Isaac Butt

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Isaac Butt
Portrait of Isaac Butt.jpg
Isaac Butt, portrait by John Butler Yeats
1st Leader of the Home Rule League
In office
21 November 1873 – 5 May 1879
Succeeded by William Shaw
Member of Parliament for Limerick
In office
Serving with George Gavin
(to 1874)
Richard O'Shaughnessy
(from 1874)
Preceded by Francis William Russell
George Gavin
Succeeded by Daniel Fitzgerald Gabbett
Richard O'Shaughnessy
Member of Parliament for Youghal
In office
Preceded by Thomas Chisholm Anstey
Succeeded by Joseph Neale McKenna
Personal details
Born 6 September 1813
Glenfin, County Donegal, Ireland
Died 5 May 1879 (aged 65)
Clonskeagh, Dublin, Ireland
Political party Home Rule League
(from 1873)
Other political
Home Government Association (1870–73)
Irish Conservative Party
(until 1870)
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin
Occupation Professor, lawyer, politician

Isaac Butt, QC, MP (6 September 1813 – 5 May 1879), was an Irish barrister, politician, Member of Parliament (M.P.) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and the founder and first leader of a number of Irish nationalist parties and organisations, including the Irish Metropolitan Conservative Society in 1836, the Home Government Association in 1870 and in 1873 the Home Rule League.

Early life

Butt was born in 1813 in Glenfin, a district bordering the Finn Valley in County Donegal, Ireland. Glenfin is a short distance west of Ballybofey. He was the son of a Church of Ireland rector and was descended from the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell,[1] through the Ramsays.[2] Butt received his secondary school education at The Royal School in Raphoe, County Donegal, and at Midleton College, County Cork, before going to Trinity College, Dublin at the age of fifteen, where he was elected a Scholar. Whilst there he co-founded the Dublin University Magazine and edited it for four years. For much of his life was a member of the Irish Conservative Party. He became Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity in 1836 and held that position until 1841.[3]

Legal career

After being called to the bar in 1838, Butt quickly established a name for himself as a brilliant barrister. He was known for his opposition to the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell's campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union.[4] He also lectured at Trinity College, Dublin, in political economy. His experiences during the Great Famine led him to move from being an Irish unionist and an Orangeman[5] to supporting a federal political system for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that would give Ireland a greater degree of self-rule. This led to his involvement in Irish nationalist politics and the foundation of the Home Rule League. Butt was instrumental in fostering links between Constitutional and Revolutionary nationalism through his representation of members of the Fenians Society in court.

Political career

He began his career as a Tory politician on Dublin Corporation. He was Member of Parliament for Youghal from 1852 to 1865, and for Limerick from 1871 to 1879 (at the 1852 general election he had also been elected for the English constituency of Harwich, but chose to sit for Youghal).

The failed Fenian Rising in 1867 strengthened Butt's belief that a federal system was the only way to break the dreary cycle of inefficient administration punctuated by incompetent uprisings.[6] Having defended the leaders of the Fenian revolt, Butt then from June 1869 became president of the Amnesty Association formed to secure the release of imprisoned Fenians,[7] supported actively amongst others by P. F. Johnson.

In 1870 Butt then founded the Irish Home Government Association. This was in no sense a revolutionary organisation. It was designed to mobilise public opinion behind the demand for an Irish parliament, with, as he put it, "full control over our domestic affairs."[6] He believed that Home Rule would promote friendship between Ireland and her neighbour to the east.

In November 1873 Butt replaced the Association with a new body, the Home Rule League, which he regarded as a pressure-group, rather than a political party. In the General Election the following year, 59 of its members were elected, forming then in 1874 the Irish Parliamentary Party . However, most of those elected were men of property who were closer to the Liberal cause.[8] In the meantime Charles Stewart Parnell had joined the League, with more radical ideas than most of the incumbent Home Rulers, and was elected to Parliament in a by-election in County Meath in 1875.[9]

Butt had failed to win substantial concessions at Westminster on the things that mattered to most Irish people: an amnesty for the Fenians of 1867, fixity of tenure for tenant-farmers and Home Rule. Although they worked to get Home Rulers elected, many Fenians along with tenant farmers were dissatisfied with Butt's gentlemanly approach to have bills enacted, although they did not openly attack him, as his defence of the Fenian prisoners in 1867 still stood in his favour.[10] However, soon a Belfast Home Ruler, Joseph Gillis Biggar (then a senior member of the IRB), began making extensive use of the ungentlemanly tactic of "obstructionism" to prevent bills being passed by the house.

