Isaac Butt

Orfeas Katsoulis | May 1, 2023

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Isaac Butt QC MP (September 6, 1813 - May 5, 1879), was an Irish lawyer, publisher, politician, Parliamentarian (M.P.) in the UK House of Commons, economist and founder and early leader of several Irish nationalist political parties and organizations. He was a leader of the Irish Metropolitan Conservative Society in 1836, the Home Self-Government Association in 1870 and in 1873 of the Home Rule League. Colin W. Reid argues that Butt proposed Home Rule to unite Ireland to Britain. It would put an end to the ambiguities of the 1800 Act of Union. He proposed a Federal United Kingdom, which would have weakened Irish exceptionalism within a broader British context. Butt was representative of a constructive national unionism. Cuomo economist made significant contributions regarding the potential mobility of resources and aspects of the distribution of protection, and analyzed deficiencies in the Irish economy such as low employment, low productivity, and the poor land situation. He dissented from Ricardian theories and was a supporter of some concepts of the welfare state. As editor, he made Dublin University Magazine the leading Irish publication of politics and literature.

Butt was born in 1813 in Glenfin, a district bordering the Finn Valley in County Donegal, Ireland, near Ballybofey. He was the son of a Church of Ireland rector and descended from the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell, Butt received his secondary education at The Royal School in Raphoe, Donegal, and Midleton College in Cork, before entering Trinity College Dublin at the age of fifteen, where he was elected Scholar , and president of the University Historical Society. While at Trinity, he co-founded Dublin University College and was its editor for four years. For much of his life he was a member of the Irish Conservative Party, and founded the conservative Ulster News. He was appointed Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity in 1836, a position he held until 1841.

After being accepted to the bar in 1838, Butt quickly made a name for himself as a brilliantlawyer. He opposed Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell's campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union. He was also a Reader at Trinity College, Dublin, in political economy. His experiences during the Great Famine led him to abandon Unionism and Orangism (Jackson, 2003, pp. 25-26) to support a federal political system for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that would provide Ireland with a greater degree of self-government. He then began to adopt nationalist positions, founding the Self-Government League. Butt was instrumental in creating links between constitutional and revolutionary nationalism through his representation of Fenian Society members in the courts.

He began his career as a Tory politician in Dublin City Council. He was MP for Youghal between 1852 and 1865, and for Limerick between 1871 and 1879 (in the 1852 election he was also elected for the English constituency of Harwich, but chose to represent Youghal).

The failed Fenian Uprising of 1867 reinforced Butt's belief that a federal system was the only way to break the cycle of inefficient administration punctuated by poorly organized revolts.(Lyons, 1978, p. 42) Having defended the leaders of the Uprising, in June 1869 Butt became president of the Amnesty Association formed to secure the release of imprisoned Fenians, actively supported among others by P. F. Johnson.

In 1870, Butt founded the Irish Self-Government Association. This was by no means a revolutionary organization. It was designed to mobilize public opinion for an Irish parliament, with, in his own words, "total control over our internal affairs."(Lyons, 1978, p. 42) Butt believed that Home Rule would promote friendship between Ireland and its eastern neighbor.

In November 1873, Butt replaced the Association with a new body, the League for Self-Government, which he considered a pressure group rather than a political party. In the general election the following year, 60 of its members were elected, forming the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1874. However, most of those elected were landowners, closer to the Liberal cause. (Lyons, 1978, p. 46) Meanwhile, Charles Stewart Parnell had joined the League, with more radical ideas than most League members, and was elected to Parliament in a by-election in County Meath in 1875.(Lyons, 1978, p. 49)

Butt had failed to win substantial concessions at Westminster on the issues that concerned most Irishmen: an amnesty for the Fenians of 1867, fixing leases for tenants, and Self-Government. Although they worked to get Self-Government supporters elected, many Fenians, along with small tenants, were unhappy with Butt's approach to getting bills enacted, although they did not openly attack him, as his defense of Fenian prisoners in 1867 was still in their favor. (Lyons, 1978, p. 55) Soon, however, an advocate of Belfast self-government, Joseph Gillis Biggar (then a senior IRB official ), began to use "obstructionist" tactics to prevent the passage of bills through the House.

