He was a dappled thing, the kind praised by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as "counter, original, spare. . . ." Also "strange," though mainly in the sense of "estranged," like a river town left inland when the river suddenly jumps its course and cancels its bend.
Hubert Butler, who died five years ago at 91, lamented and celebrated the bend. His was the last glimmering memory of the Irish Revival, the national literary-political movement that flourished up to the 1920s, only to be stranded in the harsh polarizations of what was once a humane passion.
He was a ragbag of what history's bend-averse current and simplified straightening would consider contradictions. He was both a Protestant and a nationalist, like so many in the Revival: Yeats and Synge and, if you interpret "nationalist" with sufficient latitude, Shaw, O'Casey and Joyce. He was a remnant of the Anglo-Irish gentry, yet a youthful supporter of independence in 1916 and a man of the left--his own particular version--ever since.
His grandfather's home was burned down, along with some 130 other Anglo-Irish "great houses," in the 1920-'23 civil war that pitted intransigent republicans against the moderate Free-Staters. While many of his relatives and friends immigrated to Britain, he returned after a wandering period to work his family's two small farms outside Kilkenny. Over 40 years, from a house that was handsome but dilapidated and in no sense great--his version of Montaigne's tower--he wrote a series of lucid, angry and poetic essays.
They appeared in such places as the Irish Times, the BBC, Radio Eireann, Peace News and the Irish Army Journal. In the '80s, his Irish admirers collected them in books; later, a selection was published in Britain. The essays in "Independent Spirit," his first and probably definitive appearance in the United States, were edited by Elisabeth Sifton for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which acquired them on the passionate recommendation of another bender of history's straight lines, the late Joseph Brodsky.
Butler's bends are everywhere. He writes of the contribution the Anglo-Irish Protestants could have made to an independent Ireland had it not been for their own selfishness and Catholic nationalist intransigence. He writes of a Czarist remnant he encountered among his Russian fellow-teachers in St. Petersburg where he taught English in the early 1930s. (If, years later, a few Soviet officials spoke English with a Scots accent it was because their teachers had Scottish nannies, he writes.)
He tells of a forgotten French archeologist--like him, a rural savant--and of rambles among the ruins of 22 flour mills along the River Nore outside Kilkenny. While Irish public opinion was being inflamed by accounts of Yugoslav repression against the Catholic Church, he writes of a different persecution: the forced conversion of tens of thousands of Serbian Orthodox Catholics to Roman Catholicism under the fascist wartime government of Croatia. (The essay, published in the 1950s, provoked such an outcry in Irish Catholic and political circles that Butler was ousted from the Kilkenny Archeological Society, which he had helped to revive.)
Butler is a poet of particularities; for him, the exception does not prove the rule, it is the rule. God is not only in the details--he is nowhere else. He praises the wisdom of small places and causes over big ones, of amateur thinkers over the professionals. At the turn of the century, he writes, the scholars and historians caused the archives of villages all over Ireland to be brought to the Four Courts building in Dublin, for better access and preservation. In the 1922 fighting, the Four Courts was bombed. "In a few hours Ireland, which had been one of the countries richest in local history, became one of the poorest."
The weakest parts of the collection, aside from some repetition, are the more journalistic pieces, accounts, for example, of traveling in China, the Soviet Union and the Adriatic. Perhaps a dozen of the 45 essays could have been dropped, if only to bring out the special allure of the rest.
Butler is at his best when he is most personal, whether it is a personal sense of beauty or a personal anger. He will start with a scene or recollection of his youth or childhood, and from there rise imperceptibly into his own vision of his Ireland.
Even at 12 or 13, when his parents were encouraging him to think of his future as an English one--he was related both to the English foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and to the poet Robert Graves--he thought Irish. The Butlers had been interfering in Ireland since the 14th century, he argued. "Could I not interfere too?"
He went to boarding school in England and then to Oxford, but in the summers he met Yeats, George Russell (who wrote as AE) and Lennox Robinson, the playwright. Through them he went to work for the County Library Movement, a cultural all-Ireland project that would eventually splinter from differences among its members--many of them Protestants--over whether to look to England or to their common island.
Butler, who at 16 enthusiastically supported the Easter 1916 Rising, found himself among a shrinking number of Anglo-Irish who felt committed to Ireland. He writes mournfully, in 1957, that his country's true cultural and historical tradition had been betrayed on two sides: by the Protestants who wanted to be a province of England and by Catholic politicians working toward a narrow, sectarian state.
"Our island is dangerously tilted toward England and toward Rome, good places in themselves but best seen on the level. Everybody is rolling off it and those that remain, struggling hard for a foothold, drag each other down." Although the specifics of mutual intransigence have changed since he wrote this--the church is no longer as dominant in the south as it was 40 years ago, and the society is more open and liberal--the intransigence's physics remains, specifically in the North.
Butler is both eloquent and personal on what might have been. He writes of the traditions of liberty and national dedication among many Irish Protestants in the 18th and 19th centuries: Grattan, Charlemont, Wolfe Tone. It was their pressure that won from the English the right to a limited local parliament; Tone himself was executed for leading an independence revolt.
Their nationalism, and later that of the Irish Revival, was neither ethnic nor religious--as so many of the murderous nationalisms of this century have proved to be. Tone's slogan "The Common Name of Irishmen" was all-inclusive.
Butler blames the Catholic Church for discouraging the independence movement when it started and for its opposition to cooperation with the Protestants. More insistently, though, he blames his fellow Anglo-Irish of the great houses for withholding themselves from the national project--with brilliant exceptions--and looking to England for their education, careers and view of the world. It was "the withdrawal of a whole historic class," he writes.
For 200 years, "they had exported all their brightest and their bravest to England. They had generaled her armies, governed her provinces, dominated her newspapers and her theaters, written her plays. Many of those who remained behind had been educated in England and knew nothing of Ireland's problems. Waterloo may or may not have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but Ireland was certainly lost there."