At last, a quarter of a century after his death, there’s a new documentary about the Irish writer Hubert Butler (1900-1991). It’s a beautiful film, even if it deals with horrific subjects including genocide and collusion.
But how to begin to describe Butler’s life and work?
As “Ireland’s Orwell”, one of the world’s great essayists, yet still relatively unknown today, even in his own country?
As a man of action too, who smuggled dozens of Jewish people into Ireland from pre-war Austria, at a time when Ireland’s refugee policy was still basically anti-Semitic?
As an Irish Protestant republican in a Catholic fundamentalist State, the trouble-maker once denounced by the papal nuncio as a dangerous communist?
As, in journalist Fintan O’Toole’s words, “a detective without a client”?
Or as the humble apple-growing market gardener from County Kilkenny?
Johnny Gogan’s new documentary about Butler gets its world premiere tonight in the Light House cinema in Smithfield, as part of the Dublin International Film Festival.
The location is appropriate. Three streets away from the picture house is the Lilliput Press in Stoneybatter, which has championed Butler’s work for more than three decades. In 1985 Lilliput published Escape from the Anthill, his first collection of essays. He was 85 at the time. That’s how much he was isolated and neglected up till then.
Lilliput was barely a year old, the collection was one of its first titles. At the time it was still based in County Westmeath (the publishing house only moved to Arbour Hill in Stoneybatter in 1989).
Here are some official programme notes from the film festival about the documentary:
In this, the first documentary on Butler and his work, Johnny Gogan traces the writer’s journey through Stalinist Russia of the early 1930s, through pre-war Vienna where Butler worked to smuggle Jews into Ireland, to his exposure of the hidden genocide of half a million Orthodox Serbs in WW2. Using recently declassified documents, this highly visual and expansive film explores why Butler ‘was fifty years ahead of his time’ and ‘one of the great Irish writers’.
The documentary’s interviewees include poet and essayist Chris Agee; Butler biographer the Rev Dr Robert Tobin (he wears a dog collar but he’s cool); Butler essay collection “foreword writers” Fintan O’Toole and Roy Foster; journalists Olivia O’Leary and Lara Marlowe; Butler’s daughter Julia Crampton and granddaughter Suzanna; family friend Peter Smithwick; and, towards the end of the film, Lilliput’s Antony Farrell.
A simple but lyrical recurring image is of Butler’s walled apple orchard in Kilkenny. The documentary also includes some brief snippets from this longer video by John Banville (made for Notting Hill Editions, to promote Butler’s collection of essays The Eggman and The Fairies, which Banville edited):
Butler’s elegance as a writer is well summed up by Hugh Bredin:
He has all the essayist’s gifts: a clear, strong prose, a fascination with everyday affairs and their significance sub specie æternitatis, a readiness to generalize, the ability to digress without wandering from the point, to inform without pedantry and enlighten without condescension, to give us pleasure simply by sharing his thoughts.
You can google “sub specie æternitatis” yourselves.
The invader wore slippers
The new documentary’s full title, Hubert Butler: Witness To The Future, captures one side to his writing, a certain prescience (about the Balkans in particular) and a way of asking the right “what if” questions. Take his 1950 essay for the Bell magazine, with the inspired title of “The invader wore slippers”.
It describes how “during the war, we in Ireland heard much of the jackboot and how we should be trampled beneath it if Britain’s protection failed us,” and how “our imagination, fed on the daily press, showed us a Technicolor picture of barbarity and heroism.”
But suppose the invader came wearing “not jackboots, but carpet slippers”? Then “how will I behave, and the respectable X’s, the patriotic Y’s and the pious Z’s?”
The writing is clearly speculative, yet firmly grounded in historical fact, including the real-life reactions of the populations of various statelets and regions of Europe to the Nazi invaders, and the role of the Catholic Church in assisting the new rulers.
Here’s a short extract to get a flavour:
When an incendiary sets a match to respectability, it smoulders malodorously, but piety, like patriotism, goes off like a rocket. The jackboot was worn by the Croats themselves and used so vigorously against the schismatic Serbs that the Germans and Italians, who had established the little state, were amazed. Pavelitch, the regicide ruler of Croatia, was himself the epitome, the personification, of the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime, which for four years made Croatia the model for all satellite states in German Europe. He was extremely devout, attending mass every morning with his family in a private chapel built onto his house. He received expressions of devoted loyalty from the leaders of the churches, including the Orthodox, whose murdered metropolitan had been replaced by a subservient nominee. He gave them medals and enriched their parishes with the plundered property of the schismatics, and he applied the simple creed of One Faith, One Fatherland, with a literalness that makes the heart stand still. It was an equation that had to be solved in blood. Nearly two million orthodox were offered the alternatives of death or conversion to the faith of the majority…
Yet, as I read the papers in Zagreb [papers from the war in the city’s Municipal Library], I felt it was not the human disaster but the damage to honoured words and thoughts that was most irreparable. The letter and spirit had been wrested violently apart and a whole vocabulary of Christian goodness had been blown inside out like an umbrella in a thunderstorm.
Back in postwar Ireland, Butler unmasked the Nazi collaborator Andrija Artukovic, “the butcher of the Balkans”, who was living here under a false name on a Swiss passport. This was decades before Cathal O’Shannon’s 2007 documentary for RTÉ about the scandal, yet the documentary doesn’t once mention Butler.
Butler’s own passport renewal application was scrutinised by State officials, from lowly clerical officers right up to the Office of the President, which stamped his application with a “caveat” – a warning by the President that Butler was to be excluded from any official functions or recognition.
In the end, though, Church and State never did manage to silence Hubert Butler’s voice or erase him from history. This new documentary is firm proof of that.