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It is worth keeping mind—indeed, it is worth harping on—that our forty-third President holds office only because a judicial order stifled the vote count in a decisive state, thereby letting stand a preliminary total that was incomplete, distorted by irregularities, at odds with the will of the electorate, and almost certainly wrong in its outcome. Reagan, on the other hand, was elected—and by an outright popular majority. And, when he ran again, he received a larger absolute number of votes than any other candidate in American history. (The runner-up is Al Gore, a visiting professor of journalism at Columbia University.)

Inducing forgetfulness about these uncomfortable truths, quite as much as soliciting support for tax relief for the comfortable, has been the goal of the opening weeks of Bush II

                  —Hendrick Hertzberg, The New Yorker, Feb. 19 & 26, 2001






In October of last year I went to Kilkenny, Ireland, for the Centenary Celebration of Hubert Butler (1900-1991). It was a remarkable event and unlike any literary meeting of my experience. Butler was a writer of prose of the tensile strength of silk through which the sharpest sword cannot cut, an international writer, very likely a great writer, and a moralist. Elsewhere in this issue appears his essay about the collusion of Archbishop Stepinac in the Croat Nazis’ forced conversion, even unto death, of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Serbs, and about what should have been the unthinkable willingness of the Church and many of Butler’s fellow Irishmen to remain ignorant of it while praising the Archbishop for his resistance to godless communism. This willed ignorance, or covering-up, appalled Butler, I dare to say, to his soul. He paid a heavy price for speaking out about it, as is detailed in Chris Agee’s essays, particularly “The Stepinac File.” This man who had decided to remain at home and work among his neighbors was shunned in Kilkenny.

Although the Mayor of Kilkenny, clad in official regalia, delivered so handsome a speech of genuine apology on behalf of the townspeople as we would never hear in this country, I wondered if the old animus against Butler had been wholly subdued. In the meeting room, the spirit of the company was magnified. We who had come came for love of Butler, or at least with profound respect for him. There was no doubt among us that an old wrong had been righted and the small-minded overcome. The commemoration would open on a clear note; and so it did. For four half-days we heard speakers of verbal brilliance and mental acuity, many of whom themselves had known Butler. Among a group one was rarely so fortunate as to meet in one place were Roy Foster, the Carroll Professor of Irish History, Oxford University and biographer of Yeats; and Neal Ascherson, columnist for The Observer and author of a book I admire, THE BLACK SEA; and John Banville, the novelist – THE UNTOUCHABLE is unnerving in its attainment – and associate literary editor of The Irish Times; and John Casey, Henry Hoynes Professor of English at the University of Virginia and winner of the American National Book Award for his novel SPARTINA, who read us a light-filled memoir of Butler. The other speakers, though they were less familiar to me, were hardly less worthy of attention. Listening to such people is a joyful occasion. I am convinced that the Irish invented language itself.

Kilkenny is a lovely town with an imposing castle and a fine, medieval cathedral built of the local limestone. The Celebration took place in the castle, ancient center of secular power. Across the street was the Butler House, an inn where the speakers were put up in comfort, and the Kilkenny Design Center; and down the street, called The Parade (where soldiers once had been reviewed or led forth into combat), that is, down the hill toward the lower town, was the bed and breakfast into which I had booked. Everyone says Ireland has changed greatly in the past two or three years. The people have money, and they don’t have to leave the country to find work. These facts had not been true in a century and a half or longer. The house was owned by a young man in his thirties, I would guess, who had refurbished it tastefully and who served a lavish breakfast in the morning. (I did not have a bad meal in Ireland and feel I could subsist happily on brown bread.) He and his staff worked hard and hospitably to put visitors at ease, though their talk among themselves was sharp with teasing. Their shoulders were straight; they were not deferential; they moved with an air of confidence. A bit of money can give you this, when it comes from your own work and you feel that ancient stumbling blocks – the priest, the politician, the owner, the boss with the upper hand – have been shifted.

