Miniatures from the hand of a ‘Descendancy’ Nationalist

BOOK REVIEW by Frances Devlin-Glass

Hubert Butler: The Eggman and the Fairies, Ed. by John Banville, Notting Hill Editions, 2012.

ISBN: 978 1 907 90350 2

RRP: £14.99

Hubert Butler was a thinker, a Protestant and a proud Kilkenny man. But most of all he was an Irish nationalist and republican. For him, the partition of Ireland was a disaster not just for him personally, but for Ireland. He ruefully refers to himself as of the ‘Descendancy’ class, knowing that Irish politics has to some extent confined the Anglo-Irish to history.

Butler's Essays Cover page.

Butler’s Essays Cover page.

Born in 1900 in Kilkenny, he was a man of fierce local loyalties, who remained to die in Kilkenny in 1991, whereas most of his class fled as their big houses were torched. He was minor gentry, so his decision to remain was very much a conscious one, and he saw out his days at Maiden Hall on the banks of the River Nore. Charterhouse- and Oxford-educated, like many of his class, he contributed hugely via the local archaeological society (which he reinvigorated and through which he fostered catholic and protestant cooperation) but mostly through his essays for such organs as The Bell, Dublin Magazine, Kilkenny People, and The Irish Statesman.

His essays have an elegiac quality: he mourns a class he thinks might have enriched the nation by building more robust debates around topics like religion and class, and giving more resistance to what he sees as a monoculture buttressed by the Catholic Church, and after 1922, dangerously inward-looking. He was a European before Europe, and multilingual, translating Chekhov from Russian, and having Irish language as one of his many accomplishments.

An agnostic and rationalist, he fell foul of the church on more than one occasion. In 1952 he queried the collusion of the Catholic hierarchy, notably Archbishop Stepinac in Ustasa atrocities in Croatia and named Pavlitch as a war-criminal. Because the church had attempted to recuperate the Archbishop as an heroic opponent of communism, he had bought into Roman Catholic paranoia about it and ‘offended’ a Papal nuncio. In writing about it, he was unrepentant. He had aided Jews to escape Nazis in Vienna in 1938, and travelled widely in eastern Europe. The full force of Catholic opprobrium subsequently fell on him, and he felt obliged to relinquish his role in the Archaeological society. One wonders what he would have made of the scandals involving priests and more senior clergy in the last two decades: he’d certainly have had strong opinions.

He is unusual in the way he straddles categories, thinks laterally about race, and his elegant and seemingly effortless border-crossings demanded my attention. I had a Northern Irish grandfather whose thinking about his own Irishness and about Partitition was similarly complex and non-stereotypical, so the essays, edited by someone sometimes accused of being a West Brit, John Banville, offered me an insight into a way of life, and a way of thinking, which seemed to me modern and which was certainly out of place in Ireland between 1940 and 1980.

He is particularly articulate on how Ireland was not well-served by its self-obsession. Writing from an Ireland that was officially neutral during World War II in 1941, he pungently noted:

Just as our island is physically protected by the sea, there is an ocean of indifference and xenophobia to guard our insularity and to save us from foreign entanglements. Whatever its political value, culturally this self-sufficiency has been and will be a disaster to Ireland as to the other small states. It is a strange time to maintain the theory that a distinctive culture cannot exist without cultural intercourse, but since the mainspring of our freedom was not political theory but the claim that Ireland possessed and could develop a unique culture of her own, it is seasonable to examine this claim. It need not take us long, not longer than a walk down O’Connell Street past the bookshops, the cinemas, the stationers, the theatres, the hotels. By the time we are in Parnell Square we can have no doubt that after twenty years of effort, the culture of Ireland is still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, nakedly or in word-for-word translation. The machinery of the national culture is of the approved (international) model, but the wheels have never once gone round. (p 20)

Butler is a cunning strategist as a writer. This is far from being a hostile or derisory rant, as he goes on to talk about how effectively Irish culture has infiltrated Britain and Europe, and countries with less anxiety about cultural identity – citing the cases of Shaw (whom he claims has a ‘distinctively Irish habit of mind’ and in other essays, Yeats and Joyce). He concludes from his analysis that

A nation cannot be created negatively by elimination or strategic retreats into the past. It must crystallise round the contemporary genius that interprets it. The interpreters will be those who can see the national life as well as live it. To acquire this detachment, they will need to have access to other forms of society, so that they can see their own lives objectively and in totality from the threshold, and unless they can obtain form their own country this approach to other civilisations, by spiritual channels or by personal contact, their allegiance either to their country or to their interpretative mission will weaken.

It is not necessary to labour the point that self-sufficiency is in fact insufficient for a national culture. (pp 20-1)

Whence did the young man of 41 derive the conviction that drives these assertions? He was at the time this was written at the end of a long period of European jobs (1927-41), including humanitarian work in Vienna with Jewish refugees from Hitler, and had returned to Ireland after the death of his father. Ultra-nationalism, especially if it forecloses debate, is one of the themes  to which he constantly returns.

