Gaelic League for being "narrow, one-sided and largely ignorant of the outside world", he also compared the relationship between planters and natives in Ireland to "the white garrison of a western prairie fort amid a wilderness of Red Indians".

Ryan rightly places Butler in this ambiguous Irish space. If Emerson is right in his observation that "there is no history, only biography", Irish historians should take account of this necessary book.

Willa Murphy is a lecturer at the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages, University of Ulster

William Francis Butler: A Life, 1838-1910 By Martin Ryan Lilliput, 244pp, €25