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Hubert Butler

Hubert Butler was born in Kilkenny in 1900 and educated in England at Charterhouse and St John’s College, Oxford. After work with the Irish County Libraries in the mid-1920s he travelled extensively throughout Europe, before returning in 1941 to Co. Kilkenny, where he lived – as market gardener, broadcaster, journalist and historian – until his death in 1991. He won international recognition during his lifetime with the publication of three volumes of essays, Escape from the Anthill(1985), The Children of Drancy (1988) and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone (1990).

 

 

Excerpts from the introduction by John Banville:

‘Hubert Butler is one of the great essayists in the English language, the peer of Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Orwell. This may seem a startling claim, given that Butler’s work is known to a relatively small coterie of readers. The narrowness of his reputation is due not only to his natural modesty – he was surely the least noisy of writers –but to the fact that, although he was a much-travelled man, he cleaved steadfastly to his home place. ‘I have always believed,’ he writes in the essay ‘Beside the Nore’, ‘that local history is more important than national history.’ Even more damaging, to the ears of our globalised age, is his admission, or boast, in the introduction to one of his collections, that ‘even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, they are really about Ireland’.’

‘Butler is a vigorous thinker and a marvellous writer, one of those rare figures whose mild tone masks a steely resolve. Rarely does he raise his voice – he does not need to, so incisive are his perceptions and so corrosive is his wit. With him, to read the writer is to know the man, and to know Hubert Butler is to understand a little more about oneself and a great deal more about the world.’

 

Other Reviews:

‘Opening the contents page, one has an impression of disparateness; closing the book, of having discovered an oeuvre. . . Butler has the Anglo-Irish antenna for place; his unadorned style expresses atmosphere with extraordinary clarity.’ – Roy Foster

‘He has all the essayist’s gifts: a clear, strong prose, a fascination with everyday affairs and their significance sub specie æternitatis, a readiness to generalise, the ability to digress without wandering from the point, to inform without pedantry and enlighten withoutcondescension, to give us pleasure simply by sharing his thoughts.’ – Hugh Bredin

‘As idiosyncratic, mellow and stimulating as poteen matured in a brandy-cask, Butler’s essays inspire hope for the twenty-first century’ – Dervla Murphy

‘The finest and most penetrating essayist this country has produced this century … there is not a dull page in this civilized and witty book.’ – The Irish Times

‘The writer for whom I feel instinctive love – not just for the work, but for the human being who thought and shaped it – is Hubert Butler. … When the first collection of his articles and columns and lectures was published in 1985 he was 84 years old. But by the time of Butler’s death in 1991, readers throughout Europe and America were asking in amazement why he had not been part of their common culture before.’ – Neal Ascherson, Independent on Sunday

‘A late and luscious windfall. Imagine an impossible combination of Flann O’Brien and Isaiah Berlin. Well, Butler comes close.’ – Ferdinand Mount, Spectator

‘A humanistic essayist in the tradition of Montaigne, Butler also belongs in the company of George Orwell and the American Dwight Macdonald: political-literary-moral critics for whom we lack an exact word. He was spared writing about everyday politics, but he discussed the tragedy of the twentieth century with exceptional clarity and depth.’ – Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Times Literary Supplement

‘A writer of rare elegance and grace and with an even more rare moral and intellectual courage. He was a literary artist of vivid and often exquisite prose.’ – Thomas Flanagan, The Washington Post