Isaac Butt and the founding of the Home Rule movement

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Volume 28

The man who paved the way for Parnell by awakening the moribund constitutional nationalist spirit.

By Bruce Kelley

Above: Isaac Butt—responsible for calling the meeting in Dublin’s Bilton’s Hotel on 19 May 1870. (Vanity Fair)

On the evening of 19 May 1870, some of the most important political figures in Ireland assembled in the great room of Bilton’s Hotel, Dublin. It was a meeting unique in the history of Ireland and which would change the course of Irish history for the next half-century. Gathered that evening were men representing every shade of Orange and Green and every religious denomination. There were two James Mackeys—one a staunch Orange Protestant, the other a Catholic Liberal. Some men listed themselves as Catholic Nationalists, others as Catholic Repealers. There was a man listed as ‘Presbyterian’, and another simply as ‘friend’. Only one MP was present, William Shaw, a Protestant Liberal and chairman of the Munster Bank. Topping off the unthinkable mixture, revolutionaries were present—both Protestant and Catholic—representing Ulster Orangemen, the mid-century Young Ireland movement and the current Fenian Brotherhood. Despite their vast differences, they were united in the demand that Britain change the way it was governing Ireland.

Disparate gathering

Above: W.E. Gladstone—what had brought such disparate men together was the new prime minister’s vision for Ireland: ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’.

What had brought such disparate men together was new Prime Minister William Gladstone’s vision for Ireland. He came into office saying ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’, and the first thing on the list for such a religious man was disestablishing the Church of Ireland. Once the Church of Ireland lost its privileged status, he set his eyes on the land tenure problem, the second leg of what he termed Ireland’s ‘twin pillars of discontent’. This attack on what were considered sacrosanct property rights is what drove the Protestants into a tenuous alliance with their Catholic countrymen, Catholics who had long-standing grievances with the Act of Union.

Protestants dominated the meeting, both in numbers and in floor time. Fearful of appearing ‘disloyal’, much time was spent in justifying their new position. ‘We want peace, we want security, we want loyalty to the throne, we want connection with England’, they claimed, ‘but we will no longer have our domestic affairs committed to a London parliament.’ Protestants also vented their fears that, once a domestic legislature was obtained, the numerically superior Catholics would demand total separation; they concluded, however, that ‘We may fearlessly dismiss the suspicions and apprehensions that have hitherto caused us to mistrust our Roman Catholic countrymen’.

Isaac Butt, the man responsible for calling the meeting, was the final speaker of the evening and was perhaps the most influential man in attendance. A large, barrel-chested man with a shock of white hair, thick lips, unfashionably clean-shaven and a bit dishevelled in appearance, Butt appeared older than his 56 years. He began by addressing the fears of his fellow Protestants about their Roman Catholic countrymen:

‘It is we—it is our inaction, our desertion of the people and the country, the abdication of our position and duties—that have cast these men into the eddies and whirlpools of rebellion. If you are ready to lead them by constitutional courses to their legitimate national rights, they are ready to follow you. Trust me, we have all grievously wronged the Irish Catholics, priests and laymen. As for the men whom misgovernment has driven into revolt [referring to the Fenian rising of 1867] I say for them that if they cannot aid you they will not thwart your experiment. Arise! Be bold! Have faith; have confidence, and you will save Ireland; not Ireland alone, but England also!’

Butt concluded the meeting by proposing: ‘That it is the opinion of this meeting that the true remedy for the evils of Ireland is the establishment of an Irish parliament with full control over our domestic affairs’. When the chairman put the resolution to a vote, not a single dissenting vote was cast, and the meeting adjourned to great cheering and fanfare. ‘This’, according to A.M. Sullivan, an attendee, ‘was the birth of the Irish Home Rule movement.’

The Nation newspaper prophesied that the meeting was ‘… one of the most hopeful and important occurrences which have taken place in Ireland during a long series of years’. It could not have known, of course, that the Home Rule movement begun by Isaac Butt would spawn one of the first disciplined, oath-bound professional political parties, a party that would force changes in the centuries-old traditions of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, turn out governments of the largest empire the world had ever known, and bring about much-needed social change in the Irish institutions of land tenure, higher education and local government. Butt’s Bilton speech is revealing in several respects, and a brief look at his life will bring his speech into better focus.

