From Irish Family Histories
Copyright © 1993 Ida Grehan
Reprinted by permission.

Butler Arms

Carved figures of Piers & Wife

The tomb of Piers and Margaret Butler in Kilkenny.

Butler title (also in Gaelic)

oin 0 Mahony (q.v.), a Cork lawyer and inimitable raconteur who popularized Irish family history in his lively broadcasts from Radio Eireann, said of the Butler family: "Numerically and historically the Burkes, FitzGeralds and Butlers are the three Norman families outstanding in the moulding of the history of Ireland following the invasion of 1169. They have been remarkably consistent in producing able churchmen, soldiers and administrators. Their history brings them to the forefront of Irish history for 800 years".
     They are also a very well-documented and close-knit family. The Butler Society girdles the world, and this accounts for the success of their international rally held in their castle at Kilkenny every few years.
     Butler is a common name in both England and Ireland. In fact, there has usually been a Butler in both camps. The Butlers came to Ireland when Theobald Fitzwalter (d. 1205), whose brother was Archbishop of Canterbury, landed in Waterford in 1185 with Prince John (later to be King). Theobald was awarded generous grants of land in counties Limerick, Tipperary and Wicklow and Henry II gave him the hereditary title of Le Boitiler-the king's chief butler, a title of function.
     Theobald was a popular family name. A later Theobald (d. 1285) was the Butler who was awarded the Royal grant of the "prisage of wines", which meant he was entitled to "about one tenth of the cargo of any wine ship that broke bulk in Ireland". In 1810, this rewarding office was declared redundant and Walter Butler, Marquess of Ormond, fell heir to 2l6,000 pounds in compensation.
     Consolidating their position, the Butlers ringed the country with castles, married noble Irish ladies, fervently built churches and abbeys and went on the Crusades. Because of their closeness to the English court, the Butlers collected at least 25 patents of nobility, so that branches of the house of Ormond-the main Butler designation--included such titles as Dunboyne, Cahir, Mountgarrett, Galmoy, Ossory. There have been a number of Butler bishops, including Edmund, Prior of Athassel Abbey in Tipperary for fourteen years until 1537, when Thomas Cromwell deposed him. The Butlers fell victim to the Cromwellians, who feared their power in Ireland. They were strong military men, who took part in all the main battles from Agincourt in France to the Boyne and Aughrim.
     Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond (d. 1515), was grandfather to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who, although she lost her head, provided him with the daughter who was to become Queen Elizabeth I. This fearsome queen features in voluminous Butler records. Her cousin, the 10th Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler (d. 1614), who had been reared at the English court, built a magnificent Tudor manor at Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, expecting her to visit him, which she failed to do. Lord Dunboyne, the present Butler family historian, writes in his Butler Family History: "The Butlers bred like rabbits immune from myxomatosis". Black Tom, as the 10th Earl of Ormond was nicknamed, was a prime example. Three times married, he had, apart from his legal offspring, twelve known illegitimate children. One of his natural sons who received considerable estates from his father, Piers Fitzthomas Butler, according to a strong local tradition, was the fruit of Thomas' affection for the Virgin Queen!
     The Butlers and the FitzGeralds, the mighty Earls of Kildare, despite intermarrying, were constantly feuding. Between them they alternated the administration of Ireland.
 
