Butt, Isaac (1813–79), barrister and politician, was born 6 September 1813 in the Rectory at Glenfin, Co. Donegal, the only son of Robert Butt (d. 1829), a Church of Ireland parson, and his second wife, Berkeley (née Cox), daughter of the Rev. R. Cox, of Dovish, Co. Donegal and a descendant of Bishop George Berkeley (qv), after whom she was named. There were six sisters, four of them from his father's first marriage.
Education and career
Most of Butt's childhood was lived in the Donegal town of Stranorlar, but periods were also spent with his paternal grandfather at Adare, Co. Limerick, and with an uncle at Cloyne, where he attended Midleton College. From the age of twelve he was a boarder at the Royal School at Raphoe, and at fifteen took first place in the entrance examination to TCD, where he distinguished himself as a scholar. In 1833 he helped to found the Dublin University Magazine, and was editor (1834–8); in 1838 he founded a newspaper, the Protestant Guardian. He graduated BA (1835), LLB (1836), and MA and LLD (1840), and held the Whately chair of political economy at Trinity (1836–41). In November 1838 he was called to the Irish bar, in 1844 to the inner bar and in 1859 to the English bar. Butt was Conservative MP for Harwich from May to July 1852, being elected later that year for Youghal, holding the seat until defeated in the election of July 1865; he sat for Limerick from September 1871 until his death. As an MP Butt did not make the outstanding impact as a speaker that he had made in the courts as a barrister, but was generally acclaimed for the lucidity of his parliamentary speeches.
A year after his entrance to Trinity, Butt's father died, which led to his lifelong association with financial insecurity. Although his career at the bar was very distinguished, it did not bring him wealth, mainly because he sacrificed lucrative cases to the defence of those with whom he felt personal sympathy. Indeed, a nexus seems to have arisen between his political commitments and the cases he accepted. Thus in 1840 his defence of the old unreformed Dublin corporation before the bar of the house of lords was followed by election as an alderman of the new corporation, where he served as a champion of the conservative cause and a staunch opponent of Daniel O'Connell (qv). He defended William Smith O'Brien (qv) and other Young Irelanders in the state trials of 1848, and subsequently began to describe himself as a liberal-conservative; and, most famously, his defence of the Fenian prisoners between 1865 and 1869 immediately preceded his adoption of home rule. These apparently large shifts in position suggest a complex development in his attitude to Irish politics, best symbolised over a longer period in the shift from opposition to the Repeal movement to advocacy of home rule.
During his time at Trinity Butt was unequivocally tory and a staunch defender of protestant ascendancy. In 1841 he joined a masonic lodge in Dublin, and may also have joined the Orange Order, but appears to have taken no part in such organisations subsequently. At Trinity he set out aggressively to confront and oppose all manifestations of protestant tolerance of catholic political and ecclesiastical aspirations. The establishment of the Dublin University Magazine was a product of this acerbic sectarianism and political reaction. However, these views were associated with other attitudes not generally associated with toryism, such as his questioning of the Irish property settlement, his criticisms of aristocratic privilege, and his sympathy with the plight of Irish peasants. Butt's toryism was a response more to his Irishness than to the usual British sources of tory belief. Believing, not unusually for his time, in the necessity of a ruling class, in Irish terms he identified that with the protestant ascendancy; attacks, such as O'Connell's, upon that elite and on its institutions he saw as threatening to the order of society.
That his views had deep Irish sources is perhaps best illustrated by the respect of those he so aggressively attacked. Famously, O'Connell predicted that Butt would eventually take up the cause of Irish self-government, while the Young Irelanders found in him an opponent with whom they felt an affinity: John Mitchel (qv) conceded that he ‘has never advocated the union upon imperialist principles or because he thinks it useful to Great Britain’ (de Vere White, 99). Butt believed that the union and protestant ascendancy were essential attributes of the identity of the Irish nation, and guarantees of Ireland's position, not as a colony, but as a partner with Britain in its great imperial venture. His defence of the Young Ireland prisoners may well have introduced him to those nationalists whose concept of an Irish nation, in social and religious terms, was more like his own than was O'Connell's. But it was the Great Famine (1845–9) which seemed to mark the watershed in the development of his ideas about nationality. Like James Fintan Lalor (qv), although in a much looser and less explicit sense, he considered the Famine to have undermined the basis of the existing civil society. After the Famine Butt's views were predicated on an assumption that social order in Ireland could no longer be represented in terms of protestant ascendancy but must now depend on a compact between catholic and protestant.
