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The European Irishman

He then goes on to examine the reaction of the native populations of the Channel Islands, of Brittany and Croatia, when the delicately shod Nazi invaders came strolling in. He is particularly scathing about the way in which the Channel Islanders accepted German occupation and settled back to their comfortable lives as before.

The readers of the Guernsey Evening Post were shocked and repelled no doubt to see articles by Goebbels and Lord Haw-Haw, but not to the pitch of stopping their subscriptions. How else could they advertise their cocker spaniels and their lawn mowers or learn about the cricket results?

Although he does not say so directly, it is obvious that Butler harbored very grave doubts about how Ireland would have behaved if there had been an invasion. Elsewhere he quotes a telling declaration made in the Irish parliament in 1943 by Oliver J. Flanagan, who as a member of Fine Gael, the second-largest party in the country, was to be a self-appointed guardian of Irish faith and morals into the 1980s:

There is one thing,” he said, “that the Germans did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country.” He added that we should rout them out of Ireland: “They crucified our Saviour 1,900 years ago and they have been crucifying us every day of the week.” No one contradicted him.*

In the essay “The Artukovitch File,” Butler follows the postwar trail of the Minister of the Interior in Ante Pavelitch’s unspeakably brutal regime in Croatia under the Nazis. After the fall of Pavelitch, Andrija Artukovitch escaped via Austria and Switzerland, eventually settling in California. On the way to America he had lived for a year in Ireland under an alias. US visas for him and his family were procured through the Irish government, who provided him with false papers. Butler’s outrage at this enormity on the part of his own countrymen is expressed with his usual understated elegance (“The process by which a great persecutor is turned into a martyr is surely an interesting one that needs the closest investigation”), but we are left in no doubt about his contempt for the “patriotic Y’s and the pious Z’s” who would connive at the escape from justice of a man who had taken an active part in some of the most terrible deeds of the war.

Butler acknowledges the centrality to our time of the Nazi death camps—Auschwitz, he declares, is the greatest single crime in human history—but he is determined that even such heinousness will not overshadow the many other atrocities this century has witnessed. He was one of the first in the West to draw attention to the campaign of forced conversion to Roman Catholicism of 2.5 million Orthodox Serbs under the reign of Pavelitch. The campaign resulted in the slaughter of untold tens of thousands of Orthodox Serbs. He quotes from a memorandum from exiled Serbs to the United Nations in 1950:

It is stated that a Franciscan had been commandant of Jasenovac, the worst and biggest of the concentration camps for Serbs and Jews (he had personally taken part in murdering the prisoners…). The memorandum relates how the focal centre for the forced conversions and the massacres had been the Franciscan monastery of Shiroki Brieg in Herzegovina (Artukovitch had been educated there), and how in 1942 a young man who was a law student at the college and a member of the Crusaders, a catholic organization, had won a prize in a competition for the slaughter of the Orthodox by cutting the throats of 1,360 Serbs with a special knife. The prize had been a gold watch, a silver service, a roast suckling pig and some wine.

When, after the war, Butler sought to bring these frightful crimes to public attention, he found himself ostracized in his own country. The Catholic Church had refused to acknowledge that the conversions of the Orthodox Serbs had been forced or had involved violence. At a public meeting in Dublin Butler attempted to read a paper on the issue, but after a few sentences the Papal Nuncio walked out, whereupon the meeting was halted. Next morning the Irish edition of the Sunday Express carried the headline: “Pope’s Envoy Walks Out. Government to Discuss Insult to Nuncio.”

All the local government bodies of the city and county held special meetings to condemn the “Insult.” There were speeches from mayors, ex-mayors, aldermen, creamery managers. The county council expelled me from one of its subcommittees, and I was obliged to resign from another committee. Although my friends put up a fight, I was forced to give up the honorary secretaryship of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which I had myself revived and guided through seven difficult years.

It was, in that place, in those times, a familiar story.

The account of this “scandal” makes for lively if dispiriting reading. Butler is one of those rare figures whose mild tone masks their steely resolve. Rarely does he raise his voice—he does not need to, so incisive are his perceptions and so corrosive is his wit. When he does so he falters. Like many humanists, he displays an implacable animosity toward science. “The Children of Drancy,” an essay on the deportation of 4,051 Jewish children to Auschwitz in 1942, through the transit camp at Drancy near Paris, opens out into a superb, angry meditation on public indifference to the fate of the Jews during the war, in which Butler excoriates the champions of scientific progress, such as the novelist C.P. Snow, who in the 1960s drew attention to the widening chasm between the “Two Cultures.” Snow was an indifferent novelist and an undistinguished thinker, but in this matter Butler misses the point.

Anti-Semitism, the idea which killed the Children of Drancy, was small and old and had existed for centuries in small pockets all over Europe. If humane ideals had been cultivated as assiduously as technical ones it would long ago have died without issue in some Lithuanian village. But science gave it wings and swept it by aeroplane and wireless and octuple rotary machines all over Europe and lodged it in Paris, the cultural capital.

The fact is, “science” did not destroy the Children of Drancy. Nor did technology, which Butler fails to distinguish from theoretical science. The technical means of transporting the millions of European Jews to the camps were primitive. Even Zyklon B, the gas used in the killing rooms, required no great scientific skill to produce. No: in the camps, as in every murder site, what killed people was people. Butler, quoting François Mauriac, believes that “the eighteenth-century dream of a future enlightened by the discoveries of science died at Drancy,” and probably he is right—but Drancy, and all the other Drancys, was as much the result of the self-deluding social dreams of the Enlightenment as it was of the technological optimism of the past two and a half centuries. Humanism, before it points to the mote in the eye of science, should look to the beam in its own.

