Isaac Butt, 1813-1879: Iconoclastic Godfather of Home Rule Nationalism

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I had a mate who really annoyed our history teacher once. We were doing what we thought was the boring bit of the Leaving Cert, Irish history, when we were confronted with the odd figure of Isaac Butt. Taken by our teacher’s passion for the man, and her compassion for his drinking and womanizing, my mate responded by concluding an essay on Butt by paraphrasing Denis Leary’s summation of Jim Morrison’s life: He was drunk: he was nobody; he was drunk: he was famous; he was drunk: he was dead. Butt certainly enjoyed a drop, and women were never far from his attention. He nonetheless possessed rare levels of perception and farsightedness. His idea was powerful in its simplicity: to put Irish self-rule back on the agenda. His path to taking this initiative was anything but predictable.

He was born in Donegal in 1813, as Protestant as shortbread and as Tory as kicking a beggar. He studied in Trinity College, Dublin and became a barrister, practicing in Ireland and then in Britain. Renowned for his academic and legal mind, he served as Professor of Political Economy in Trinity before entering Politics, representing both English as well as Irish constituencies.

Butt was the classic 19th century bourgeois citizen politician, respected and every bit an establishment figure. It all changed because of two things: the calamitous Famine of the 1840’s spurred Butt on to question his long held (and culturally defining) political beliefs, given that his party, the Tories, were held responsible for the scale of the disaster, if not for causing it. The second thing happened during his day job, when Butt became a proto-Michael Mansfield, defending high profile nationalist revolutionaries. Butt once had the unenviable task of defending the leaders of the Young Irelanders during their trial for high treason in 1848, at which time the nasty old Brits had suspended habeas corpus and made the golden thread that runs through British justice unravel on the Emerald Isle. The generally lousy treatment meted out to the Irish on both counts lead Butt to conclude that the domestic affairs of Ireland were really its own concern and far better dealt with at home than by the men of Westminster, who frankly were pretty rubbish at this task.

The respectable, loyal MP now took to setting up a new group, The Home Government Association. At its first meeting in 1870 in Dublin, those present were not only the usual nationalist suspects, but a whole range of characters and political hues; figures like Butt – Protestants disillusioned with Westminster, who wanted to see change in the governing of Ireland’s affairs. Was this the moment of blossoming cooperation, our very own ‘rainbow nation’? Despite some misgivings, Butt did his damndest to get all sides working together, and his view was clear from his experience: Protestants had nothing to fear from Catholics, and it was Catholics who had suffered an injustice. He said it so himself:

“Trust me, we have all grievously wronged the Irish Catholics, priests and laymen.”

They trusted him, and within three years, the Home Government Association grew to the much catchier Home Rule League. Contesting elections, the Home Rule League gained quick prominence and it was thanks to Butt. Unfortunately, human nature got in the way and it all fell apart. Protestant support waned as the influence of nationalists, among them the Irish Republican Brotherhood, took up the political oxygen. As unity in the Home Rule League unraveled, so did Butt. His leadership wasn’t much to write home about: as MPs weren’t paid at the time, Butt maintained prolonged absences from Westminster in his perpetual attempts to keep the wolves from the door. His timing was also awful. In his absence, Home Rule’s prominence dissolved in Westminster, as, yes, you guessed it, the Tories took power, and we all know how they felt about Ireland, especially when there was a global empire to run.
Butt’s other great flaw, apart from his need to get paid without backhanders and a lack of organisational skill, whose scale can only be described in terms of a high pitched shriek, was his love of drink and women. Whereas someone like Ben Franklin was feted despite his peccadilloes, Butt never cut it in the uptight morality of Victorian Britain. It was said he fathered so many children out of wedlock, that he’d get heckled when speaking at public meetings by the women whose bastard children he had allegedly sired. Whether or not such reports are entirely accurate, Butt the bon vivant was gifting the opponents of Butt the politician the necessary arsenal to be rid of him. In 1873 the inevitable happened. Butt was replaced by William Shaw, another northern Protestant nationalist, though not without bitterness among his followers. He was an outcast from the party whose very soul he had called into existence. In the vacuum, the Home Rule League caused trouble in the House of Commons by way of its new policy of obstructionism. Among the radicals was Charles Stewart Parnell, who would eventually take over, pay his MPs and define nationalism for a generation. Parnell himself would also come a cropper on morality, although where Butt had trysts with many women, it only took one to topple the future Uncrowned King of Ireland. In the end, Butt the womaniser and drinker won out over Butt the statesman, and he died in 1879 in a cottage in Clonskeagh, a place so unremarkable, death must have been a mercy.

Isaac Butt was a man of incredible gifts: He was eloquent, genial and insightful. He had the vision to get people to sit together and discuss constructively the future of his country. He dared to change minds, as his had been in the course of his life. He brought Protestants to the brink of sharing a vision of a self-governed Ireland with Catholic nationalists, governed in the interests of all of her people. The only problem was that while his greatness came to define his actions, it was his flaws which would hamper his own greatness. For all of that, imagine if Butt had been able to see it through. Ireland would have been a very different, maybe even better, place.

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