June Butler takes in Johnny Gogan’s documentary about Irish essayist Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future, which screened at the Dublin International Film Festival.
Born in 1900 to a family that could trace their roots to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, Hubert Butler thrived on the peaceful existence of a life that included a zest for growing apples in his own orchard. Not being without a robust sense of humour, Butler was oft heard describing himself as a writer and market gardener.
His fluency in Russian enabled a translation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), which is still in use to this day. He loved the slow pace in his ancestral home of Maidenhall and was a popular figure in the local village of Bennetsbridge, Co Kilkenny. Despite having travelled extensively throughout the Balkans in his early life and learned multiple languages along the way, Butler’s heart first and foremost, lay in the land where he was born and he maintained the mantra that local history was eminently more important than national history. Indeed, Hubert Butler went so far as to insist that ‘where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us’.
Butler was passionately committed to verbally defending Ireland both within and without from forces that at times threatened the integrity and stability of the nationalist core he strove to protect – sometimes even at great sacrifice to his own mental and physical wellbeing. On more than one occasion, Butler held forth on matters of great portend to a disbelieving public who aimed derisive criticism at this man of letters when the opposite should have been the case. While he may have appeared mild-mannered, when circumstances dictated, Butler had a firm grasp on the subtly of politics and could deliver stinging rebuttals as his rivals all too humiliatingly became aware.
Ireland was, and remains, deeply indebted to Butler’s unwavering morality and nowhere is it more evident than in Johnny Gogan’s in-depth and soulful film on Butler’s life ‘Hubert Butler; Witness to the Future’. Aided by poet Chris Agee, Gogan ably narrates Butler as an expert essayist and considers him to have been at least fifty years ahead of his time when it came to summarising events of national and international importance.
Gogan claims that Butler was able to predict with unerring accuracy future happenings in the volatile arena of pre and post-war Europe. It is testament to the level of investigation into Butler’s life that his writings are mentioned throughout the documentary with such affection and to such a relentless level of detail. Gogan has literally left no stone unturned.
In my interview with Johnny Gogan, he took into account Butler’s devotion to the country life and in no small way, Gogan has included the orchard at Maidenhall where Hubert Butler spent so many happy hours, almost as an expert witness but equally silent additional cast member. When discussing Butler’s impact on modern history, Gogan said one thing that above all made him feel he was in the presence of greatness – Butler he averred, wore his learning lightly and with humility. The magnitude of knowledge he possessed was vast and yet Hubert Butler was a model of reservation and sincerity – unless his conscience was piqued in which case, Butler’s righteous rebukes were remorseless and acerbic. Gogan goes on to prove his words by stating Hubert Butler travelled to Austria at his own expense in 1938 and rescued Jews who were almost certainly due to be transported to work camps prior to the outbreak of WWII. There are dozens of Jews who could place the claim of survival firmly at the feet of Hubert Butler and his wife Peggy.
People often made the point that Butler’s writings could be compared to those of George Orwell. I would go a stage further and suggest that Butler’s writings were unique and comparable only to one – that of Hubert Butler himself. It is right and fitting that through the remarkable vision of Johnny Gogan, Butler has finally come to our attention for his supreme acts of humanity and recognition as the man of learning he truly was. Generations of Irish will have much to thank Johnny Gogan for this wonderful film.
Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future screened on 22nd February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 18 – 28 February)