Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butt, Isaac

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BUTT, ISAAC (1813–1879), Irish politician, only son of the Rev. Robert Butt, rector of Stranorlar, county Donegal, by Berkeley, daughter of the Rev. R. Cox, of Dovish, county Donegal, was born at Glenfin, in Donegal, 6 Sept. 1813, and educated at the Royal School, Raphoe, entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a scholar in 1832, took his B.A. 1835, LL.B. 1836, M.A. and LL.D. 1840. During his collegiate course he published a translation of the ‘Georgics’ of Virgil, and other classical brochures, which showed a highly finished taste and scholarship. In 1833 he was one of the original founders of the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ of which he was editor from August 1834 to 1838. He was for many years a contributor to its pages, chiefly of political articles and reviews; but he also wrote for it some tales under the general title of ‘Chapters of College Romance.’ In 1836 he was appointed to the chair of political economy, which was then founded by Archbishop Whately, and he continued in the chair until 1841. Having been called to the Irish bar November 1838, the high reputation which he had already won obtained for him a considerable share of practice. The old corporation of Dublin selected him as the junior barrister to plead their cause at the bar of the House of Lords 1840, and although he failed to induce that assembly to reject the Municipal Reform Bill, he added to his own prestige, and returning to Ireland was elected an alderman of the new corporation. He took an active part in the politics of the day, and was regarded as one of the ablest champions of the conservative cause. He entered the lists against O'Connell, opposed him in the corporation debates, and carried on a counter agitation to that of the Repeal Association in 1843.

He wrote for the conservative press on both sides of the Channel, and established in Dublin a weekly newspaper, called the ‘Protestant Guardian.’ This was afterwards amalgamated with the ‘Warder,’ with which he then became connected. The lord chancellor, Sir Edward Sugden, called him to the inner bar 2 Nov. 1844. Butt was retained as counsel in many great causes, and was one of those who defended Smith O'Brien and other prisoners in the state trials of 1848. On 8 May 1852 he entered parliament as member for Harwich; but he was not long in undisturbed possession of the seat, for in the same year there was a general election, and he then offered himself as a liberal-conservative for Youghal. This appears to have been his first divergence from the straight track of conservatism. He was opposed by the Hon. J. W. Fortescue, but was elected, and sat from July 1852 to July 1865, when he was defeated by Sir J. M'Kenna. Previously, on 17 Nov. 1859, he had been called to the English bar at the Inner Temple. About 1864 he returned to Ireland, and resumed practice in the Four Courts. The Fenian prisoners, beset by serious difficulties as to their defence, turned to him as one whose name alone was a tower of strength. For the greater part of four years, 1865–9, sacrificing to a considerable extent a splendid practice in more lucrative engagements, he busied himself in the prolonged and desperate effort of their defence. In 1869 he accepted the position of president of the Amnesty Association. Another opportunity of entering parliament now presented itself. He was chosen to represent the city of Limerick 20 Sept. 1871, and to take the leadership of the Home Rule party. He soon became the one great figure in Irish popular politics. Butt was probably the inventor of the phrase Home Rule. He was certainly the first to use it as an effective election cry. Soon it was taken up and echoed by men of all shades of political opinion throughout the kingdom of Ireland. Latterly he found himself unable to manage the party he had created. It would perhaps be too much to say that the disobedience and disagreements of his party broke the leader's heart. A man in his sixty-sixth year, who had lived hard and worked hard, and who, besides his many public anxieties, had private troubles, was not in a fit state to resist a severe illness. He died at Roebuck Cottage, near Dundrum, county Dublin, 5 May 1879, and was buried at Stranorlar 10 May.

The following is a list of writings to which his name is found appended: 1. ‘Ovid's Fasti Translated,’ 1833. 2. ‘An Introductory Lecture delivered before the University of Dublin,’ 1837. 3. ‘The Poor Law Bill for Ireland, examined in a Letter to Lord Viscount Morpeth,’ 1837. 4. ‘Irish Corporation Bill. A Speech at the Bar of the House of Lords,’ 1840. 5. ‘Speech delivered at the Great Protestant Meeting in Dublin,’ 1840. 6. ‘A Voice for Ireland—the Famine in the Land: What has been done and what is to be done?’ 1847. 7. ‘Zoology and Civilisation: a Lecture delivered before the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland,’ 1847. 8. ‘The Rate in Aid: a Letter to the Earl of Roden,’ 1849. 9. ‘The Transfer of Land by means of a Judicial Assurance: its Practicability and Advantages,’ 1857. 10. ‘The History of Italy, from the Abdication of Napoleon I, with Introductory References to that of Earlier Times,’ 1860. 11. ‘Daniel Manin and Venice in 1848–49, by B. L. H. Martin, with an introduction by Isaac Butt.’ 12. ‘Chapters of College Romance,’ 1863. 13. ‘The Liberty of Teaching Vindicated: Reflections and Proposals on the subject of Irish National Education,’ 1865. 14. ‘The Irish People and the Irish Land: a Letter to Lord Lifford,’ 1867. 15. ‘A Practical Treatise on the New Law of Compensation to Tenants in Ireland, and the other provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act,’ 1871. 16. ‘The Irish Deep-Sea Fisheries: a Speech delivered at a meeting of the Home Government Association of Ireland,’ 1874. 17. ‘Home Government for Ireland—Irish Federalism: its Meaning,’ 1874, of which four editions were printed. 18. ‘The Problem of Irish Education, an Attempt at its Solution,’ 1875.

[Dublin University Magazine, iii. 710–15 (1879); Sullivan's New Ireland, ii. 306–10, 319 (1877); Graphic, with portrait, iv. 483, 485 (1871), xix. 499, 508, with portrait (1879); Illustrated London News, with portrait, iv. 40 (1844).]

G. C. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.46
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
93 i 34 Butt, Isaac: after 1852 insert (having contested Mayo Co. as a conservative in 1850)
20 f.e. for Sir J. M'Kenna read the Hon. J. W. Fortescue
19 f.e. after 1865 insert when he was defeated by Sir J. M'Kenna
2 f.e. after 1871 insert having been defeated for Monaghan Co. the previous July