     Eight Butlers held the office of Viceroy of Ireland. Because of his fidelity to the royal house of Stuart during the Cromwellian usurpations, Charles II raised James Butler (1610-88), the 12th Earl, to the Dukedom of Ormond, together with a variety of other titles. James played an important role in the affairs of both England and Ireland. He was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chancellor of the universities of both Dublin and Oxford. He helped incorporate the College of Physicians and founded the Royal Record Office and the Genealogical Office in Dublin Castle. Another of the great Duke's benefactions was Dublin's Phoenix Park. Its 1,752 acres make it larger than all of London's parks put together and it is still greatly enjoyed by today's citizens. James, the lst Duke of Ormond, described as a very straight man, a prime example of the remarkable talents of the Butlers in the field of administration, was awarded the distinction of burial in Westminster Abbey.
     Pierce Butler, 3rd Viscount Galmoy (1652-1740), was a soldier. He took part in the siege of Derry, the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim and, with Patrick Sarsfield, he campaigned in Europe. Pierce signed the Treaty of Limerick on behalf of the Irish following the Jacobite defeat at the Boyne. A kinsman, Sir Toby Butler of Ballyline, County Clare, solicitor to the unfortunate King James II, drew up the Treaty.
     John Butler (1716-1800), who was Catholic Bishop of Cork in 1763, unexpectedly found himself 12th Lord Dunboyne, a very prestigious Butler title. At the age of 70 he felt he should provide an heir. He petitioned Pope Pius VI for leave to marry, but was summarily refused. He renounced the Church and married his cousin, but there was no heir. On his deathbed, aged 84, he returned to the Church and, despite family opposition to his will, managed to leave, if not his castle of Dunboyne, at least a Dunboyne endowment, to Maynooth College, County Kildare.
     Eleanor Butler (1745-1829), sister of the 17th Earl, caused enormous scandal when she eloped with her neighbour, Sarah Ponsonby. They lived together for the rest of their lives in Wales where they created a world-famous and picturesque home and were known as "The Ladies of Llangollen".
     The Honourable Simon Butler, born in Dublin in 1757, was the first president of the Society of United Irishmen, and a distinguished lawyer. When he had to flee to Scotland because of his political activities, he directed the Society from there. In the same unhappy period, John Butler (1808-54), 2nd Marquess of Ormond and 20th Earl, was greatly loved in Kilkenny, where he helped his tenants by reducing their rents, in some cases writing them off completely.
     Major-General Sir William Butler (1838-1910) of Bansha, County Tipperary, who helped found the National University of Ireland, had his differences with the British government, accusing them of forcing the Boers into war. His wife was the Lady Butler who painted Roll Call, and many battle scenes of the Victorian era. One of their sons was Dom Richard Butler, a Benedictine monk who taught at the abbeys of Gorey, County Wexford, and Worth and Downside in England. He was a chaplain in both the First and Second World Wars.
     Following the colonization of Ireland, thousands of exiled Irishmen went to Europe to earn their living as professional soldiers, and consequently they often found themselves fighting against their own countrymen who had joined the opposing army - the Irish on the English side attacking the Irish on the French or Spanish side! This happened to the Butlers too, especially to James (1655-1713), the 2nd Duke of Ormond, who was first colonel of Justin MacCarthy's Mountcashel Regiment in France in 1690.

