A film documenting the life of Irish essayist Hubert Butler is to be shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts later this month.
Butler, who wrote on a wide range of subjects, was known for his resistance to anti-Semitism and his help smuggling Jews out of Nazi-occupied Austria.
He was based in Co. Kilkenny but spent much of his life travelling to Europe to expose human rights abuses. Disgusted with the anti- Semitic feeling spreading across Europe, he visited Vienna with the intention of helping Jews get out of the country following the Anschluss.
Working with Irish and US Quakers, he secured dozens of exit visas for Jewish families, navigating their passage to Ireland before helping them settle in the Americas.
He criticised former Irish Minister of Defence Oliver Flanagan over his comments about Jewish deicide and wrote: “I was as Irish as [him] and I was determined that Jewish refugees should come to Ireland.”
But it was his work in uncovering Catholic involvement in the Balkans during World War Two that was the inspiration for the documentary. He clashed head on with the Vatican after drawing attention to the Ustaše in Croatia – a puppet regime installed by the Nazis, which led a genocidal crusade against non-Catholics.
The Irish state had been harbouring the Croatian war criminal Andrija Artuković and, as part of covering this up, colluded to silence Butler given his investigative research. As a writer, he covered local history, archaeology, political and religious affairs and has been described as “Ireland’s George Orwell”. Thomas Crampton, Butler’s grandson, told of how he spent several summers at his home in Kilkenny and of the two sides to his grandfather’s character.
“He was very reflective, thoughtful, kind and gentle – I remember one time he wouldn’t take his chair for dinner because there was a cat on it,” he said. “But, in all that he did, he could be very forceful and driven. If there was something going on, he’d be racing round corners as he drove, desperate to do something about it. “He held this genuine and passionate belief that we really should do all we can to make the world a better place.” Mr Crampton explained how it was his writing – which was discovered by Andrew Farrell of The Lilliput Press when Butler was 80 – that really set him apart.
“He had this ability to effortlessly dance between the local stories and global affairs,” he said. “He used writing as a tremendous tool and it was the eloquence of it which allowed his message to be put across.”
It was this writing, and his social campaigning, which has made Butler such a righteous and influential figure. His story, told through a variety of contributors including biographer Robert Toibin and Butler’s daughter, Julia, makes for compelling viewing.
Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future is showing at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH on Tuesday 20 September.
The film starts at 6.30pm and will be followed by a discussion with a panel including director Johnny Gogan. Tickets range from £7.00 to £11.00.