Education and land tenure
The lineaments of the shift in Butt's view of Irish civil society from one based on protestant ascendancy to one conceding legitimacy to the aspirations of catholics can be seen especially clearly in his developing ideas about education and land tenure. He argued that the well-intended institution of the national school system in 1831, with provision for separate religious instruction, had been steadily corrupted by persistent official efforts to apply protestant principles to the education of catholics. This effectively denied to catholics – and often to protestants – the religious influence within education which was available in England. On the vexed issue of university education for catholics he also took the view that the very strong opinions of the catholic church had to be recognised and accommodated. He believed that failure to provide the kind of education that was wanted in Ireland brought the law and established institutions into constant disrepute. On land tenure Butt had been a pioneer in advancing the cause of the Irish tenant farmers against prevailing assumptions about the ownership of agricultural land. He argued that this issue involved ‘the very life of the nation, the right of the Celtic race to live in their own land – it is one that approaches the very foundation of society and proprietary rights’ (The Irish people and the Irish land, 253). He disputed the view that in Ireland the letting of farms could be governed by a competitive market. The concept of a single, capitalist market for the whole of the United Kingdom, assimilating Irish agriculture to that of Britain, he rejected on the ground ‘that it involves the extermination of the people’ (Land tenure in Ireland, 64).
The impact of the Famine
On both education and land Butt argued consistently for solutions based on an understanding of the problems as they existed in Ireland, rather than on prevailing doctrine or ideology. He advocated remedies that grew out of and accommodated the aspirations and wishes, not only of one community, but of all – catholic, anglican, and presbyterian; he sought not lowest common denominators, but robust recognition of the best principles arising out of all Ireland's traditions. While by the mid 1860s this was expressed in terms different from the 1840s, the lines of development from the one to the other are clear. Joseph Spence has shown how Butt's views of the union had been influenced by the Irish poor law and the Famine (Spence, 236–51). But subsequently there had also been important changes of circumstance which contributed to the evolution of his ideas. The Famine itself had fundamentally changed relationships within Ireland and the relationship between England and Ireland. In addition, no matter how tories like Butt might have viewed the matter, parliamentary reform and changing political assumptions had given to majorities an increasing importance, impelling a recognition that older ideas of protestant ascendancy were no longer sustainable. But perhaps most importantly, a further factor – and one inherently nationalist in its implications – was driving Butt to a political stance that superficially appeared at variance with his earlier allegiances. While Spence discerns even in the mid 1840s a growing sense of shared national grievance between nationalists and protestant tories, he sees this as consolidated by the fact that a decade after the Dublin University Magazine ‘had begun pointing out Ireland's grievances, none of them had been redressed’ (Spence, 51). Another decade later, in the mid-sixties, not only had redress still not occurred, but a major new dimension of alienation had been added to the relationship between Ireland and the parliament by which it was governed.
Butt, the Fenians and Gladstone
No one was better placed than Butt to understand the nature and implications of the two rebellions of his lifetime. He defended both Young Ireland and Fenian prisoners, and won their respect for his understanding of the well-springs from which their actions derived. He knew them to be honourable men, driven largely by anger at the injustices under which their country suffered. Butt shared their sense of grievance, although not a belief in the methods to which they resorted. He became heavily committed to the release of those imprisoned after the uncovering of their conspiracies in 1865 and as a result of the abortive rising of 1867. In this he was widely supported, not only by those sympathetic to Fenianism, but by a broad cross-section of Irish opinion, including many of the protestant minority. This support arose out of a recognition that the continued imprisonment of these men, given the respect in which many of them were held, their lack of the normal attributes of criminality, and the depth of the grievances that had influenced them, was a continuing cause of instability in the body politic. In particular, the longer their confinement continued the more difficult it was for those opposed to the Fenians to restore credibility to the formal institutions of society.