The Mayor, whose name was Paul Cuddihy, devoted his speech to the search for truth and the application of justice. He said:

In order to understand fully why this happened it is important to remember the political climate that existed in Ireland and post war Europe at this time. The Soviet Union was expanding westward and democracy was being crushed throughout eastern Europe. It was the time of the Cold War. Anti-communism was rife and the ‘Red Scare’ was real for many people. Anyone who was perceived as being anti-communist was on our side according to public opinion. When Tito locked up those who had collaborated with the Nazis in Croatia during the war, public opinion in Ireland and Europe was outraged when some of the people concerned were senior churchmen. Ireland was at this time a very different society to that of today. People were inclined to be unquestioning and accepting of the status quo. Few people had access to second level, never mind third level education. That didn't make them any less intelligent than the young people of today. Those people just didn't get the opportunities that people take for granted today. People were poor, times were bad with high unemployment, emigration was rife.

“These are facts, but they are not excuses for what happened in Kilkenny,” he insisted. The Mayor was also a schoolteacher. Some of his students were in the hall. He bade them listen and learn.

Irish people roll their eyes at the American Irish for idealizing the old sod their forebears had left behind; and it is true that Ireland is far from the coal-mining valley where I grew up, although anthracite was dug, too, in County Kilkenny. Yet, that day, the Kilkenny of 1952 evoked buried memories of my birthplace. The mistrust and resentment of those whom old gossips had called “the Prods” had long since crossed the ocean. A brown pall of narrowness had hung over the parish where once I received the sacraments. I did not find it difficult, remembering a bemused childhood, to recognize the fear of giving scandal, of the curtain-twitch.

For some time I have been worrying over a notion I have about absolutism and its structures in the mind; I am concerned, no doubt, with my own mind. Standing before the Parade Tower with a cordial acquaintance, an Irish woman, I had remarked how very strange it was to be in a real castle. The first castle of Kilkenny was a wooden fortress built by Richard de Clare, called Strongbow, the Anglo-Norman invader of Ireland, and rebuilt of stone by Strongbow’s son-in-law, William Marshal, around 1192. Two centuries later the powerful Butlers, who also were Normans, bought it; it remained the seat of the Butlers, Earls and Marquesses of Ormonde, until 1935, when Kilkenny Castle was sold for a song to the city. (Hubert Butler wrote that his was a minor branch of that family.) My lively acquaintance had replied that what she always found remarkable was the self-confidence of Americans. It’s because we have no mental category of monarchy, I had answered: our sovereignty lies in ourselves as citizens, and this knowledge gives us our assurance. Is this true? I wondered to myself. Often it is true.

In the meetings, the most curious (to me) and ridiculous thing happened, twice. Each day, a different man stood up and expressed his disagreement with Hubert Butler about politics. The first man, on the first day, said that for forty years he had thought Hubert Butler a communist, thus a sort of companion in arms, until upon reading Butler’s Balkan essays for the first time just the previous nights, he had realized his massive error. He wished to express his disappointment. The second man objected to Butler’s having made a claim during a long-ago political campaign for the congenital independent-mindedness of Protestants. The man objected that the Penal Laws of dread memory were imposed by Protestants and accused Butler of being in effect a racist. The discussion was handled firmly (it was suggested that an understanding of metaphor was a useful skill to have) and closed smoothly by the moderator (though I heard wry murmurs alluding to the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Association in 1952 described in Chris Agee’s paper). Later it came out that both gentlemen were from the Cork Stalinists!