James Butler

General William Orlando Butler (1791-1880) was one of many Irish-Americans who pursued a distinguished career in the military. He served in the Mexican War and fought for the North in the Civil War.
     Some Butlers went further east. A member of the Kilkenny family was the first to capture a Russian two-decker ship, and there is a belief that it could have been a David Butler who was instrumental in founding the Russian navy.
     Many Butlers went to America to take part in the War of Independence. The Marquis de Lafayette once said that when he wanted anything done well he got a Butler to do it. Five high-ranking Butler brothers fought in the American War of Independence. They served again, with their sons, in the 1812 to 1814 dispute and in the American Civil War. As happened to so many families, they had gone their different ways and some were on the Confederate side and others on the Federal.      Pierce Butler (1744-1822) was the third son of Sir Richard Butler of Carlow. He was a Senator and a major in the 29th Regiment. Marriage settled him firmly in South Carolina, where he was active on his estate and in politics. A wealthy, dictatorial aristocrat, he was also a champion of democracy.
     The American Butlers were obviously admirers of Benjamin Franklin, for several of them adopted his name. Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-93) was of Ulster stock-Scotch-Irish. His father, John Butler, had been a captain of dragoons for Jackson at New Orleans. An adventurer, he held a privateer's commission from Simon Bolivar. His son, another Benjamin Franklin Butler, was a congressman and Governor of Massachusetts. He also had an astounding army career. In 1861, having built up a fortune, he was appointed to be Brigadier-General of Militia. With the money and the men at the ready, he was as much in the news as Lincoln after Fort Sumpter.
     In Australia there have been many Irish Butlers. A remarkable man, Edward Butler (1823-79), was born in Kilkenny and, though destined for the Church, was found unsuitable. He turned to nationalistic journalism, which involved him in the fiery Young Ireland movement. During the Famine years he edited the Galway Vindicator with great determination. In 1852, finding it increasingly difficult to exercise freedom of speech, he made the long voyage to Sydney. From journalism he turned to law and reached the Legislative Council. As Attorney-General he presided over many controversies.
     In 1922, during the Civil War in Ireland, the 5th Marquess, the Earl of Ossory, and his wife were in residence in Kilkenny Castle when it was taken over by the Republicans. At the same time they were being besieged from the outside by the Free State army. The siege lasted two days, little damage was done and both sides gave themselves credit for rescuing the Butlers!
     Today the 7th Marquess, Charles Butler, the 31st Chief Butler, who lives in Illinois in the United States, lacks a male heir and there is much speculation as to who his successor will be. Lord Dunboyne suggests that "someone with the name Butler in some modest dwelling in Ireland or overseas may, unknowingly, be the rightful eventual heir". It has to be remembered, however, that it was customary for servants to adopt their masters' names, so that there could be hundreds of Butlers without a touch of the ducal Ormond blood. There are estimated to be about 9,000 Irish Butlers, not taking into account the many who have long since emigrated.
     One of the achievements of the Butler Society has been to set up the Butler Archive in the South Tower of Kilkenny Castle. Archives are an invaluable resource in providing records of the chequered history of Ireland. When President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, the enthusiastic Irish government presented him with a fourteenth-century treaty made between the lst Earl of Ormond and an O Kennedy chieftain.
     This treasure had been donated to the National Library by the Butler's chieftain, but many felt that it was incorrect to denude the nation of such an irreplaceable treasure, even for the President of the United States of America.
     The Butlers were sound builders and many of their castles around Ireland are still standing. Kilkenny Castle and its rose gardens is in constant use for exhibitions and conventions, and important occasions such as the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival and the International Butler Rally.
     Across from the impressive Kilkenny Castle are the magnificent Ormond stables. They were converted to the Kilkenny Design Workshops, a semi-state organization, since disbanded, which fulfilled its purpose by greatly raising the standards of Irish design in everything from engineering to crafts.
     Other important Butler castles include Cahir Castle in County Tipperary, the largest and best-preserved late fifteenth-century castle in Ireland open to the public. Knappogue, a rugged castle near the coast in Quin, County Clare, is used for medieval banquets. Part of it was occupied by an American couple who restored it. The Butler Arms hotel in Waterville was a castle and is now a popular County Kerry hotel, once a favourite of Charlie Chaplin and his large family. Black Tom's Tudor mansion at Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, which Elizabeth I never came to visit, is on view regularly.
     From the widespread Butler tree descend such diverse characters as Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), the apostle of Irish sobriety who was a Butler kinsman. The great poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), was proud of his connection. It was Mary Butler who suggested to the Irish President, Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), the name for his new Home Rule party, Sinn Fein, meaning "we ourselves", to signify Irish self-reliance.
     Hubert Butler (1900-90) of Bennetsbridge, County Kilkenny, a custodian of the Butler Society, taught English in Leningrad before Stalin and worked in Vienna in 1938 helping Jews to escape the pogroms. In Yugoslavia he witnessed the "conversion" of the Serbian Orthodox Christians by Croatian Catholics, a forerunner of latter-day "ethnic cleansing". Against this varied political background he became one of the most respected essayists of this century.

Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) the artist brother of William Butler Yeats.

If you enjoyed this history of the Butler Family, you may enjoy reading about the 79 other Irish families that are featured in this book, Irish Family Histories, by Ida Grehan, which includes a Forward by Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin, as well as "A Short History of Ireland," by the author, and a brief article on "Heraldry in Ireland," by Donald Begley, Chief Herald at the Irish Genealogical Office.

    Grehan, Ida. Irish Family Histories, Boulder, Co.: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993
    [ISBN 1-57098-041-1]

    Grehan, Ida. Irish Family Histories, Dublin: Town House and Country House Publishers, 1993
    [ISBN 1-86059-003-1]

Ida Grehan is a former radio broadcaster and was a feature writer for the Irish Times for many years, in Dublin, where she was born. This is her third book on Irish family histories. She has graciously given me permission to reproduce this excerpt about the Butlers, here, on this website, as an unsolicited promotion for her works.

Some LINKS to websites where Irish Family Histories and other books by Ms. Grehan may be purchased:


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