The Fenian disturbances of the latter 1860s coincided with, and indeed influenced, crucial developments in British politics in relationship to Ireland. Already in the early 1860s younger Liberals were beginning to adopt new attitudes towards the resolution of Irish problems. When the Liberal Party returned to office at the end of 1868 it was under the leadership of William Ewart Gladstone, with his declared ‘mission to pacify Ireland’, and in particular to address the three great grievances of the Irish church establishment, the system of land tenure, and the problem of university education. These were also the issues to which Butt gave priority, and he was deeply affected by the determination and commitment with which Gladstone set out to address them. It was, however, Gladstone's failure on the question of amnesty for the Fenian prisoners that shaped the role which Butt was now to play in Irish politics. In 1869 Butt had accepted the presidency of the Amnesty Association, and in conjunction with a number of Irish Liberals succeeded in persuading Gladstone that the release of Fenian prisoners was critical to the success of his reform programme. In Ireland's appeal for amnesty, published in February 1870 in the form of a letter to Gladstone, Butt stressed that the question of amnesty was ‘no trifling debate whether a few convicts are to suffer further punishment or to be released’, but involved ‘the whole policy of England to Ireland’ (p. 7). However, largely because of the opposition of colleagues and officials, Gladstone did not, until the end of 1870, achieve significant releases. By then the amnesty movement in Ireland had assumed very substantial proportions, and the release was both inadequate in terms of Irish expectations and too late for it to appear other than a response to pressure. The advantages that would have derived from the early and magnanimous action of a new government were thus dissipated, the message once more implanted that British governments responded not to the demands of justice but to pressure or violence. For Butt it marked the end of his hope that a viable civil society could flourish in Ireland within the existing institutional structures.
It was on the twin issues of amnesty and land reform that Butt built his new political formation. A product of the efforts of a number of conservative protestants, catholic clergy and committed nationalists, it took the form of the Home Government Association established at a meeting in May 1870. This initiative developed in part from the ‘Limerick Declaration’ of 1867, signed by a large number of catholic clergy and organised by Richard Baptist O'Brien (qv), dean of Limerick, himself one of Butt's closest political confidants during these years. In this declaration the necessity of self-government was asserted on the grounds of the failure of British governments to carry through the fundamental reforms necessary to Ireland's well-being and of the necessity of creating in Ireland a political alternative to Fenianism. Exploiting the enormous momentum of the amnesty movement, to which many Fenians necessarily lent support, he was also able to attract to the new association many protestant tories, whose worst fears of Irish self-government had been surpassed anyway by Gladstone's reforms. The Home Government Association was a response to Gladstone's failure adequately to meet Irish needs, especially in his land bill, the publication of which provided the major immediate context for its initial meeting. The death, just preceding the formation of the new association, of George Henry Moore (qv), one of its major architects, made inevitable Butt's leadership of the movement. In 1873 he replaced the Home Government Association with the Home Rule League, which in the general election of 1874 returned 59 loosely loyal MPs, demonstrating that, except in Ulster, home rule (in name if not always in commitment by individual members) had swept away Irish liberalism. It was the tory Butt who now created a distinctively Irish substitute for the hopes that had been associated with Gladstone's programme. While home rule had a general ambience that attracted more advanced nationalists, Butt was careful to define it within federalist terms and in a form applicable to other parts of the UK; he also saw it as a means of strengthening the empire.
While creating an unprecedented breadth of support, there was an inherent instability in the alliance Butt sought to lead. In particular, as former Fenians, more advanced nationalists and more radical tenant farmers gained greater influence in his party, the Conservative protestants began to fall away. The remaining years of Gladstone's government, and the subsequent Conservative government, saw little parliamentary response to Butt's initiatives, on home rule, on the land question, or on university education. While he sustained his commitment to solutions within the framework of a close relationship between Ireland and Britain, from the beginning he found himself treated within the British parliament as an advocate of extreme or impractical solutions. Just as earlier the failure of the British parliament to respond to reasonable Irish wishes had driven Butt to an overtly nationalist position, so now his failure to secure by conventional parliamentary behaviour any significant reforms drove more and more of his followers to more radical positions. He thus ended his career and his life no longer able to justify the methods of many of the members of the party he led.