I wondered whether, in order to counter the awful (as I learned it) rule of the British for so many centuries, the Catholic Irish had turned to their Church, ceding so much of their personal autonomy to the hierarchy and its stringent rules of morality, as to a protector of sorts. Even so, for generations after British dominion was broken the hold of the Church remained tight on the populace; for instance, the hierarchy controlled schooling until lately, and divorce was only voted into law in 1995. In other nations these have long been secular matters regulated by the polity. But Stalinists, these days, in Cork? In the face of two implacable powers, had that totalitarian, terror-based rule by cult of personality become abstracted into yet another absolutist counter-force? What could these men, who demonstrated that they could not read with discrimination, have believed? I don’t know an answer, unless it lies in the banal observation that in the dimmest matters of the human heart change occurs slowly. This cannot be answer enough. A certain cast of mind led them to call themselves Stalinists; what form had cast those minds?

Hubert Butler, for speaking a hard truth, was shunned by many – not all – of his neighbors and erstwhile friends. He must have been resented. No doubt he, described as a man whose mind did not flinch, would have recognized it, almost impersonally, as he did on another occasion, when he spoke at a small service in memory of his friend and distant cousin Elizabeth Bowen. He referred to her family’s house, called Bowen’s Court, and three other houses burned down during the Troubles.

…I think we underestimate the extent to which our remembrance of people, families, classes and even races is linked with bricks and mortar. It ought not to be so, but it is…. It is hard for an Anglo-Irishman not … to suspect that our indifference was a foretaste of the neglect and distortion that whole centuries of Anglo-Irish history may have to suffer in the future. These four houses had all, in their day, given shelter to an attempt to blend two traditions, the imagination and poetry of the Gael, with the intellectual vitality and administrative ability of the colonist. And though this mingling of loyalties frequently did happen, each generation found it not easier but harder to create for Ireland some common culture which all its citizens could share.

Hubert Butler’s determination early in his life to remain in his locality and earn his living as a market gardener seems in retrospect both inevitable and unyieldingly brave. Shunning is an ugly act. The people remembered dimly from an American childhood who with pursed mouth and averted face would have walked righteously past a Butler: their shades were in Kilkenny. They were my ghosts; the American Irish were a hard-headed, nostalgic lot, but no more of Ireland than I was. And so, afterward, I read several newspapers, curious to see how Irish people who had not been on the program would respond to this celebration of Butler, and whether the old divisions had healed over; I had a sense they had not, entirely. It is well to remember that he thought his countrymen had a good deal in common with the people of the Balkans, not the least in making war on themselves. The best commentary that came my way I will leave till the end. The two others I will quote from are public letters. The first was in fact rejected for publication by the Kilkenny People and the Irish Times. Its author, a Dominican priest from the Dublin area, then distributed it by hand throughout Kilkenny, including the pubs and supermarkets and in front of churches, until the mayor passed the word that it could be considered libellous, whereupon it disappeared from circulation. It was faxed to a friend in the States, and given to me.

30 October 2000

Sir, I write in response to the inappropriate apology made by Mayor Paul Cuddihy and Kilkenny Corporation to Ms Julia Crampton as reported in the ‘Kilkenny People’ (27 October) [and in the ‘Irish Times’ (18 and 24 October). Right of reply to my letters was refused by both papers.]

Ms Crampton dredged up the controversy sparked by her late father, Hubert Butler, on a highly political and complex topic, which led to the silent withdrawal of the Papal Nuncio from a public meeting in Dublin in 1952. Mr Butler had wronged the Holy See and the Catholic Church by falsely alleging that both had approved and promoted the forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs to the Catholic faith in wartime Croatia. With due respect to the dead, Mr Butler was not a professional historian, still less an expert on the centuries-old tangled web of Serbo-Croatian racial, political and religious history.

….Now a Mayor of Kilkeny [sic] has issued an objectionable apology on behalf of the Catholics of Kilkenny (but by whose mandate?), to whitewash the deliberatively provocative incident of forty-eight years ago. His action constitutes another false gesture based on historically defective information. Mr Butler was responsible for disrupting community relations, and for the social backlash (from Protestants as well as Catholics) that he brought upon himself.

