My history hero: Hubert Butler (1900–1991)

Irish historian Roy Foster tells Greg Neale of his admiration for a brave, stylish fellow countryman

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This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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I suppose I admire Hubert Butler because he was an Irish liberal who confronted all sorts of questions in all sorts of places – he wrote very influentially about Yugoslavia, Russia and the rise of fundamentalist religion in America; he was someone who was able to spot a coming phenomenon. But most of all, he wrote about Ireland in terms of enmities and antipathies which should be faced up to, instead of being shovelled under the carpet.

His incisive, questioning, often funny and, I think, essentially uplifting writings about Ireland are couched in this astonishingly flexible, assured, subtle style. As successive volumes of his essays have appeared, I’ve found myself returning to them, again and again.

Hubert Butler was born with the 20th century, in October 1900, and nearly lived it out, dying in 1991. After studying at Oxford, he returned to Ireland, and worked for the new Irish County Libraries, before going to travel widely in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia. In the late 1930s he spent some time in Austria, where he helped a Quaker group assisting Jews to escape from the Nazis to Ireland.

“He was a fighter for pluralism – not a normal stance to take in Ireland in the 1940s, 50s or even the 60s”

Then he came back to Ireland. He was determined to live where his forebears had lived, in the family house at Maidenhall in County Kilkenny, and he wrote about Ireland and the world from a local standpoint: he was a cosmopolitan writer who was determined to assert the primacy of place and locale and territory, whether in Irish or other histories.

He was also a fighter for pluralism and freedom of thought and for facing up to the uncomfortable facts and lessons of history. This was not a popular, or normal stance to take in Ireland in the 1940s, the 50s and even the 60s. Early in the 1950s, Butler stood up at a meeting in Dublin attended by the papal nuncio, and criticised Catholic collaboration with the pro-Nazi Ustashi in Croatia during the war, including the forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs. For this, he was denounced for insulting the Catholic Church, and effectively boycotted in some circles, being forced out of much of public life.

Many of his writings were for little magazines, and were not widely read at first. But when his first book of essays appeared, in 1985, it created an extraordinary reaction, and he became, almost overnight, a kind of national treasure. That says a great deal, I think, about where Ireland was going at that time, and I think that Butler is a fascinating instance of somebody who was ahead of his time, but who then came into his kingdom because Ireland did embrace pluralism, faced up to its past, and moved ahead in some astonishing and unexpected ways in the very late 20th century.

The personal affinity I feel with him is not so much a matter of background – Butler came very much from an Anglo-Irish landowning background, whereas I’m from an Irish Protestant tradition of a rather different kind – but I’m instinctively sympathetic to his unashamedness. From his student days, he was an Irish nationalist, but he retained that identification while writing affectionately and unapologetically about Irish customs that weren’t necessarily rooted in a nationalist tradition. When I first met him, my first impression was of a complete originality and distinction, and of somebody who had never stopped interrogating things and thinking about them: a kind of wonderful innocence, in some ways.

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What is the value of studying history? Nothing is necessarily as you thought it was, and you should never believe what you’re told until you have had a chance to study it for yourself. The case for studying history is to develop a necessary scepticism – and in some circumstances a necessary subversiveness.