Challenge to his leadership
By 1877 for many of the younger and more radical members of his party Butt's methods had outlived their usefulness, and their determination was now to make the floor of the commons a battlefield on which the cause of Ireland could be fought out. While Butt had never ruled out absolutely the use of parliamentary obstruction and had on at least one occasion countenanced it, from 1875 onwards he was increasingly opposed to what he considered its unjustified use by some of his colleagues, especially Joseph Biggar (qv), John O'Connor Power (qv), and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). By defending too absolutely his sense of the proprieties of the house of commons he failed to understand the extent to which some of the obstructionists, particularly Parnell, were acting partly in line with established parliamentary tradition but also in response to increasing impatience in Ireland at the lack of legislative achievement. By opposing, rather than seeking accommodation with them, he strengthened their hand both within the party and more broadly with Irish public opinion. The consequence was a rapid decline in his standing as leader, his loss of the presidency of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain to Parnell in 1877, and an increasing number of attacks on both his policy and his inattention to the responsibilities of leadership. He also came heavily under attack for his support of the Disraeli government's policies on the Eastern Question, defending these on grounds that starkly revealed his pro-imperial attitudes. Mounting opposition from his colleagues, aggravated by financial difficulties and bad health, almost certainly contributed to his death.
Death and personal life
Butt died 5 May 1879 from the effects of a stroke, at the home of his daughter and son-in-law near Dundrum, Co. Dublin, and is buried in the churchyard at Stranorlar, where he had spent most of his childhood. He died, as he had lived, in relative poverty, his privations having included imprisonment for debt in the aftermath of his defence of the Fenian prisoners in 1867, and threatened bankruptcy in later years. His personal relationships, whether with family or with friends, were very strong and of deep importance to him. He married, in February 1837, at the age of twenty-four, Elizabeth, daughter of John Swanzy of Hardwicke Street, Dublin. His wife was five years older than he, but she outlived him, dying in 1897 at the age of eighty-nine. With her he had eight children, four male and four female. These were not, however, his only children, and the attempt to take responsibility for children born outside marriage as well as for his legal family contributed to his abiding financial troubles. His struggle for financial survival seriously impaired his capacity for effective political leadership. His leadership of the home rule party often seemed to be an interim one, because of his recurring attempts to escape from it in order to earn more money at the bar; only the constant support and pressure of his political friends kept him at the head of the movement from its formation until his death.
Despite these vicissitudes Butt's contribution to the development of Irish political life and, indeed, to British parliamentary institutions was a very significant one, pioneering new concepts and practical approaches. As a writer and a pamphleteer Butt also made an important contribution. His publications include fiction, translations of Ovid and Virgil, literary studies, and works of history and political economy. His History of Italy from the abdication of Napoleon I, published in 1860 in two volumes, was no mean work of scholarship, and earlier in his life he had published a three-volume fictional work on Irish life in the Castle, the courts and the country (1840). It was as a political pamphleteer and a journalist that he particularly excelled, activities in which he showed a great aptitude for linking analysis with remedy, and presenting his conclusions effectively and in ways that influenced the future representation of Irish concerns. More than twenty such pamphlets, ranging from speeches given on public issues to more detailed analyses of political, economic or educational issues stand in his name.
The respect in which he was held is strikingly exemplified in the range of people with whom he corresponded and in the character of their letters, which are held in Butt's papers at the NLI. Former Repealers, Fenians, catholic ecclesiastics, Liberal politicians both in Ireland and England, Irish Conservatives and landlords are included amongst those who wrote to him on an intimate basis, who looked forward to meetings with him, invited him to dine or to stay at their homes, and who showed great confidence in his political judgement and integrity, even when they did not agree with him. The Times, in its obituary, proclaimed that ‘He mocked and trifled with Fortune when she was in her most gracious mood and turned his back upon her richest gifts’ (6 May 1879). For many others, less irritated by his rejection of conventional establishment values, his failure to take seriously the earning of wealth at the bar, success as a scholar, or easy popularity as a politician revealed an eclecticism of interests, a diversity of skills, and a depth of humanity which ensured that they held him in high esteem.