Isaac Butt

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—With reference to Bruce Kelley’s fine article on Isaac Butt (HI 28.3, May/June 2020), may we add a footnote? Every schoolboy/girl knows about Isaac Butt and Home Rule, and probably about Butt’s notorious inability to get on top of his personal finances. However, what is little known, and rarely referenced, is Butt’s contribution to the early development of economic theory. At 21 years of age he was appointed to the Whately Chair of Political Economy at Trinity College, Dublin. His immediate predecessor was Mountifort Longfield (1802–84), a towering, if transient, figure in economic thought at the time. Butt took Longfield’s theory of profit and combined it with the utility theory of the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832) and proceeded to develop one of the earliest expositions of marginal utility theory—an original concept that was never fully worked out until later in the century in the writings of Alfred Marshall (1842–1924) and William Jevons (1835–82). Butt’s dabbling in economic theory was short-lived; his espousal of Home Rule for Ireland became a greater claim to fame.—Yours etc.,


Sir,—I read with interest the article on ‘Isaac Butt and the founding of the Home Rule Movement’ (HI 28.3, May/June 2020) by Bruce Kelley, who was correct in stating that Isaac Butt was politically, socially and religiously a conservative at heart. Although he was to espouse Home Rule for Ireland, it was to be a conservative home rule, which was to remain under the union with Great Britain. Readers may be interested to know that he was elected MP in the Conservative interest for Mayo County in 1850 and in 1852 for Harwich, England, and Youghal, Co. Cork, and chose to sit for the latter. The next election in 1857 saw him returned as a Liberal MP for the same constituency continually until 1865, when he lost his seat. During the next six years he as a Queen’s Counsel defended members of the Young Ireland movement and the Fenian Brotherhood, which was the catalyst to transforming him into a constitutional nationalist and establishing the Home Government Association, which became the Home Rule movement. Following the general election of 1871, he became an MP for Monaghan County in the Home Rule interest but this did not last long, for one of the sitting representatives for Limerick City died and Butt succeeded him. He continued as an MP for Limerick until he died in 1879. During his time as an MP for the city he was instrumental in having the Municipal Privileges (Ireland) Act, 1876, passed, which allowed borough councils the right to confer Honorary Freedom on individuals. It was also during his time as an MP for Limerick that the policy of obstructionism was introduced into parliament by Joseph Biggar and taken up by Parnell. This policy was abhorred by Isaac Butt, but at this stage his popularity and leadership were on the wane, and when he died he was succeeded for a short period by William Shaw and then by Charles Stewart Parnell.—Yours etc.,



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