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Ireland Is World Enough

Hubert Butler’s literary localism is nationalism of the right kind.
county kilkenny river nore ireland

On St. Patrick’s Day last year, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a video entitled “#IrelandInspires,” an “animated postcard” geared toward “visitors, investors and those attracted to the type of energy, creativity and potential which this nation can offer.” Set to weepy music and scenes of verdant landscapes, smiling redheaded children, and Daniel Day-Lewis, card after card of statistics convey to the viewer the state of Eire today. It is among the top 10 countries in which to grow up and the best in which to do business. It leads the world in quality of scientific research and creates 1,200 jobs a week. It boasts multiple Olympic athletes, Oscar winners, and Nobel laureates; it plays “damn good rugby” and hosts American football games. Once blighted by famine, it is now helping feed the world. Once enslaved by the British Empire, it now powers Westminster with its “tech and software.” And so on.

The Republic of Ireland has finally come into its own as a nation among equals. It is an international player rather than a colonial plaything. Indeed, variations on the word “global” occur at least three times in the video. These affirmations arrive at a time when Ireland needs to believe them the most: in 2016 the country will be faced with the centennial of the Easter Rising, and the lure of globalization may well be the thing to put to rest the haunt of the Rising’s unfulfilled declaration of a free, united Republic and everything that dream has wrought over the course of the last century.

“All our minds are ranging constantly over the whole world and we are thinking of worldwide opportunities, of international responsibilities, of the exploration of space. The problems of Ireland north and south have begun to seem very puny.” Writing those words in his 1963 essay “Wolfe Tone and the Common Name of Irishman,” Hubert Butler early on caught the “fear” of the Irish on both sides of the partition “of leaving a large worldwide community and becoming attached to a small and insignificant one.”

Even before the Troubles, generations of Irish were eager to shake off the damage of the past, from the Black and Tans of the War of Irish Independence to the burnt Protestant estates of the Irish Civil War to postwar isolation. To seek “broad horizons,” wherein “disagreements are subordinated to salesmanship” seemed far more appealing. But try as the Irish might, “our country is usually an obsession to us,” Butler wrote. “We can never escape the hold it has on our affections.” 

The Irish literary genius is a crowded field, yet Butler’s collected works amass a unique witness to Ireland, its character, its art, its people, and the contradictions among them that clashed so furiously during its first century as an independent and deeply divided nation. He did so as critic and counsel, with sharp awareness and warm elegance, and he did so as a member of an effective minority of a minority.

Hubert Butler was born in 1900 in County Kilkenny. His lineage extended as far back as the 12th century, when Henry II first annexed Ireland. More than just an “Anglo-Irish gentleman,” as Conor Cruise O’Brien described him, Butler was a remnant of the Ascendency. Though his family was a “junior branch,” it was connected to the Dukes of Ormonde. Distant relatives included Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary under Prime Minister Asquith, and Robert Graves.

Butler was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford. When the Irish Free State was formed, he took a job at the Irish County Library Service, an institution that Butler believed would provide “a cultural bridge between north and south,” before clerical politics caused its funders to move the central operation to Scotland. He spent the 1930s traveling Europe and Africa, teaching English in Egypt, translating Chekhov in Russia, and obtaining exit visas for Jews in Austria. He returned to Kilkenny in 1941, when his father died, and lived in the family manor, Maidenhall, until his own death in 1991. There he pursued his proudly dilettantish interests in local archaeology and history while writing his essays, mostly for Irish newspapers and literary magazines.

In his lifetime Butler published three collections—the first, Escape From the Anthill, when he was 85. His range stretched from recollections of his home and family to his travels in Europe and Asia to literary matters and meditations on abortion and euthanasia. Yet whereas William Hazlitt or Dwight Macdonald, to whom Butler is often compared, would ricochet like stray bullets from subject to subject, Butler was a swinging ball tethered to a pole: “even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia,” he wrote, “they are really about Ireland.”

Irishness for Butler was local. “There should be an archive in every village,” he wrote. “Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us.” At the county level the hues of Ireland’s character could be seen with the brightest clarity. Butler’s fascination with County Kilkenny was without bottom, but his affection is tinged with pain:

There are many beautiful little towns along the Nore, but since ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is perhaps unsafe to admire them. Their beauty depends on humpbacked bridges and winding streets and large trees, all of which obstruct the motorist in his race to progress. The curves of the bridge are now being straightened with cement but often you can see the great stone slabs of the parapet jutting out of the stream below the bridge.

A point of pride for Butler were his efforts to restart the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, as well as other local societies dedicated to the proudly amateur preservation of local history and culture. “All these little towns should have had their chroniclers,” he writes, “for one chronicler attracts another and a village, conscious of its history, can resist the tyranny of the government official.”

A republican Ireland, it seems, was one of increasing cultural centralization, or what Butler called “that demon of unreality which the Gaelic League begat upon the Post Office.” Reviewing a local guide to Kilkenny place names he laments that the author did not liberate “the citizens of Bennettsbridge from that Civil Service conceit Baile Ui Cheochain, by which their village has been rechristened, for it has been known as Bennettsbridge or Pons Sancti Benedicti since the fourteenth century.”

