Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/1)

Family of William F Butler

William Butler was born on 31st Oct 1838 on the family farm at Ballyslateen where his parents Richard and Ellen farmed about 1100 acres, part of the estate of Ballycarron, which this branch of the Butlers had farmed for eight or nine generations, since the time of ‘Black Tom’, after the destruction of the Desmonds in 1584.

In his autobiography Butler wondered how his Catholic family had been able to hold onto their land through the confiscations under the Penal Laws from the time of Cromwell until the Relief Acts of the late 18th Century. By 1700 only 14% of the land of Ireland remained in Catholic ownership. Despite that, the proportion in South Tipperary was much higher than the average because many branches of the Butler dynasty were vehemently anti-establishment and they contrived to hold onto their properties by a number of stratagems. In some cases a family member would overtly convert to the established church to confirm his title and then sublet to his Catholic kinsmen as head tenants. Another of their ploys was to invite any Protestant seeking to claim possession of land under the Penal Laws to ‘come and get it’. By these means, in Butler’s words, ‘the 1100 acres of Ballyslateen remained tolerably secure throughout the three hundred years of penal confiscation’. From 1778 onwards a number of Relief Acts (prompted by the Government’s fear of the spread of ideas from the American Revolution) removed the threat of confiscation.

William was the seventh of nine children of Richard and Ellen and he recalled his earliest years as idyllic in a beautiful countryside. Between the ages of 4 and 6 he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Dublin which were very happy times for him. On one occasion he was taken to the Richmond Penitentiary to be presented to Daniel O’Connell who was imprisoned there from May to Sept 1844. It was a small boy’s memory which he treasured for the rest of his life.

He returned to Tipperary in 1846 to experience the horrors of the famine and plague which were to devastate the country over the next two years. His father and their better off neighbours did their best to alleviate the suffering of the poorer people. It could never be enough and they became themselves impoverished.

By Sept 1847 things were somewhat brighter and William was sent off to the Jesuit school at Tullabeg in the King’s County. He detested the place and was ruthlessly bullied by older boys. In 1849 he was removed from the school because his mother had died and his two younger siblings were dying of the plague which still ravaged the country. During those years away from school he records one event which shaped his mind more than years of study could have done. His father took him to the scene of an eviction to witness the destruction of a miserable cabin and the occupants, a screaming woman, half naked children, a paralysed grandmother and a tottering grandfather hauled out to be dumped on the roadside. The twelve year old Butler regretted that he did not have a firearm to hand to punish the perpetrators.

When the family finances recovered a little, William was sent with his brothers back to a new school in Dublin. It was during this time that he first became aware of the military life. The Crimean War (1853-56) had begun and Dublin was the scene of a great deal of military activity as soldiers were recruited, trained, and marched through the streets in magnificent parades before being dispatched to war. The war was over before he left school but his desire to follow a military career had taken hold.

At this time fully 40% of the rank and file of the British Army were Irishmen but few of the officers came from Catholic families. It had long been the tradition for the sons of the Catholic gentry to take commissions in the armies of France, Spain and Austria. What seems to have eased William Butler’s entry to the British Army was the fact that a kinsman Richard O’Doherty had become a general and had influence to obtain a commission for his young protégé. The older man had progressed to high rank by the simple expedient of changing his religion and dropping the O from his name so he was now styled General Sir Richard Doherty.

William Butler was gazetted an ensign in the 69th Regiment on 17th Sept 1858 and proceeded to the regiment’s depot at Fermoy Barracks. Fermoy was then the biggest military station in Ireland before the Curragh became the main depot. The 69th Regiment, known as ‘the Ups and Downs’, were later, by amalgamations and redesignation, to become the Royal Regiment of Wales. From the beginning he loved the military life, the parade grounds drills, the exercises in the mountains and the camaraderie of the mess. He revelled in the yarns of campaigns told by the older officers some of whom had seen active service against Napoleon. He also relished the opportunities to fish in the Blackwater and shoot in the surrounding countryside, the pastimes of his old home life.

After four or five months he was given parade ground command of a company. His first military duty was part of a detachment of 200 men sent to Limerick to deal with troubles arising from the General Election of 1859. The march from Fermoy took two days. The soldiers’ task was to protect the approaches to the polling station. Those were the days of the ‘rotten boroughs’ when as few as 20 or 30 voters would send a stooge selected by the landlord to the House of Commons. Butler’s ironic comment was that the ‘free and independent electors’ had to be marched under military protection through a howling mob of stone throwing viragoes. He observed that the mob and the soldiers got on remarkably well. At twenty years of age he had already perceived that a corrupt electoral system served only the vested interests of the establishment which kept it in place.

Ensign W F Butler

At this time the 69th Regiment was serving in Burma. Britain had been involved in wars against the Burmese since 1832 , all part of a strategy to protect the Indian border; to dominate the Southeast Asia region ;and counter French influence in the Gulf of Tonkin.


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