Perhaps the Mayor might carefully read Mr Butler’s writings where (quite apart from the Balkans issue and his support for Tito) his rather bitter anti-Catholic spirit is apparent. Mayor Cuddihy’s injudicious and insensitive comments have caused a slur on the memory, decency and integrity of his deceased predecessors in the Tholsel. An apology to their insulted families is surely called for, or will the secularists, combining with the history and theology revisionist lobby, which seeks to neutralize and depreciate Catholicism in Ireland, be allowed to go on rejoicing. Yours etc.,

(Revd) Thomas S. R. O’Flynn, OP, Ph.D.

It is as if no time passed. The pity of it is, while calm, reason, and serious reflection are preferable, sharp correction is what this letter requires, ridicule what it deserves. The comic pathos of the Cork Stalinist who had not read Butler has turned deathly in the mind of this spiteful cleric, with his imprecisions – I count at least three – shading into distortions, his high-handed willingness to continue to take offense when none was given. Need it be said yet again how precisely Butler had chosen his words, how closely he had done his research, how exactly he had made his argument? It seems so; for the polemic this reader would call hysterical might actually be taken seriously somewhere. Intellectually, his is an example of mauvaise foi. In the church in which I was raised, it would have been called giving scandal.

The second letter was published November 3, 2000 under the title “The Mayor, the Professor and a great ‘Plaster Saint’”:


….Being in town, I went along to the Butler Conference to see for myself. After the Mayor’s apology on Friday evening (October 20), a Professor, Roy Foster of Oxford University, related to the meeting an anecdote of Hubert’s, about the fundraising efforts of two local Republicans who came to their door in 1920.

His mother’s response was: “I know who your are, Jim Connell, and take that cigarette out of your mouth when you are talking to me.”

I do not know whether the particular quality of disdain displayed by the Professor was part of Butler’s original anecdote, or whether it was added on by Mr. Foster himself. but the last two words of Mrs. Butler’s rebuke were emphasised by Mr. Foster in a significant semi-tone higher than the others, and he went on to say with relish that the two fund-raisers “slunk away” when the 20-year-old Hubert engaged his mother in argument on their behalf in the doorway.

I myself was born and bred in Butler’s own neighbourhood of Bennettsbridge, and grew up quite aware of Hubert, or of how I and our other neighbours might, in some way unknown to ourselves, have wronged him. So why, fifty years on, does the Mayor now feel he must apologise in our name?

….What further emerged over the weekend was Butler’s address to the people of Kilkenny when he stood for election to the County Council in 1955. He got very few votes. The reason is evident from his election address:

“We live in a democracy, but the democratic principles which we obey were not developed in Ireland by the Roman Catholic majority, except under Protestant leadership. There are historical reasons for this which don’t reflect discredit on our Roman Catholic countrymen, and need not concern us here.

“The point is that most of our free institutions in Ireland were evolved by Protestants, or men of Anglo-Irish or English stock and it would be very strange if we had not a particular gift for making them work (county councils developed in England. They worked badly in Ireland) because the heirs of the men who invented them and have a sort of hereditary understanding of how they work play no part in them. Most of us can act independently because we have independence in our blood.”

So democracy is a matter of inherited racial breeding. The only thing I will say about this is that the two young Republicans who called at Mrs. Butler’s in 1920 would probably have been able to live out their lives quietly in Bennettsbridge if the Irish people had not, in defence of their democratic vote for independence in 1918, been compelled to resort to arms against the military dictatorship imposed on them by the world’s biggest superpower. The people of Bennettsbridge needed no lessons in democracy from anybody….

The project of turning Butler into a plaster saint – himself a great demolisher of plaster saints in his own time – is not something he would have approved of.

Yours etc.,
Pat Muldowney

Here the signatory is a man living in Co. Waterford. Like the second Stalinist from Cork, he has not learned the use of metaphor, though he may be said to have a sensitive ear, and, like the priest from Dublin, he will never let go of a cherished grievance. But even an American of (partially) Irish descent knows that “the Irish people” to whom the writer harks back, not a year after the world’s biggest superpower had given way to them, went to war against each other.

