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Reclaiming a man ignored by history

William Francis Butler, A Life 1838-1910 Martin Ryan Lilliput Press, ?25 WHEN General Sir William Butler died in 1910 at the age of 72, he would have been regarded as one of the great Irishmen of his time.

He had spent his life as a soldier in various parts of the far-flung British Empire. Although he was afforded few opportunities to shine in battle, his brilliance and energy had led to him being promoted to the second highest rank in the army.

What was remarkable was that he achieved this while remaining an unapologetic Irish nationalist, whose worldview was very different from that of his fellow officers. Even as a young soldier, he made no secret of his admiration for England's former enemy Napoleon. He displayed an uncommon generosity and understanding towards those he was called upon to fight or to subdue in the service of the imperial power.

After the Zulu war of 1879 he personally brought rushes from Zululand to the deposed Zulu king, who had complained that he could not sleep in the English bed provided for him in a Capetown prison. In Egypt in 1882 he alone saluted Urabi, the captured leader of the defeated Egyptians, writing home to his political masters urging that Urabi be not executed.

And in South Africa at the end of the century Butler was posted home because he opposed the imperialists and mine owners who wished to provoke a war with the Boers.

"At heart he is an Irish rebel," wrote his infuriated commanding officer, the Anglo-Irish General Wolseley. "And [he] took the part of every enemy England has had in my time."

Earlier in Canada, Butler had fallen in love with the lifestyle of the nomadic Plains Indians who were being displaced as the settlers moved west. He wrote an account of his first trek in the Western plains called The Great Lone Land. It became a classic and launched him on a career of writing.

His novel Red Cloud, depicting the friendship between an Irishman and the last survivor of an Indian tribe, is a book that every Irish schoolboy of my father's generation read. It was even translated into Irish in the 1920s.

Throughout his life Butler returned to Ireland like a homing pigeon. He sent his sons back to Clongowes where, in his own words, the light of learning had been rekindled after the long night of Penal extinguishment.

When he retired from the Army in 1905 he settled in Bansha, close by the place in the Suir Valley where the family had survived as minor landowners (with little over 100 acres) through the Penal Days.

He wrote: "Give me six foot three/ One inch to spare/ Of Irish earth/ and dig it anywhere./ And for the poor soul/ Say an Irish prayer/ Above the spot."

He tried to find a seat in Westminster as a Home Rule MP but was edged out. He played a part in Irish life as a privy councillor and as a senator of the new National University. Inevitably he was irritated by the divisions he saw in Irish life and by the absence of any real will for self-improvement.

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Shortly before his unexpected death Butler wrote an autobiography that gave a full account of most of his life. However, like almost all memoirs, it fell short of telling the whole truth. The author of this book has delved deeper and is able to supply a number of correctives.

It turns out that the famine eviction near his home that greatly upset him as a child was, in fact, carried out by his esteemed father. And his father was so hard-pressed at one time that he had to withdraw young William and his brothers from the Clongowes prep school at Tullabeg.

How ironic it then seems that Sir William's wife, the artist Elizabeth Thompson, should have immortalised famine evictions in her famous painting many years later.

Also of interest is how his colleagues, while acknowledging his brilliance and liking him, mocked his brogue and felt that his Irish blood made him hasty and deficient in judgment, especially on political issues.

"He really is a good fellow," wrote General Wolseley, "with all his inaccuracy of statement and other failings for which Irishmen are well known - but with all the quick vivid imagination and all those pleasant sympathies with his fellow men, all the quickness of wit and other qualities for which Paddy is celebrated."

Like many men of superabundant energy, Butler had clearly been "a bit of a lad" before his marriage at the age of 38 to Elizabeth Thompson.

Although their marriage was a very happy one, its tranquillity was temporarily disturbed in 1886 when Lord Colin Campbell, in a divorce action taken against his Irish wife, charged Butler with adultery.

The suit failed for lack of convincing evidence but the jury criticised Butler because he failed to take the witness stand to deny the charge. In those days such cases were reported in detail and the account of it in this book is gripping.

During his lifetime, most Irish Catholics would have applauded the ever upward march of his career as welcome evidence that Irish Catholics were at last being allowed their share of power and position in the governance of the United Kingdom and its empire.

An Irishman who served in the British Army could easily be accommodated within the Redmondite acceptance of a broader British identity - an identity which embraced Ireland and the self-governing dominions.

However, attitudes were swiftly changing - and by 1910, a priest as gentrified as Canon Arthur Ryan (of the Scarteen family) was able to speak of Butler as serving in an alien army.

After the 1916 Rising, with the triumph of an insular separatist concept of Irishness that characterised as "dupes" or "traitors" all those who served a British government, it became inevitable that the memory of a man such as Butler would not remain widely celebrated.

It mattered not how much he had treasured and had been influenced by his Irish Catholic identity.

Thus it is a happy event that William Francis Butler's memory should now be revived by a fellow Tipperaryman in this well-written biography that combines calm objectivity with deep sympathy and understanding.

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