Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler

By John Caffrey

A slideshow used in the presentation of this paper can be downloaded from here.


The question arises as to why William Butler is a subject of interest. There are a number of factors which make him a key figure in the history of his country and in its relations with our neighbour the United Kingdom.

Firstly he was a scion of the Butler clan who have had a seminal influence on the history of Ireland over eight centuries equal in prominence to such noteworthy families as the O’Neills and Fitzgeralds. Secondly as a Catholic Irishman he had the unusual experience of serving as a commissioned officer up to  general rank in the British Army in the 19th Century – the first since the time of King James II. Thirdly as a serving officer under Queen Victoria he witnessed at first hand many of the momentous campaigns which were undertaken to expand the British Empire in the era of its greatest aggrandizement. And fourthly he was a prolific author leaving a wealth of publications including fiction, biography, memoirs and autobiography.

He has a special interest for residents of Greystones because he lived for a time in Delgany. Also he served in the campaign in the Sudan in 1884 to rescue General Gordon in which Colonel Fred Burnaby, whose name will be forever associated with Greystones, was killed. Two of his grandsons, William and Stephen Preston, were educated at St. Gerald’s School in Bray. Both gave their lives in World War II.

Although a consummate professional soldier Butler was an attractive personality showing great sympathy for the weak and underprivileged and chivalry towards an enemy even those whom the typical British officer of the time would have held beneath contempt. He was tolerant and respectful of the faith and culture of others but he never wavered in his own religious and national loyalties even though it was neither prudent nor profitable to assert them.

Let us review the place of the Butler clan in Irish history.

The Butlers

The founder of the clan Theobald Walter came to Ireland in 1177, seven years after the Norman invasion. It is said that from his family connections which included an archbishop of Canterbury he was granted the title of ‘Kings Butler’ and an immense tract of Irish land, up to 750,000 acres stretching from Nenagh and Thurles in Tipperary to Tullow and Arklow in Wicklow. It is said that King Henry II was exceptionally generous to the Walters out of remorse for the murder of St. Thomas a Becket who was their kinsman. Butler became the family cognomen and the Ormond title was added in 1329 when the head of the family was granted an earldom.

Over the next two centuries the Butlers secured and expanded their holdings by alliances and strategic marriages with Irish and Gaelicized Norman families. They were also fortunate in their ability to produce an unbroken succession of male heirs.  Their first seat was at Nenagh but in 1391 the 3rd Earl bought Kilkenny Castle which remained their principal residence until they donated it to the state in the 1970’s. From this location they dominated the Barrow-Nore- Suir basin.

Their first period of dominance ended with the execution of James the 5th Earl for treason for supporting the Lancastrian faction (the White Rose) after the defeat at the Battle of Towton in 1461. The Lancastrians fought back intermittently over the next 25 years but were finally suppressed in 1485 when Richard III was defeated at Bosworth Field by Henry VI who became the first Tudor monarch.

Over the next century, following the death of the 5th Earl, the Butlers influence declined due to internal family feuds and the resurgence of the Gaelic clans. However they learned a hard lesson which they were never to forget, namely, that political astuteness is the foundation of success. Unlike the Fitzgeralds who were fiery and aggressive, sometimes to the point of self destruction, the Butlers played a cool political game which preserved their interests during the religious and dynastic upheavals of the 16th and 17th Centuries. They were often disdained for these qualities by the more militant exponents of Irish nationalism.

Thomas ButlerThe first exponent of these skills was Thomas 10th Earl (Black Tom, 1532 - 1614) who was brought up a protestant at the court of Henry VIII. He assisted in the defeat of the Desmonds which led to the plantation of their lands in Munster but he fended off encroachments on his own territories by playing off his influence with the court in London against the ambitions of the Lords Deputies seeking to establish English dominance in Ireland. He died a catholic demonstrating the Butlers’ indifference to religious attachments when territorial or dynastic politics had to be served.

In the 16th Century the labels ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ had different connotations to those which would apply in Belfast today. In the first place the old Gaelic Christian church had diverged from the orthodoxy of the continent due to distance and poor communications. Most priests and bishops were married or had concubines. The priestly order tended to be hereditary within septs attached to the major clans as were the judges, poets and apothecaries. As the reformation progressed some bishops and clergy accepted the supremacy of the Crown and the ordinary members of their congregations continued to worship as they always had without realising that they had become Protestants. The difference is better expressed as ‘The Established Church’ and ‘The Roman Church’.

William F. Butler descended from the 9th Earl and was therefore a collateral descendent of Black Tom.

Before considering William’s family and background it is worth briefly recording one more outstanding personality in the Butler clan, namely, James 12th Earl (1610 - 1688) who supported the crown of Charles 1 in the English Civil War and participated in the Confederate War in Ireland 1641-1652. He had been born a Catholic but was brought up an Anglican by direction of King James I but lived without any sense of hostility towards his Catholic relatives or fellow countrymen. With the execution of Charles 1 and the failure of his efforts to achieve compromises between the Irish, the Old English and the parliamentarians’ factions he went into exile in 1650. With the restoration of King Charles II in 1660 Butler returned to Ireland and was raised to a dukedom.

He became Lord Lieutenant in 1662. Part of his legacy is evident in Dublin where he reserved the Phoenix Park as a public open space, laid out St Stephens Green, built the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and founded the College of Surgeons. He also established Dublin as the capital of Ireland rather than the first city of the Pale – before this it had been variously centred at places such as Tara, Dundalk, Kilkenny, etc.


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