Hubert Butler began publishing essays in the 1930s in Irish newspapers and literary magazines such as the Bell, the Twentieth Century, the Irish Times and the Dublin Magazine. It seems extraordinary that* for whatever combination of personal, political, and literary reasons, his essays did not appear in book form until the Lilliput Press in Dublin published Escape from the Anthill (1985), The Children of Drancy (1988), and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone (1990). Penguin drew from these three for The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue and Other Essays (1990). Butler’s recent place as a major 20th-century essayist adds to the essay form the sort of late-emergency story that has occasionally marked undiscovered poets or fiction writers, except that Butler wrote and published essays for almost 60 years. His mature vitality (although many of the collected essays are decades old, they are frequently subject to revisions, additions, and epilogues) might be compared to Henry Roth and M. F. K. Fisher (who also had a vibrant autumnal output) in the United States.
Butler’s essays have some of the epigrammatic force, allusive erudition, and philosophical range of Montaigne’s. As for his 20th-century generic compatriots, Butler moves into the personal and political in ways similar at times to Virginia Woolf, at others to George Orwell. Butler, Woolf, and Orwell also attend to moral conundrums and outrages on large and small scales, from the international, to the international, to the small but telling personal decisions that are symptomatic of cultural dis-ease and decline. All three share a balance of jeremiadical pessimism and small sparks of hope.
In “A Fragment of Autobiography” (1987), Butler strikes Orwellian notes, speaking respectively of his school days and his days at Oxford: “I remember all the shrubs between the pavvy and the swimming bath. Hundreds of episodes present themselves in heavy type. Everything else is in italics”; “Religion had become a subject, like Philosophy or Physics. You either took it or you didn’t.” Butler’s attention to detail, image, and metaphor, and his demystifying sardonic nature has some of the flavor of Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” (1953) or “England, Your England” (1953), as well as tonal complexity that hedges bets against absolute pronouncement. Butler’s voice, though, has a kind of lyrical crankiness distinctly his own in essays such as “Beside the Nore” (1984): “Various economic causes can be alleged for their (local industry’s) failure but often there is nothing to be said except that men grow old and have bored or stupid sons and that today there are many prosperous industries which would be more admirable as ruins covered with valerian and wild wall flowers.” In “Aunt Harriet” (1987), Butler curves back around toward his topic, following a typical digression, with a mixture of sentiment, self-effacement, and harsh but muted statement:
“I have left Aunt Harriet in her coffin a long way behind, but am thinking of the memories she took with her; they were all unimportant but the past is a mosaic of tiny pieces, a fragment of a larger picture, Ireland in the twenties and the last days of the Anglo Irish, and 1 will continue with more minutiae … It is only because my elder relations arc all dead and I am an old man now, soon to go into a box myself, that I can write like this. Perhaps I should for 1 have nothing interesting to relate, only what happened in my mind, and that is discreditable but not exciting.9*
Butler’s range is wide, but certain subjects and themes dominate his essays: his experience in the Balkans and Russia in the 19jos, and in Vienna working to arrange exit visas for Jews in 1938-39, and the war’s incomplete moral reckoning; his ancestral environs above the River Nore in the village of Bennettsbridge, County Kilkenny; telling moments in Irish history*; the “troubles,” along with his perspective on both his own Anglo-Irish and the Catholic cultures of Ireland; the impoverished role of religion in late modern life and values, from the failure of sectarian theology in Ireland to the capitulations of religious institutions to nationalist governments and human atrocity during the war; literary’ essays on writers from Maria Edgeworth (a relation) to Graham Greene (he writes memorably in “Graham Greene and Stephen Spender: The Sense of Evil and the Sense of Guilt,” 1951: “They are inseparable in their dissent, like two sisters quarrelling in the family home. The one wants the front door locked in case there’s a burglar, the other wants it ajar, in case there’s a fire. Or so they say”); and more general “speculative” essays, as Butler called them.
Echoing Auden’s dark imperative at the end of “September, I939” Butler frequently calls for realistic or pragmatic peace as a first step toward reconstructing human relations. In “Divided Loyalties” (1984) he writes, “Opposites often attract each other but the attraction seldom lasts if the full extent of the opposition is ignored. It is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love each other, not as fortuitously ‘separated brethren.’” Butler often strikes the kind of Montaignean note of “Des cannibales” (1580; “Of Cannibals”), signaling as classical personal essayists always have an ability to step outside of his own culture and find it not only flawed, but ridiculous, ludicrous even in the perpetuation of stagnant modes of thought and inscribed prejudices. In “The Auction” (1957), Butler tells us that “Living in social harmony is a most difficult art; the most absolute concentration is required, and perfect equilibrium. Our island is dangerously tilted towards England and towards 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. But it is not necessary to argue, it is only necessary to look.”
In “Grandmother and Wolfe Tone” (1961) Butler displays his ability to shine the beacon of aphoristic humanism on the murky and intractable conflicts between Irish Catholic and Protestant: “No educated man now dares take up a cause till he has mastered 90 per cent of the facts and all the background … There is only one way out, the way of Jefferson and Tone. In the North the Protestant Parliament for the Protestant people must go and in the South the separation of Church and State must be introduced and adhered to absolutely.” In “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue” (1956), perhaps Butler’s most trenchant analysis of human iniquity married to historical revisionism and ignorance, he speaks specifically of the Catholic responsibility for the forced conversion of thousands of the Serbian Orthodox, including the following indictment of moral compromise and delusion: “In countries where the old beliefs are dying it is the custom for educated people to handle them with nostalgic reverence … If you suppress a fact because it is awkward, you will next be asked to contradict it.”
Two other essays from Butler’s body of work must be singled out: “The Eggman and the Fairies” (i960) and “Little K” (1967). “The Eggman and the Fairies” is a riveting novelistic account of the barbaric attempt in 1895 to exorcise Bridget Cleary, committed by her husband and abetted by the active participation of friends and the indifference of almost all, in a town in the shadow of Slevenaman mountain, host to ancient natural beauty and persistent superstition. Butler’s reconstruction and commentary’ arc masterly, distinguished by a kind of shocked horror at the past mixed with restraint and a balance of sympathy. Butler ends the essay with another kind of mystery: the mystery’ of the missing eggman, the (fellow?) traveler Bridget Cleary claimed to have met on her not-so-mysterious excursion, and whom no one seemed to remember to inquire about.
“Little K” is one of Butler’s longest and most complex essays, a personal lament for a retarded granddaughter (Little K), an ethical history of euthanasia, an accusation of the way an indifferent legal system has appropriated the prerogatives of family and community, and a somber judgment of Christianity. Speaking of Spartan eugenic practices, Butler writes, “All this is very shocking to Christians, if Christians have not forfeited their right to be shocked at such things by their connivance at Auschwitz and Hiroshima … The gospels say that a darkness fell upon the earth when Christ was crucified and when a new era began. Surely the Silence of Pius (concerning the Nazis and their exterminations) has the same symbolic quality. It was mysterious and ominous, like the silence of woods and fields that precedes a total eclipse of the sun.” The end of the essay, a stoical coda, typically combines the qualities of resignation and hope that make one wish Butler’s voice in the wilderness had been more widely available earlier: “Maybe in ten or twenty years, as little K climbing very slowly has reached the highest rung she will ever reach, she will meet me there descending much more rapidly. If that were so, she would be the companion that 1 would choose above all others to travel back with me into nothingness.”