Butt’s background

Isaac Butt was born in 1813 at Glenfin, Co. Donegal, the son of a Church of Ireland vicar. His paternal ancestry was English; his Irish mother descended from the O’Donnell clan and claimed kinship with Bishop Berkeley.

Butt attended Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated with honours in 1835. While at Trinity, Butt was a founder and editor of the Dublin University Magazine, a journal he described as a ‘monthly advocate of the Protestantism, the intelligence and the respectability of Dublin’. Shortly after graduating, Butt was appointed the first professor of political economy at Trinity. He swam against the tide of the prevailing economic theory of the day and denounced Adam Smith’s laissez-faire principles in favour of government intervention to help restore prosperity to Ireland. Butt was ahead of his time in his views, and the Famine a decade later would vindicate his ‘radical’ theories.

Politically Butt was a committed Tory, demanding the protection of the Protestant Ascendancy’s hegemony over the political, economic, social and religious arenas in Ireland. At this stage in his life he was not ready to advocate any form of Irish nationalism; one of his contemporaries, Sir William Gregory, described him as ‘the very type of ultra-domineering, narrow-minded, Protestant Ascendency’.

Above: Daniel O’Connell—in 1843 he predicted: ‘Depend upon it that Alderman Butt is in his inmost soul an Irishman and that we will have him struggling with us for Ireland yet’. (Currier and Ives)

Butt studied law at night while teaching at Trinity and was called to the Irish bar in 1838, taking his silk in ‘an unusually rapid advance’. He involved himself in conservative politics, and as a distinguished member of the Conservative Society he was chosen to deliver the Conservative reply to a series of public debates on the repeal of the Union in 1843. His antagonist in the debates was Daniel O’Connell, the towering figure of early nineteenth-century Irish politics. Butt’s main argument was that the Union experiment had not been given enough time to succeed, and following the debates O’Connell remarked that ‘I never heard a man make more of a bad cause than he did’. Impressed by Butt’s passion and eloquence, O’Connell then predicted, ‘Depend upon it that Alderman Butt is in his inmost soul an Irishman and that we will have him struggling with us for Ireland yet’.

The Famine and its aftermath, which followed closely on the heels of the debates, would undermine the basis of Butt’s conservatism and leave him without a political philosophy for the next two decades. During the height of the Famine, Butt published a pamphlet reiterating his economic views of government intervention—to no avail—and hinted for the first time at self-government for Ireland.

In 1849 Butt retained counsel for some of the leaders of the failed Young Ireland rebellion. Although he claimed loyalty to the Union, his defence arguments during the trials suggested that his commitment was weakening. He based his defence on the argument that his clients were not guilty of defiance of the Crown but of contempt of the Union. His eloquent defence of Thomas Francis Meagher bordered on treason:

‘Was Irish independence a crime? No. That people were dependent on no nation in the world. If a man talked of nationality he was sneered at in Ireland, but in no other country was the love of fatherland a crime, of no other country could it be said: “’Twas treason to love her. ’Twas death to defend”.’

Butt’s efforts to get the prisoners acquitted failed (they were transported to Tasmania, from where they later escaped), but the 35-year-old Queen’s Counsel was hailed as a national hero in Ireland for his efforts.

Vigorous appetites

Politics was the next hurdle for Butt, and in 1852 he went to London to make his mark at Westminster. His ability in the House of Commons, however, was not the equal of his courtroom prowess, and his disappointing record in the House was primarily due to character flaws that would prevent him from ever realising his potential.

Butt was a man of vigorous appetites, and while in London ‘his time was often frittered away, and his energies dissipated in uncongenial pursuits’—wine, women and gambling. Butt loved his port and, as one colleague claimed, ‘Over an extra bottle of port after dinner, he was at his best, being then wisest and wittiest and most hopeful of his cause’. Butt was highly sexed and had eight children through marriage and at least two illegitimate children. One woman with a baby in tow would interrupt meetings demanding that Butt claim paternity, a practice carried on by the child a few years later. It was Butt’s chronic indebtedness, however, that was most damaging to the movement he began. He was utterly childlike in his disrespect for money. He once earned a large sum on a case and then stayed with a friend that night. The next morning he could not find his money and was just about to call the police when he discovered his banknotes. It had been a stormy night, and to keep the window from rattling in its frame he made a wad of the bills and stuffed them between the glass and the frame. A colleague, J.G. Swift MacNeill, wrote of Butt’s lack of financial acumen, ‘A great authority in political economy who thought in millions, he knew not in his personal affairs the value of money’. According to the melodramatic T.P. O’Connor, ‘Throughout his life he was … pursued by the bloodhound of vast and insurmountable debt’, and often escaped by the back door to avoid a process-server. It did not help Butt’s financial situation that he was himself a soft touch, always lending what money he did have to the needy.

