Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Oedipal archbishop, two "damned Sapphists" and the sage of Maidenhall

The DIB has 99 pages of Butlers. Like the Burkes, an ancient family, Norman, who arrived in the 12th century to conquer, succeeded and multiplied. And like the Burkes, many of them to me are somewhat interchangeable, ruling, fighting and scheming through the centuries with success but without firing the imagination. Then an interesting one pops out of the page. Edmund Butler, archbishop of Cashel from 1524-1551, a schemer with a good helping of Oedipal rage.

His father, Piers Ruadh Butler, 8th earl of Ormond and 1st earl of Ossory was, the DIB will tell us (I'm jumping ahead to page 164), "perhaps the best exemplar of the use of naked ambition  and political skill to achieve personal goals in late medieval Ireland." Edmund was Piers' illegitimate son, although he received a papal dispensation declaring him legitimate. He was named by the pope to the archdiocese in 1524, and the appointment was approved by Henry VIII, the English king, who had not yet broken with Rome. But his consecration was delayed, most likely because Edmund had irritated his father by seeking to enforce a disused charter exempting church property from taxation from the feudal lord, a/k/a daddy. Piers needed the money because he was building his military strength to thwart Irish rivals, and took Edmund's tax-dodging very badly. While Piers tried to promote rival candidates for the archbishopric, Edmund began to team up with the very rivals his father was trying to resist. Edmund was not anti-tax: he just wanted the money for himself, and proved ruthless in shaking down the faithful for funds. As the DIB points out, the main reason Piers and Edmund didn't get on was that they were so similar.

As Piers grew in power, the English crown increased its support of Piers as a counterweight: this included giving his archdiocese extra land and brushing aside meritorious accusations of oppression, robbery, and the like. In gratitude, Edmund supported Henry when he split from Rome. As the crown suppressed the monasteries, abbeys and priories, sources of important revenue for Edmund, he was offered very generous land deals to make up the lost income. Once Piers died, Edmund teamed up with the successor, his half-brother James, and was co-opted to make peace with their father's enemies, helping James levy further taxes and giving false evidence against the recalcitrant. He also supported the elevation of Henry VIII from lord to king of Ireland in 1541. After Henry's death, Edward VI attempted to impose outright protestantism on the Irish church, to which Edmund responded first by trying to stay out of the weigh and then by doing what he was asked. Whatever civil wrongs he committed in his life were pardoned in 1550, just before his death.

Eleanor Butler is described by the DIB as "recluse of Llangollen" but that's too weak-watered. She was born in France around 1739 to a Tipperary family that moved back to Ireland. Her father and brother were earls of Ormond, although they do not appear to have used their titles. (The DIB says that the brother, James was the 16th earl: I believe he was the 17th, although I've already made clear my lack of interest in the genealogical punctilios of the peerage.) They were impoverished by the standards of the gentry, and Eleanor (for whatever reason) was not apparently a candidate for marriage. When she was about 29, a 13 year-old girl named Sarah Ponsonby moved to Kilkenny; she and Eleanor formed a close friendship. Both came under pressure from their families: Eleanor was being pushed to enter a convent, while wolves seemed to have circled Sarah. Some time in 1778, Sarah declared that she would "live and die with Miss Butler" and the two attempted to elope, dressed as men: they were caught and sent back. However, at some point, their families appear to have given in and the two set up home in Llangollen in Wales, where they lived out their lives.

The DIB entries on the two women are not exactly congruent. The account of Eleanor, by Frances Clarke, speaks of her, as I mentioned above, as a "recluse" and states that she and Sarah "made a deliberate decision to retire from the world". Sarah's entry, by Noreen Giffney, takes issue with such claims, and a contemporary newspaper report describing the two as "female hermits": she points out that their many visitors included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Edmund Burke, Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington and Charles Darwin. (Clarke adds Charles' two grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood to the visitors' book: I wonder if they all arrived together?) Clarke and Giffney take quite different tacks as to the nature of their relationship. Clark is noncommittal, citing Eleanor's taking of legal advice (from Edmund Burke) over a newspaper article that implied that their relationship as "unnatural" (Clarke's word, not in quotes). Giffney, more assertive, states that "their lesbianism was not widely recognized", while acknowledging contemporary opinion that went in both directions, one describing them as the most celebrated virgins in Europe and another condemning them as "damned Sapphists" (on reflection, these aren't mutually exclusive). They wore their hair short and "semi-masculine dress". Whatever, they appear to have been prized for their conversation and learning, the Gothic refurbishment of their house and the beautiful gardens that they laid out. Although they rarely left Llangollen, they seemed to know everything that was going on everywhere. Fame may have tarnished them a little: Eleanor was said to be "haughty and imperious" from "incessant homage". They are buried, together with their devoted servant Mary Carryll, in Llangollen church.

I can't remember when I first came across Hubert Butler, but it was some time after his first collection of essays, Escape From The Anthill, appeared in 1985. He was 85, and had been virtually forgotten for more than a generation. The essays, on Ireland, literature and the Balkans, were revelatory, the work of a man raised in Kilkenny where, apart from time at school and university, and extensive travel in Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria, he spent his entire life. A protestant who embraced the independent Irish state, he worked for a while as a librarian, but principally, as the the DIB's entry by Kate Bateman puts it, at "having no career". From the 1940s on, when he inherited the family home at Maidenhall, Co. Kilkenny, he applied himself mainly to writing and travel, and revived the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which had roots back to the 1840s. After the success of the first book, three more collections of essays appeared: The Children of Drancy and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone, before Butler's death in 1991 and In The Land of Nod, posthumously. They were all extraordinary, an amazing literary output from someone that hardly anybody had previously heard of.

One of the reasons that Butler had been largely forgotten was an incident that occurred in 1952. At the time, much attention was given in Ireland to the plight of faithful catholics in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary and Yugoslavia. Public opinion was enlisted by the church and politicians in support of the cause. Butler had no truck with the persecution of catholics by communists. But he knew Yugoslavia very well and spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian. He knew that during the Second World War, elements of the catholic church in Croatia had collaborated with the fascist Ustaše movement in atrocities against, and forced conversions of, the Orthodox population. He publicized this fact, and the fact that some of the very people being lionized in Ireland for their resistance to communism were linked to the crimes perpetrated in Croatia. For this, he was attacked in the press, ostracized and removed from the minor public offices he held. He retreated to Maidenhall, and although he was by no means cut off from the world, he effectively ceased to be a public figure for more than 30 years. Happily, late in life, he was rediscovered and finally enjoyed the approval he always deserved. What made him special? He wrote the truth, elegantly, spinning wise stories often from small local observations. He believed in the richness of an Ireland formed from all of its traditions, including the small southern protestant one to which he belonged. He promoted peace and unity, and damned violence and tyranny. He knew all about the world in which he lived, and described it well, so that we could understand it, too.


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