Butler’s vision is all of a piece. Whether he is writing about wartime atrocities or local history, the slaughter of the Jews or Celtic hagiography, he speaks with authenticity. In this he is a member of a dying species. A constant theme, a kind of keening lament throughout most of these essays, is the decline of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, or “Ascendancy,” whose heir he is. He believed, with sorrowful passion, that the Anglo-Irish reneged on their responsibilities after the War of Independence in 1920 by allowing the Catholic lower middle class to take over entirely the running of the country. After all, he points out, the history of Ireland in the past three hundred years shows that it was the Anglo-Irish, Protestant thinkers and men of action who fought hardest for Irish independence.

The Irish with the defeat and flight of their ruling classes became a peasant people ashamed of their native language, which they associated with subjection and poverty. It was the nineteenth-century scholars and writers, mainly men of Anglo-Irish stock, who first gave it dignity and honour.

This is not untrue—but it is not the whole truth. In a fine essay on Wolfe Tone, the Protestant rebel condemned to death after the 1798 Rising, Butler acknowledges that “Tone’s rebellion… was an utter calamity and ushered in one of the worst of Irish centuries.”

The Irish Parliament, corrupt and unrepresentative but at least Irish, was dissolved; the Orange Order, seeing no tyranny but Popish tyranny, swept away the last traces of that Protestant Republicanism of the North on which Tone had based his hopes of a United Ireland. The Catholic Church in Ireland became increasingly segregationist, and it was considered godless for a Catholic Irishman to be educated alongside his Protestant compatriots. The Irish people, whose distinctive character the eighteenth century had taken for granted, lost its language and, after the Famine, many of its traditions. A period of industrial expansion was followed by one of poverty and emigration. Finally, the partition of Ireland in the 1920s set an official seal on all the historical divisions of our country, racial and cultural and religious, which Tone had striven to abolish.

The title of the essay in which this thumbnail sketch of Irish history occurs, “The Common Name of Irishman,” is taken from Tone himself, whose dream it was to mold the Irish into one nation in which Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter would play their equal parts irrespective of creed. That dream, and the similar dreams of the Protestant scholars and writers who followed Tone, “could not stand up to the Gaelic dream of Patrick Pearse [leader of the 1916 Rising], for it had been sanctified in blood. Now that dream too has faded, though the blood sacrifice still goes on, like the fire that smolders slowly towards the forest when the picnic is over.” How to account for this catastrophic failure of nerve on the part of the Anglo-Irish gentry? Butler believes it was partly due to the “brain drain” caused by the departure for England throughout the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth of the finest Ascendancy minds and spirits. Another reason was partition.

It reduced the Protestants of the South to political helplessness. The majority clutched nostalgically at the shadows of vanished things, at property and privilege and ancient political loyalties. Imperceptibly they became not more Protestant, as [G.B.] Shaw anticipated they would, but less. Sometimes they seemed not to live in Ireland at all but in a little cocoon woven of ancient prejudices.

A glance at the state of the two Irelands today will show the truth of this. One does not have to be an IRA supporter to acknowledge that partition has been a disaster. As Butler says:

Without the Protestant North we have become lopsided. We lack that vigorous and rebellious northern element which in the eighteenth century was responsible for both our nationalism and our republicanism. And without the South the North has become smug….

Would matters have been otherwise had the Anglo-Irish minority, South and North, kept its nerve, prevailed on its most capable members to stay in Ireland, and seized on a position of responsibility in the new state as Butler believes it was their duty to do? Perhaps. Yet there are many nationalists in Ireland today—not all of them extremists—who would say, who do say, that it was precisely the likes of Butler, the civilized, landed gentry, the descendants of those “nineteenth-century scholars and writers” extolled in these pages, who had to be, if not got rid of, then neutralized, cordoned off behind their yew hedges, in the fastness of their leaf-shadowed drawing rooms, if the “new” Ireland created in the 1920s was to forge its own, native version of itself. The Ireland of de Valera and the Roman Catholic bishops was not graceful, these nationalists would say; it had scant wit, scorned a well-turned sentence, cared nothing for the fate of far-off nations with unpronounceable names; yet the road it has traveled over the past seventy years was its own road, however harsh.

If that is so, then the end of one phase of the journey is now in sight, and perhaps the time is not impossibly far off when, unlikely as it seems now, the Protestant minority will take its rightful place in the life of this island, political and social, and cease looking to a mythologized “England” which cares little for it. Ireland is in sore need of the energies that Shaw’s “violent and arrogant” Protestantism would inject into our national life, should the Anglo-Irish—by which I mean the Southern “Ascendancy,” what is left of it, and the still dauntingly vigorous Northern Unionists—finally release themselves from that “little cocoon woven of ancient prejudices.” The question is, of course, would the majority have the largeness of imagination to welcome them?

It is splendid that a collection of Butler’s essays is now available in the US; but they should also be widely read, as I fear they are not, by Southern Irish politicians, both the professional and the amateur kind. He and some few others like him were, and are, far more substantial than that dream version of them that I, and surely others, used to conjure up among the prize leeks and the genteel accents of the fête Sundays of forty years ago.

  1. *

    The late Oliver J., as he was universally known, would no doubt be bemused and not a little dismayed to find his name appearing in the pages of the dangerously broad-minded New York Review; he once famously declared that before the coming of television “there was no sex in Ireland.” Of course, one does see what he means….

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