Butler frequently expounds on the need to embrace the local as well as the international, and one of the more finely focused miniatures in this collection of essays is his account of the settlement-that-wasn’t, New Geneva on the Suir in Waterford in the 1780s. In 1782, the suppression of a middle-class revolt in Geneva by aristocrats (supported by armies made up from France, Savoy and Berne) led to a call to find a new homeland for the clockmakers and craftsmen of Geneva, major generators of wealth for the city. Butler comments: ‘In those days, in so many ways wiser than ours, refugees were welcomed’ (p 29). The good burghers of Geneva could have chosen Britain, Tuscany, Hesse-Homberg, but they chose the endowment of 11,000 acres and £50,000 to settle in East Passage in Co Waterford. Ambitious plans were drawn up, complete with university and factories, and an elegant curved avenue, but the scheme foundered on political grounds: was the site, at the mouth of the river, likely to be defended if the French invaded? Would the Genevans’ expectation of the franchise unsettle safe seats? The site eventually became Geneva Barracks and imprisoned rebels. A great opportunity had been missed. It’s a marvelous story told with panache by an archivist and amateur archaeologist. By preserving such local histories himself, he makes a strong case for the value of local history, archives and micro-museums. Without repositories for private records:

 we are developing as crude and simple an outlook as if we had been born in a trading post in the Prairies and all the lessons of history are lost on us’ (p 50).

Hubert Butler

Hubert Butler

Believing that one of the virtues of provincialism is its digressive nature (a very Irish manoevre, might I be permitted to comment in an over-generalising way), or as Butler wittily puts it: ‘A Dublin guess as to who built the Giant’s Grave is as good as ours, but only we know who stole the Corporation mace’ (p 53). I fancy I’ve heard this quip before, but it does get to the essence of the local. For my money, it’s wonderful to know the story of Sean O’Faolain’s superimposition of a transparent modern map over an archaeological map of the Cistercian Abbey at Grainuenamanagh to establish that the refectory became a corn store and Denny’s Pig Scales took over the monks’ cemetery. Such continuity within change is as fascinating to me as it is that Sean O’Faolain, master of the realist short story, was passionate about local archaeology.

Another of Hubert Butler’s claims to our admiration is his scholarship. One of his main publications, outside the body of his essays, is a book on Irish saints, Ten Thousand Saints: A Study in Irish and European Origins (1972). In ‘Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants’, Butler does a very deft analysis of the merits and solecisms of two earlier works on saints, one destructive and the other hagiographical. This essay demonstrates clearly his historiography, his grasp of Irish (and his wrangling with ‘that demon of unreality which the Gaelic League begat upon the Post Office’, the over-Gaelicisation of place-names), and his zeal to bring reason to bear on what he saw as unreason. His etymologies urge commonsense and usage rather than ideology. It’s a fresh approach to clearing the cluttered hagiographical landscape, as from his point of view, many saints’ names are invented, topographical, made up, or imported from Spain:

[These two antiquarians] have in a single year added seven or eight new saints to the calendar. Does not this floodlight one of the methods by which in even less literature centuries the hosts of Heaven were recruited? (p.57)

Lest I suggest that Butler’s essays are mirthless and combative, let me say that they shimmer with wit. His language enacts his amusement. In the same essay, he relishes  the poetry of Irish inventiveness in the matter of hagiography, taking pleasure in the work of a colleague, Father Shearman, whose ‘saints and their complicated family ramifications were as real as his own parishioners’ (p 58), and even when he critiques an antiquarian history strongly, he is generous enough to want the book to exist even if it is appalling as history. And that is because he can delight in the ‘brandishing…. of monophthongs and cranial indices and marginal glosses’ (p 64). He sees the value of debate, and the need to build bridges of understanding between those who don’t understand one another.

For Hubert and many of his generation of Anglo-Irish (Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen, among them), the golden age of the Ascendancy was the eighteenth century and its poster-boy Wolfe Tone. For him, Tone’s death was a disaster, marking the end of a much-desired era when the terms Protestant and Republican could be yoked and both sides of the sectarian divide could proudly rejoice in the ‘common name of Irishman’. He also sees the period of Tone as responsible for both the Republican and Nationalist agendas, and argues that to be descended from Cromwellians was to be republican by principle and not merely self-interest. He points out that ‘to associate the Anglo-Irish with monarchy and the Gaelic Irish with republicanism is a fantastic misreading of history’ (p 147).

Butler’s propositions on race won’t at all surprise an Australian (except perhaps the most xenophobic), but it probably does upset some fixed ideas held by some diasporic Irish men and women. For Butler, for a person to live and commit to Ireland, regardless of religion or race, is to become Irish in Butler’s definition. He usefully refutes what he terms the ‘racialist fantasies of the Fascists and Nazis’ (p 129) as not at all relevant to debates about Irish identity, and rightly places them as 1930s inventions.

These are very finely crafted essays, based in scholarship that the writer wields lightly, and their ideas provoke thought, and shimmer with wit and wisdom. I can recommend their perspective on a class that has largely been occluded in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.

One thought on “Miniatures from the hand of a ‘Descendancy’ Nationalist

  1. Frances,
    That was an excellent article and quite thought provoking. Hubert Butler lived only about 6 miles from me in County Kilkenny. I have always had great respect for him, although I was never fortunate enough to meet him JOhn Clancy

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