Defence of the Fenians in 1867

In 1865 Butt lost his seat in parliament and returned to Dublin to practise law. He had not been long in Ireland when the Fenian disturbances began and he was once again called upon to defend many leaders of a revolutionary movement. It was then that Butt claimed to have become a nationalist:

‘I saw them meet their fate with the manly fanaticism which made them martyrs. I heard their words of devotion to their country as with firm step and unyielding hearts they left the dock and went down the dark passage to the place where all hope closed on them, and I asked myself again, “Is there any way to arrest this? Are our best and bravest spirits ever to be carried away under this system of constantly defeated revolt?” ’

Butt’s defence of the prisoners bankrupted him, and it was while he was imprisoned in the debtors’ wing of Kilmainham Gaol for eighteen months that he developed his federalist idea for Ireland’s political future, an Ireland with its own domestic parliament yet still tied to the monarchy and to Britain for international affairs.

Upon his release from prison, Butt was once again a popular national figure and became involved in Irish nationalist politics. An Amnesty Association was formed in 1868 by John Nolan to campaign for the release of the remaining Fenian prisoners, and Butt was named president of the Association the following year. Three months later, the Irish Tenant League was founded to push for land reform, and Butt was also named the president of that organisation. Thus, on the eve of Gladstone’s Irish reforms, Butt was president of the two most important ‘political’ organisations in Ireland. As Butt and other influential figures studied Gladstone’s land bill, they saw more weaknesses than strengths in its provisions. It was the failure of the land bill, more than anything else, which prompted Butt to call the meeting at Bilton’s Hotel.

Butt continued to lead what became known as the Home Rule movement for the next nine years, but by the time of his death in May 1879 he had become discredited and eclipsed by Charles Stewart Parnell. Butt enjoyed the trappings of Empire and respected the British parliament, placing great faith in it to do justice for Ireland. As a charming, witty, intelligent man with great oratorical gifts, he was a popular and well-respected figure in the House of Commons. Unfortunately for Butt, however, as historian Lawrence McCaffery points out, ‘an Irish leader’s effectiveness in the House of Commons was measured not by his popularity with British MPs but by the degree of hate and fear they felt for him’. It was left to future leaders of the political party that was produced by the movement to bring much-needed social change to Ireland. Regardless, Isaac Butt should be credited as the man who revived the idea of a national Irish party and as the man who paved the way for Parnell by awakening the moribund constitutional nationalist spirit.

Butt had requested that no memorial be erected to honour him upon his death. Nevertheless, when the construction of a swivel bridge that crossed the Liffey near the Custom House was completed in August 1879 it was named after him. This was a dubious honour at best. In Somerville-Large’s excellent book on the history of Dublin, he refers to the bridge as ‘architectural vandalism’ and states that ‘no single action by a modern developer can equal the ugliness of Butt Bridge, built in the nineteenth century to blot out Gandon’s masterpiece, the Custom House’. When a stone structure was built to replace the swivel bridge in 1932, an effort to rename the bridge met with failure, but calls to rename it occur too frequently for it to retain his name in the future. It is not difficult to understand the desire to change the name—an unscientific, random sample by this author of pedestrians crossing the bridge failed to produce a single individual who knew for whom the bridge was named.

Above: The original swivel bridge, completed in August 1879, named after Isaac Butt. (Dublin Port)

Bruce Kelley is a member of the American Conference for Irish Studies, is finishing a book on the Home Rule movement and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


M. MacDonagh, The Home Rule movement (Dublin and London, 1920).

T.P. O’Connor, Gladstone, Parnell and the great Irish struggle (Toronto, 1886).

A.M. Sullivan, New Ireland (Glasgow, 1877).

T. de Vere White, The road to excess (Dublin, 1930).


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