Century of Endeavour
Hubert Butler on Standish O'Grady
(c) Roy Johnston 1999(comments to email@example.com)
This 1978 essay, re-published in his 1985 book 'Escape from the Anthill' (Lilliput), is insightful and places Hubert Butler firmly in the pantheon of the 'improving landlord' type of gentry to which JJ looked up. Their paths crossed in the 50s, when Hubert Butler was the local organiser of the first occasion, the 'Kilkenny Debate' of April 1954, on which it was possible to debate the Partition question in the Republic with the active participation of Northern Ireland politicians. JJ participated in this debate, he being then the President of the Irish Association, and successor to Lord Charlemont.
Hubert Butler begins with some critical remarks about the 'Landed Gentry' exhibition organised by the National Museum. The poster advertising it represents a lady in a top hat on a horse jumping over a bill of eviction. Butler remarks that the lady depicted was in fact Lady Clonbrock, who had had a hand in organising the Clonbrock and Castlegar Poultry Co-operative, which continued up to 1952, and had several associated home industries and craft enterprises. Butler thus picks up on the positive aspects of the attempts made, via Horace Plunkett, to transform the role of the 'big house' from oppressor to local centre of service.
In the exhibition also was Lady Desart, of Desard Court, near Kilkenny, who it turns out was Jewish and very untypical. As regards ideas she was a follower of Otway Cuffe, her brother-in-law, who was a disciple of Standish O'Grady. When Cuffe discovered that he was likely to succeed his brother, the 6th Earl of Ormonde, he began to take seriously his responsibility to the country.
As regards O'Grady, Yeats credits him, in the words of George Dangerfield, as having '...released Cuchullain and the other heroes of the Ulster Cycle form the grip of scholarship..'.
Cuffe in 1898 urged O'Grady to take over the Kilkenny Moderator which was a weekly newspaper of the Protestant and Unionist persuasions. He was introduced to his readership reassuringly by the outgoing Editor. For the next two years O'Grady, instead of flattering his readers, challenged them, looking to the Ormondes for a lead.
O'Grady resisted the 1798 centenary hype, maintaining that the real date to celebrate was 1782 and Charlemont's Volunteers. In 1898 England was at war with the Boers. The Moderator did not take sides in the war, it simply advocated the setting up of an army for Irish defence, to relieve England of the task. Dublin would take the lead from Kilkenny as in 1782 it had from Dungannon. It would be possible for the 30,000 troops in Ireland to be shipped to the Cape and Ireland could be left to defend herself.
He managed to raise a small force, basically boy scouts of both persuasions, along these lines, but this is as afar as he got. The Kilkenny Militia and the Irish Brigade both trained, with a view to fighting each other in the Transvaal.
Despite this failure, he continued in his attempts to mobilise the landed gentry in the national interest, using the Childers Report which revealed that Ireland since 1880 had been overtaxed to the tune of some £250M. The annual over-taxing of Kilkenny was some £135K. A Financial Relations Committee was set up, under Ormonde's chairmanship.
This committee never met, and O'Grady castigated it for its 'torpor'. Despite these reverses, O'Grady persisted with the Moderator, initiating, for the first time in a local paper, a weekly Irish lesson, and bringing down Douglas Hyde for the foundation of the local Gaelic League branch, of which Cuffe was President.
(At this juncture Butler reminds us that Henry Flood had left the most of his fortune to found a Chair of Irish in Trinity College, but that his relations had successfully contested his will.)
Lady Desart reminded the people that her own people, the Jews, had in their new Palestine colony revived a forgotten language and used it to re-unite the scattered remnants of their nation.
O'Grady's campaign was however interrupted by the emergence of a dispute between Ormonde and the Desarts, over a gambling debt. O'Grady took sides, attacking the Ormondes; copies of the paper were sent to the Militia colonels who were training on Salisbury Plain, and O'Grady was accused of inciting them to mutiny. O'Grady lost his job, and left Kilkenny, but the Cuffe-Desart alliance continued, and generated some creative social and economic investment in the Kilkenny region in their attempt to 'regionalise the dragon of international industrialism'. Butler recounts how these variously decayed over the years.
Lady Desart served in the Free State Senate, but her house was a target for the 'republicans' in the Civil War, on the occasion in February 1922 when 37 Senators were attacked, including Plunkett.
Butler concludes with a quote from AE: '..O'Grady may have failed in his appeal to the aristocracy of his own time but he may yet create an aristocracy of intellect and character in Ireland'.
See also O'Grady's contribution to Larkin's Irish Worker in 1912-13.
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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999