When Parnell entered Parliament, he took a cue from John O'Connor Power and Joseph Biggar and allied himself with the Irish MPs who would support him in his obstructionist campaign. MPs at the time could stand up and speak for as long as they wanted on any subject. This caused havoc in Parliament. On one occasion, they spoke for 45 hours non-stop, preventing important bills from being passed. Butt, aging and in poor health was unwilling to follow this tactic and considered it counterproductive. In July 1877, Butt threatened to resign from the party if the obstruction continued, and a growing rift began to develop between him and Parnell in the eyes of both Fenians and Home Rule supporters.(Lyons, 1978, pp. 70-75)

The climax came in December 1878, when parliament was called to discuss the war in Afghanistan. Butt considered this discussion too important to the British Empire to be interrupted by obstructionists and publicly warned Irish MPs not to employ this tactic. He was fiercely denounced by the young nationalist John Dillon, who continued his attacks with the support of numerous other "Home Rulers" at a League meeting in February 1879. Although he defended himself with dignity, Butt knew that the party was over for him.(Lyons, 1978, p. 86) Barry O'Brien, in his biography of Parnell, interviews 'X' who relates, 'It was very painful. I was very fond of Butt. He was the best-hearted man in the world, and there I was to do the most unpleasant thing to him.'

Culata, who had been suffering from bronchitis, suffered a stroke in May of the same year and died within a week. He was replaced by William Shaw, who in turn was replaced by Charles Stewart Parnell in 1880.

Butt racked up debts and sought romances. It was said that at meetings he was sometimes harassed by women who claimed he was the father of their children. He was also involved in a financial scandal when it was revealed that he had received money from several Indian princes to represent their interests in parliament.

He died on May 5, 1879 in Clonskeagh in Dublin. His remains were taken by train to Stranorlar, County Donegal, where he was buried in a corner of the Church of Ireland cemetery under a tree beside which he used to sit as a child.

Despite his chaotic lifestyle and political limitations, Butt was able to inspire deep personal loyalty. Some of his friends, such as John Butler Yeats (father of the poet WB Yeats ) and the future Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas O'Dwyer, maintained a long-standing hostile attitude toward Parnell for his role in Butt's downfall.

In May 2010, the Church of Ireland parishes of Stranorlar, Meenglass and Kilteevogue promoted an annual memorial service and reading in Butt's honor, inviting members of the legal, political and journalism professions to reflect on aspects of his life. Speakers include Dr. Joe Mulholland, Senator David Norris, Dr. Chris McGimpsey and Prof. Brian Walker. His grave has been restored and the memorial now includes a wreath.


  1. Isaac Butt
  2. Isaac Butt
  3. ^ Colin W. Reid, "‘An Experiment in Constructive Unionism’: Isaac Butt, Home Rule and Federalist Political Thought during the 1870s." English Historical Review 129.537 (2014): 332-361.
  4. Colin W. Reid, "‘An Experiment in Constructive Unionism’: Isaac Butt, Home Rule and Federalist Political Thought during the 1870s." English Historical Review 129.537 (2014): 332-361.
  5. Alan O’Day, "Isaac Butt and Neglected Political Economists." in English, Irish and Subversives Among the Dismal Scientists (2010): 375+.
  6. Wayne E. Hall, "The 'Dublin University Magazine' and Isaac Butt, 1834-1838." Victorian Periodicals Review 20.2 (1987): 43-56.
  7. Spence, 1996.
  8. Burke, 2009, p. 155.
  9. Risto Kari: Historian ABC: Kaikkien aikojen valtiot 2, s. 182. Tammi. Helsinki 2001.
  10. 1 2 Isaac Butt // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  11. Brozović D., Ladan T. Isaac Butt // Hrvatska enciklopedija (хорв.) — LZMK, 1999. — 9272 с. — ISBN 978-953-6036-31-8
  12. Батт Исаак // Большая советская энциклопедия: [в 30 т.] / под ред. А. М. Прохоров — 3-е изд. — М.: Советская энциклопедия, 1969.

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