On the other hand, the village was susceptible to making otherwise abstract conflicts disturbingly concrete. In 1895, Bridget Cleary of Ballyvadlea was murdered by her husband Michael. Though “they were fond of each other and never quarreled” and believed “in the mysteries of the Catholic Church,” Michael was convinced she had become possessed by a fairy and resolved that it “must be burnt out of her” and did just that over the course of two nights. In “The Eggman and the Fairies,” Butler recounts the incident grimly, mostly through the accounts of other villagers, such as Bridget’s father and cousin, who abetted the exorcism. “A whole community,” Butler wrote, “seemed to be bound with the spells of fairyland and powerless to extricate themselves.”

Out of this narrative, Butler examines the consequences of Irish superstition as it festered in isolation and was encouraged by institutions: “In the past in Ireland both the churches and the Anglo-Normans often tried to harness the fairies to their ecclesiastical and political designs, and the results were often so delightful that the guard upon the frontiers of fairyland has sometimes been unwisely relaxed.” Whether driven by genuine belief, credulity, or “guilt for desires and jealousies,” the people of Ballyvadlea “lived in a fairy-haunted world, whose thoughts and feelings can be measured by no ordinary rule. The poet is apt to overestimate its charm, the moralist its cruelty.”

In “Boycott Village,” the Catholic population of Fethard-on-Sea boycotts the businesses of Protestants when the wife of a mixed-faith family refuses to send her daughter to a Catholic school. The boycott made national headlines and was defended by the Bishop of Galway as a “moderate and peaceful” protest, though members of the family in question had to go into police protection. The boycott is now forgotten, but the larger point remains:

For the handful of free spirits, who in any community are the last-ditch guardians of freedom, are not defenceless till the amiable majority, which forms an inert but not easily negotiable obstacle in the path of tyranny, has first been neutralised. How is this done? It is not difficult. The events in Fethard show how eagerly the amiable will cooperate in their own extinction.

Given his background, Butler’s gadfly status for the Catholic majority seemed predestined. Even so, he carried it off with aplomb. “The Irish talent is naturally critical, subversive, satirical,” he wrote in “Irish Literature,” “and the atmosphere of Catholicism, rigid disciplined, orthodox, is stifling to it.” The distinction was evident in the Catholic Joyce, “deeply pessimistic, introverted” and “almost a nihilist” as well as in the Protestant Shaw, who had “none of this slave despondency about the Catholic Church or any human institution. Even when his judgments were very foolish, and they often were, he wrote as a man who was his own master.”

thisarticleappearsIt would be hasty, however, to consign Butler to the demagogic ranks of Protestant Unionists like Lord Carson or Iain Paisley. Butler was a southern Irishman, a nationalist, and a critic of partition. Several essays address this odd balancing act of haute Anglo-Norman ancestry, Protestant upbringing, secular humanist creed, and localist pride. But “Wolfe Tone and the Common Name of Irishman” is perhaps the broadest articulation of what Butler biographer Roy Foster described as his “Ascendency nationalism.”

Wolfe Tone was an Anglo-Irishman who in 1798 led the United Irishmen in a failed four-month struggle to overthrow British rule and replace it with American-style republicanism. Butler concedes that “Tone had to invent a nation out of a native majority and a powerful minority which had strong loyalties and affinities outside Ireland.” And the result of Tone’s failure “ushered in one of the worst of Irish centuries”:

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 eighteenth century had taken for granted, lost its language and, after the Famine, many of its traditions.

But Butler laments the failure of Tone’s rebellion primarily because, unlike the political grand guignol of the Rising, it could have succeeded as independence and unification movements in Holland, Prussia, and the United States had. Unlike the 1916 martyrs, Tone was a “practical man,” he “sentimentalised nothing and nobody and had no very inflated idea of himself or his country or his countrymen.”

Tone’s vision for Ireland was “personal” rather than ideological. That was Butler’s ideal as well:

All the dangerous and sentimental dreams nowadays are international, and imperial and ecumenical. It is because of these dreams that we talk about masses and classes, about inferior and superior races, about the white man’s burden and the black man’s rights, about cosmic clashes between truth and error. … Tone had no international or ecumenical ideas at all and … he did not idealise either the ‘toiling masses’ or the Irish race. He was simply an Irishman, at a time when the existence of such a phenomenon was widely disputed.

“If we assumed the common name of Irishman,” he wrote, “there would be no need for campaigning or crusading about the border. North and South we would apply ourselves to a thousand urgent problems … which since the death of Tone we have been taught to regard as parochial and beneath our dignity. … One day we should find that almost without our knowing it the border had gone.” Economic globalization has proved a poor substitute for national unity:

Without the Protestant North we have become lopsided. We lack that vigorous and rebellious northern element which in the eighteenth century was responsible for both our nationalism and our republicanism. And without the South the North has become smug and has succumbed to what ought to be the most discredited of all contemporary delusions, the lure of broad horizons and all the rest of it.

Butler’s work is at once broad and particular. Those of the more traditional conservative persuasion will no doubt appreciate his championing of the local and his modest style. Liberals, however, will find comfort in his religious skepticism, his cosmopolitanism, and his writings on abortion and euthanasia. He may remind some readers of another idiosyncratic Irishman, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Both were gifted writers with enlightened, secular outlooks and contrarian tendencies, and both faced down Ireland’s divisions yet parted in how they saw them. O’Brien’s view was existential: “Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it.”

Butler’s view, by contrast, was humane but realistic: his love of country is a love of home. “When we stray from that theme,” he wrote, “we often seem to lose our grip, as though we could only write about things we knew intimately, in our bones.”

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.