The European Irishman

Independent Spirit

by Hubert Butler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 588 pp., $35.00

Hubert Butler
Hubert Butler; drawing by David Levine

I grew up in the 1950s in Wexford, on the southeast coast of Ireland. It was a small town with a history. Here, in the twelfth century, a gang of Anglo-Norman robber barons, seeking land and Lebensraum in an as yet unplundered territory, had made the short sea-crossing from Wales and set up an enclave which they were to defend with unflinching tenacity in the face of an outraged but disorganized Irishry and a suspicious and jealous English king. So was inaugurated that connection between Britain and Ireland which was to bring eight hundred years of troubles to these islands, troubles that are with us to this day. There are historians who argue that, ironically, it was not greed that impelled Henry II of England to take control of Ireland—the English Pope Adrian IV had, with characteristic papal insouciance, “granted” the island to him in the bull Laudabiliter in 1155—but fear that the Norman lords would set up a power base on the other side of the Irish Sea from which to challenge his authority. Thus, stumblingly, does history blight the generations.

Every summer in that postwar decade of my childhood my family would decamp to the seaside resort of Rosslare, some ten miles south of Wexford, where we would spend a month or six weeks huddled in a rented wooden chalet consisting of two or three rooms, with scant bathing facilities and an outside lavatory (one such accommodation was a wheel-less railway carriage set down in a corner of a field: utter magic for a small boy). The Fifties were a straitened time in Ireland, as it was elsewhere in Europe, and we were lucky to be able to afford this annual holiday. In my memory of them these summer weeks are bathed in a golden light, the effect no doubt of lapsed time rather than the Irish climate. One event, however, generated a particular and inimitable glow. This was the Protestant Church of Ireland summer fête. It was held in a tussocky field adjoining a venerable and rather pretty stone church. Here, on trestle tables, would be displayed for sale the products of polite endeavor: homemade jam, pots of honey, bunches of vegetables, cakes, tarts, hand-embroidered table napkins, all laid out in cheerful, confident disorder.

I never missed a fête day. I would go there by myself, and tell no one where I had been. This secrecy was due partly to an unwillingness to share this magical event with siblings or friends, and partly to an obscure unease. As a child of the Catholic lower middle class, I regarded Protestants with a mixture of apprehensiveness and fascination. In those days, in our Republic, which was, as it still is, 95 percent Catholic, we were forbidden to enter a Protestant church under pain of unspecified consequences. It would have been possible, at our level of society, to go through an entire…


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