The third excerpt is of so different a measure and tone that it suggests to this reader one reason parochial arguments will never cease in this life: because the sides are never evenly matched. The author is Eoghan Harris, writing in the Sunday Times of London, October 29, 2000. Eoghan Harris also wrote the Foreword to GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE, a volume of Butler’s essays. In this column, he recounts why he took to Butler’s thinking – in 1985 he was given ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL to review, and did so with passion – and, gleefully, calls him “a fast-moving fighter.”

Butler was born into a famous Protestant Kilkenny family at the beginning of the 20th century. He remained rooted in the Nore Valley through all the turbulent events of the last century. But unlike most southern Protestants he cast aside the political passivity of his peers, professed himself a Protestant republican, said yes to the new state but no to its culture of the Catholic nationalism. But unlike most other “Protestant republicans” he continually challenged the Roman Catholic Church, whether it was covering up Croatian atrocities or fanning sectarian fires at Fethard-on-Sea [where the clergy incited a boycott of Protestant merchants].

….But back in 1985, apart from Butler’s literary merits, I had pressing political reasons to breathe eureka when I read Escape from the Anthill. Because I was beginning to wrestle with the problem of “Protestant republicanism”. In that year, Tomas MacAnna and the Abbey theatre staged my play Souper Sullivan which dealt with Irish-speaking converts to Protestantism during the famine. But in the course of researching the play I had become convinced that the two main protective colourations adopted by southern Protestants – religious passivity or Protestant republicanism – had historically conspired to strengthen the status quo.

This is how it worked. By the 1960s a substantial number of Irish Catholics were fighting on two fronts – against the Catholic church and the Sinn Fein tradition. But instead of forming an alliance with the progressive Catholics, southern Protestants, in search of a spurious acceptance, seemed ready to sell out on two fronts. First, the majority of Irish Protestants failed to proclaim firmly their full religious rights as Protestants. Second, a trendy minority professed themselves to be “Protestant republicans” and implicitly agreed to the suppression of the British strand in the Protestant cultural identity.

At times of acute crisis, Catholic nationalism has no compunction about using Protestant republicans (who are really Protestant nationalists) as a cultural militia against Catholic revisionists. Butler showed that there is a possible third way between southern Protestant passivity and Protestant nationalism.

Here is a political Protestant who runs for Kilkenny county council in the belief that Protestants can offer conscience-driven independent thinking. Here is a pluralist Protestant who does not believe in empty ecumenism. Here is a Protestant activist, who with his Peggy, physically breaks the boycott of Protestant shops by driving to Fethard-on-Sea to buy food from them.

Southern Protestants should remember that while Butler invited integration, he did not accept assimilation. In every edged essay he says in effect: “I am Irish and Protestant, which is not quite the same as being Irish and Catholic, and the details of that difference are essential to my identity.”

Every polity needs so-called outsiders, even when they are of its own: those who think well and under no coercion, who will take up the principled argument, who will not accommodate to covering-up. Butler is essential reading for any educated person. Antony Farrell of The Lilliput Press, his long-time publisher in Dublin, is preparing a Butler Reader. Why, then, is the Farrar, Straus edition of his essays, called INDEPENDENT SPIRIT, out of print in the United States?



The quotation by the Mayor of Kilkenny is from his speech given at the Centenary Celebration of Hubert Butler,
      as is the list of speakers.

The quotation by Hubert Butler is from “Elizabeth Bowen,” ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL
     (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1985), p. 200

The Kilkenny People

The Irish Times

Hubert Butler, “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue

Chris Agee, “The Balkan Butler

_________, “The Stepinac File

The American edition of Butler’s essays is INDEPENDENT SPIRIT, Essays, ed. and with a preface by Elisabeth
      Sifton. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996.

A bibliography of Hubert Butler is found after “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue”

Previous Endnotes:

The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4

The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3

On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2

The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4

Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3

On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1

A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4

The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3

Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2

Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1



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