The Nuncio and the Writer review - story of hero Irish man who saved 100 Jews from concentration camps but was vilified in Ireland
Don’t be embarrassed if you’re unfamiliar with the name Hubert Butler. You’re far from alone. I’d never heard of the man either until I sat down to watch Johnny Gogan’s documentary The Nuncio and the Writer.
Despite a sometimes frustrating unevenness — the result, no doubt, of this being the hour-long television edit of the 96-minute feature version, entitled Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future, that screened at last year’s Dublin International Film Festival — this was still a
thoroughly absorbing and eye-opening piece of film-making.
It functioned as both a long overdue tribute to a truly heroic man and a shaming look behind the shabby, grubby net curtain that barely concealed the cowardice, moral bankruptcy and disgusting bigotry at the heart of the Irish political establishment during the Second World War and for many years afterwards.
This, let’s never, ever forget, is the country where the loathsome, rabidly anti-Semitic TD Oliver J Flanagan used his maiden speech in the Dáil in 1943 to urge the government to rout the Jews — “who crucified Our Saviour 1,900 years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week” — out of the country.
Born Bennettsbridge in Kilkenny, Butler came from solid Anglo-Irish Protestant stock and was a man of many talents: market gardener (which is always how he described himself), human rights campaigner, activist, essayist (he’s been described as “Ireland’s Orwell”) and fluent Russian-speaker who translated the writings of Gogol and others.
An Oxford graduate with a degree in Classics, Butler seemed an unlikely candidate to be an Irish nationalist, yet that’s what he was.
A nationalist and an internationalist, in fact, who believed Irishmen should be cosmopolitan. A big ask, certainly, in a country where the men running the nation and most of the population prostrated themselves before the Catholic church.
Butler, a man ahead of his time, travelled throughout Europe in the inter-war years, writing about what he saw. Witnessing the persecution of Jews by the Nazi puppet government of Croatia, which had the full collaboration of the Catholic hierarchy (he called it “an alliance of religion and crime”), Butler foresaw that even worse was to come.
Back in Ireland, however, nobody cared. The Department of Justice was only too happy to assist refugees fleeing Nazi tyranny, provided they were Christians. It regarded the suffering of European Jews as a problem for American Jews. Jews who’d converted to Catholicism were exempt, mind you.
“In the end,” said contributor Fintan O’Toole, “Butler had to break the law. He had to take the law into his own hands.”
At considerable financial cost and enormous personal risk, Butler launched his own rescue mission in Vienna, where he used his suave charm to secure visas.
With the help of his wife, Peggy Guthrie, and the Quakers, Butler somehow managed to ship more than 100 Jews out of the Austrian capital and into England, saving them from the concentration camps.
The refugees were met by Peggy at the other end and then helped to relocate — but not to holy Catholic Ireland, of course.
In any other civilised country, a man like Hubert Butler would have been hailed as a hero. He’d have been likened to Oskar Schindler. Statues and plaques would have been put up in his honour.
Here, on the other hand, he was publicly demonised and vilified, and called a communist. The incident that prompted it, and which also gave the documentary its slightly awkward title, occurred at a meeting in Dublin where Peadar O’Curry, editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and a self-styled scourge of communist, delivered a speech about the persecution of Catholics in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Butler stood up and told O’Curry he couldn’t talk about that without talking about the persecution in the 1940s of Orthodox Serbs in Croatia who refused to convert.
Archbishop O’Hara, the Papal Nuncio, was present at the meeting and stormed out in disgust. The upshot was that Butler was ostracised in his beloved Kilkenny and blacklisted by those at the very top of government for years afterwards.
This was the remarkable story of a remarkable man, but the process of editing it to fit a 60-minute slot, made for frustrating gaps.
Perhaps RTE might consider showing the full feature version at some point.