Speaking Volumes: Hubert Butler's Escape From the Anthill

January 17, 1997

On Hubert Butler's Escape From the Anthill.

I read Escape from the Anthill at one sitting. It was a snowy day in January 1986, and I was waiting in a Dublin club for somebody who turned out to be snowed up in the Wicklow mountains. The circumstances strangely fitted what I found in the first collection of Hubert Butler's essays (three more books were to follow). I had travelled from Belfast on a train whose passengers included the poet Paul Muldoon, who had embarked on a journey which would lead him to permanent residence in the United States. When a writer leaves a small literary community, there is always a sense of loss, however deeply one understands the reasons for departure, and a sense of self-questioning, however committed one is to staying on. So it braced me to read in Butler's introduction: "At 84 I am ... very disillusioned but only averagely discontented ... The post to which I am willingly tethered still holds firm and I have grazed around it in a sufficiently wide circle. Close-cropped grass comes up again fresh and sweet, and whoever comes along next may find my patch slightly improved." Hubert Butler's patch was Co. Kilkenny, where he inherited a small country house. In 1941, after travels in Russia and Yugoslavia, he decided to return home, to live according to the principles of Irish nationalism as defined by the Literary Revival, and to combat the illiberal ethos of mid-century Ireland. He was an unusual blend of critic and utopian.

Most of Escape from the Anthill first appeared in heterodox journals like Sean O'Faolain's Bell. My own reasons for being in Dublin concerned a new all-Ireland journal, the Irish Review. I noted Butler's warning that "an Irish journal is like a sortie from a besieged city". But I also noted the holistic approach that his simile implies. True to his intellectual origins in the Revival, Hubert Butler distrusted abstractions unless mediated through local experience. His ideas are shaped by the interaction between autobiography and history; his style by the interaction - sometimes unhappy - between self and community.

Escape from the Anthill exposes layers of hidden history. That Hubert Butler should have been "discovered" at the age of 85 speaks for itself. One essay records his withdrawal from Irish public life amid accusations that he had insulted the papal nuncio. In fact, he had highlighted the complicity of Archbishop Stepinac in the wartime cleansing of Orthodox Serbs by Catholic Croats. Butler's concern with Yugoslavia, however, was inseparable from affairs at home. He pioneered European frameworks which I find valuable with respect to Northern Ireland. Of southern Irish Protestants he says: "If we agree that history should be falsified in Croatia in the interests of Catholic piety, how could we protest when our own history was similarly distorted?" Yet, while correcting errors and stereotypes, Butler does not spare his coreligionists. In his essay "Portrait of a minority" he attacks their "amiable inertia, (their) refusal to express grievances or express hopes about Ireland". The daughter of a mixed marriage, I was brought up among that minority. To read Escape from the Anthill was to understand not only the silences and apartheids of my childhood, but also their influence on conditions and concepts in 1986 - and 1996.

Irish sectarian structures still make it difficult to criticise either one's presumed clan or the presumed Other. Hubert Butler broke those taboos in the name of healthy criticism, both social and literary. You do not have to agree with his ideas to regard him as a model for Irish liberalism. He writes, indeed: "It is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love one another, not as fortuitously 'separated brethren'." As an Irish liberal, Butler gets refreshingly impatient with the cushier life of English liberalism. Discussing the mutual cosiness of Stephen Spender and Graham Greene, he suggests that their "art and their reputation would not survive a real kulturkampf in which first principles were not only invoked but applied". Hubert Butler regretted that literary traffic between Ireland and England (also prone to cosiness or sentiment) was no longer subject to the satirical double vision of Anglo-Irish critics. But this tradition, too, he kept fresh for "whoever comes along".

Edna Longley is professor of English literature, Queen's University, Belfast.

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