Declined influence

When Parnell entered Parliament he took his cue from John O'Connor Power and Joseph Biggar and allied himself with those Irish members who would support him in his obstructionist campaign. MPs at that time could stand up and talk for as long as they wished on any subject. This caused havoc in Parliament. In one case they talked for 45 hours non-stop, stopping any important bills from being passed. Butt, ageing, and in failing health, could not keep up with this tactic and considered it counter-productive. In July 1877 Butt threatened to resign from the party if obstruction continued, and a gulf developed between himself and Parnell, who was growing steadily in the estimation of both the Fenians and the Home Rulers.[11]

The climax came in December 1878, when Parliament was recalled to discuss the war in Afghanistan. Butt considered this discussion too important to the British Empire to be interrupted by obstructionism and publicly warned the Irish members to refrain from this tactic. He was fiercely denounced by the young Nationalist John Dillon, who continued his attacks with considerable support from other Home Rulers at a meeting of the Home Rule League in February 1879. Although he defended himself with dignity, Butt, and all and sundry, knew that his role in the party was at an end.[12] Barry O'Brien, in his biography of Parnell, interviews 'X' who relates: 'It was very painful. I was very fond of Butt. He was himself the kindest-hearted man in the world, and here was I going to do the unkindest thing to him.'[13]

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

Personal life

Butt amassed debts and pursued romances. It was said that at meetings he was occasionally heckled by women with whom he had fathered children.[14] He was also involved in a financial scandal when it was revealed that he had taken money from several Indian princes to represent their interests in parliament.

He died on 5 May 1879 in Clonskeagh in Dublin. His remains were brought by train to Stranorlar, County Donegal, where he is buried in a corner of the Church of Ireland cemetery beneath a tree by which he used to sit and dream as a boy.

Despite his chaotic lifestyle and political limitations, Butt was capable of inspiring deep personal loyalty. Some of his friends, such as John Butler Yeats (father of the poet W. B. Yeats) and the future Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas O'Dwyer, retained a lasting hostility towards Parnell for his role in Butt's downfall.

In May 2010 the Church of Ireland (Anglican) parishes of Stranorlar, Meenglass and Kilteevogue instigated an annual memorial Service and Lecture in Butt's honour, inviting members of the professions of law, politics and journalism to reflect aspects of his life. Speakers have included Dr. Joe Mulholland, Senator David Norris, Dr. Chris McGimpsey and Prof. Brian Walker. His grave has been restored and the memorial includes laying a wreath in this quiet corner of Donegal.

In literature

  • The novel Hogan MP by May Laffan Hartley features a hostile portrait of Butt as "Mr. Rebutter". The eponymous protagonist, John O'Rooney Hogan, shares some traits and background of John O'Connor Power.[15]



  1. ^ Joseph Spence, Allegories for a Protestant Nation: Irish Tory Historical Fiction, 1820–1850, Religion & Literature, 28(2), pp. 59–78, Summer 1996
  2. ^ Bernard Burke, The general armory of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, 1969, p. 155
  3. ^ Irish Times 26 August 2008, page 15, An Irishman's Diary, Frank Bouchier-Hayes
  4. ^ Michael Doran. Movements for political and Social Reform, 1870–1914(Irish Leaving Cert History Textbook). Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2003. p 25-26
  5. ^ Jackson (2003), pp. 25–26
  6. ^ a b Lyons (1978), p. 42
  7. ^ Jackson, Alvin: Home Rule: An Irish History 1800—2000 pp.30–31, Phoenix Press (2003) ISBN 0-75381-767-5
  8. ^ Lyons (1978), p. 46
  9. ^ Lyons (1978), p. 49
  10. ^ Lyons (1978), p. 55
  11. ^ Lyons (1978), pp. 70–75
  12. ^ Lyons (1978), p. 86
  13. ^ Stanford Jane, That Irishman, p.84, endnote 196.
  14. ^ Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History 1800–2000. p. 31.
  15. ^ Stanford, Jane, That Irishman, Part Three, pp. 121–122.


  • Doran, Michael (2003), Movements for political and Social Reform, 1870–1914 (Irish Leaving Cert History Textbook), Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • Jackson, Alvin (2003), Home Rule: An Irish History 1800–2000, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0-75381-767-5
  • Lyons, F. S. L. (1978), Charles Stewart Parnell, Fontana/Collins, ISBN 0-00-635324-X
  • White, Terence de Vere, The Road of Excess, Dublin, 1946.

ISBN 0-75381-767-5

Further reading

  • Stanford, Jane (2011), That Irishman: The Life and Times of John O'Connor Power, Part One pp. 39–40, 43–46, Part Two, 'Parliamentary Manoeuvres,' pp. 43–46. The History Press Ireland. ISBN 978-1-84588-698-1

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Thomas Chisholm Anstey
Member of Parliament for Youghal
Succeeded by
Joseph Neale McKenna
Preceded by
Francis William Russell and
George Gavin
Member of Parliament for Limerick
With: George Gavin, to 1874
Richard O'Shaughnessy, from 1874
Succeeded by
Daniel Fitzgerald Gabbett and
Richard O'Shaughnessy
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