British and Irish Literature Hubert Butler
by
Robert Tobin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0147

Introduction

A product of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Hubert Butler (b. 1900–d. 1991) was born in Bennettsbridge, County Kilkenny. He was educated in England, earning scholarships both to Charterhouse and Oxford. Intellectually precocious and morally sensitive, he embraced Irish nationalism while still a teenager. At Oxford he met fellow Anglo-Irishman Tyrone Guthrie, whose sister Peggy he married in 1930. Inspired by the nonsectarian ideals of the Irish Co-operative movement, he returned to Ireland to work for the County Libraries Network in the mid-1920s. As was the case for many young Protestants, however, his prospects in the new Irish Free State were uncertain. He developed a fascination with Russia and the Balkans, both of which he came to know well in the 1930s. In 1934 he published a new translation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which Tyrone Guthrie produced at the Old Vic. When the Anschluss overtook Austria in early 1938, Butler went to Vienna to assist Jews seeking to flee the country. Upon his father’s death in 1941, he inherited the family home in Kilkenny, Maidenhall, to which he remained devoted for the rest of his life. During the Second World War, he became a contributor to Sean O’Faolain’s The Bell, producing essays for it and other small magazines during the next three decades. In 1946, he returned to Yugoslavia, where he found evidence of the Roman Catholic Church’s complicity in the Croatian wartime persecution of Orthodox Serbs, which resulted in 500,000 deaths. In 1952 he attracted opprobrium by addressing this matter at a gathering in Dublin in the presence of the Papal Nuncio, whom he was deemed thereby to have insulted. This experience isolated Butler but confirmed his belief in the need for intellectual dissent in Irish life. He continued to write, devoting himself to the study of linguistic archaeology as a means of understanding the significance of Irish saint figures. This work culminated in his 1972 self-published volume, Ten Thousand Saints. His first collection of essays, Escape from the Anthill, was published by the Lilliput Press when he was eight-five years old, and was greeted with wide acclaim in Ireland. This reception vindicated Butler’s often-lonely pursuit of his cultural and ethical concerns over the previous fifty years. Two more collections of his writing followed before his death in 1991; two others followed posthumously. Both for his literary style and thematic range, he is now justly regarded as one of the great essayists of the 20th century.

Key Overviews

Hubert Butler’s stature as an Irish writer of significance remained largely unacknowledged until the final years of his life. The reasons for this belated recognition cannot be easily disentangled from the cultural and religious politics of Ireland during the mid-20th century. The Protestant Ascendancy, which had dominated the country politically, economically, and socially for over two centuries, was in rapid retreat by the time the Irish Free State was established in 1922. Succeeding it was a form of nationalism that regarded Roman Catholicism as an essential element to authentic Irishness, leaving the place and identity of the Protestant minority in question. How southern Protestants loyal to the new state yet committed to their heritage might make a contribution to public life was a theme Butler explored continually in his life and writing. Coupled with this was the larger question of where cultural pluralism and intellectual dissent fit into the national vision now being promoted by the country’s political and religious elites. These were not welcome questions, however, and his insistence on raising them earned Butler a reputation as a troublemaker, both among the Irish Catholic establishment and within his own community. His self-understanding as a minority voice in the new dispensation is examined at length in Tobin 2012. Besides operating in this unforgiving social environment, Butler’s own values and temperament contributed to his marginal status. Although well traveled and cosmopolitan in outlook, he was devoted to the principle of neighborliness and local initiative as an antidote to the tyrannies of modern life. As such, he engaged with the literary circles of Dublin and London only from a distance, determined not to relinquish the fruits of a cultivated provincialism. Not unrelated to this was also the question of genre. As he himself recognized, Butler worked most effectively in the medium of the essay and the review, which meant his writing often appeared in transient formats with a limited readership. The interplay of Butler’s time, personality, and ideas in determining the shape of his career is explored from various angles in Agee 2003.

  • Agee, Chris, ed. Unfinished Ireland: Essays on Hubert Butler. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Irish Pages, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection is the result of the Hubert Butler Centenary Celebration, which took place in October 2000 at Kilkenny Castle. It gathers together in revised form a combination of reminiscences by personal friends and talks by a range of scholars and writers. Foremost among these are the addresses by R. F. Foster and Neil Ascherson.

  • Tobin, Robert. The Minority Voice: Hubert Butler and Southern Irish Protestantism, 1900–1991. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    To date, this is the only full-length study of Butler’s life and writings. Drawing extensively both on published and unpublished sources, it analyzes Butler’s abiding intellectual concerns: the Anglo-Irish inheritance, Irish nationalism, the fate of the Protestant minority, Russia and the Balkans, the cultural politics of the Cold War, and the enduring importance of local community and intellectual dissent in 20th-century life.

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