Between 1985 and 1996 four collections of Hubert Butler's essays were published to general acclaim in Ireland and abroad. While Butler had been a fairly constant presence in Irish cultural life since the early 1940s, his essays appeared in a variety of different publications and journals, from national newspapers to short-lived local magazines. He published one book – an account of Irish Celtic saints – and, as Tobin points out in his thoroughly researched overview of Butler's life, he was, in his own words, ‘pathologically anti-book’ (p. 201), being more readily stirred to make forays into current controversies and debates. The appearance of these volumes at the end of his life not only introduced him to a new generation, but also began the process of opening his oeuvre for assessment. His clear-eyed, sensitive dissection of the ambiguities attending everyday life under communism resonated with writers like Neal Ascherson and Joseph Brodsky as the Berlin Wall fell. In Ireland, scholars such as Roy Foster, Edna Longley and Terence Brown (all of whom inform, in different ways, this monograph) hailed Butler as a Revival voice that spoke of a form of twentieth-century experience that had been silenced by the overarching tendency to divide Irish life into clear dichotomies. Securely Protestant and secular, Anglo-Irish and Irish, nationalist and cosmopolitan, Butler defied easy categorization and promoted a form of practical utopianism based on local, intimate, neighbourly interactions – a conception of social responsibility, as Tobin illustrates, derived in large part from a set of chosen Protestant forebears: Standish O'Grady, George Russell (AE) and, in particular, Horace Plunkett and his co-operative movement. Butler was, as Seamus Deane put it in 1991, ‘one of the rare examples of what Irish nationalism and protestant ascendancy could have produced had they blended their respective traditions after 1916’ (The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, i. 546).

Since the mid-1990s Butler has returned to a somewhat peripheral position in Irish Studies. Tobin leaves us in no doubt that this would not necessarily have bothered Butler, who was preoccupied primarily with local concerns. Nonetheless, it is important that his nonconformist ‘ethical imagination’ (Chris Agee, Unfinished Ireland, p. 146) is critically assimilated into the history of twentieth-century Ireland; amongst other things, it would assist bringing Irish (post-)colonial experience into dialogue with that of eastern European nations. A biography is a pivotal step in ushering this determinedly marginal figure into clearer focus. In the wake of a provisionally commissioned life by W. J. McCormack that was cancelled on receipt of a draft first chapter and a replacement project by Eleanor Burgess that came to nothing, Robert Tobin offers not a straightforward biography, but a study that employs Butler as a focal point for a cultural history of twentieth-century southern Protestantism. On a series of levels, this is a deeply problematic manoeuvre. While Butler was an articulate proponent of a Protestant perspective, his views were frequently out of step with those of his fellow Protestants, as the author acknowledges time and again. On occasion, this was because he spoke up when others lacked the confidence to do so in the face of Catholic hegemony; at other times, it was simply because his views had no resonance with the majority of this minority (not many members of which would have been suspected of being a communist, as Butler was). It was in a secular, intellectual, environment that Butler's ideas most fully prospered, such as that fostered by Seán O'Faoláin and others associated with the noted mid-century journal The Bell. Polemically, Tobin, focused entirely on Protestant self-understanding, argues that secularism and liberalism are essentially Protestant qualities that are not available in the ‘authoritarian’ Catholic Church. While this can be contended on philosophical grounds, it is not so easy to maintain from a historical perspective, especially in Ireland. In order to do so, this study, for instance, elides the Penal Laws, noting baldly that ‘religious and political exclusion were enforced in the name of preserving individual liberty, a contradiction many enlightened Protestants considered morally justified by the circumstances under which they lived’ (p. 7). Edmund Burke radically dissented from this logic, believing the anti-Catholic laws annulled any possibility of a relationship of esteem and affection between the Irish Ascendancy and the people and so functioned as incubators of rebellion. This critique and the laws’ poisonous legacy must surely also be considered in any account of Butler's rather Burkean notions of noblesse oblige in post-colonial Ireland. Furthermore, the study does not properly consider the relationship of the Church of Ireland in the South with the Protestant state in Northern Ireland or, indeed, the nature of that state. This is because we are viewing this broader cultural and political context through Butler's eyes and, while he sought to moderate cross-border dialogue, he ultimately, as Tobin puts it, ‘had little in common socially or politically with working-class Ulster Protestants’ (p. 236).

If this book presents a rather partial perspective on southern Irish Protestantism by using Butler as an optic, it also offers a repetitive account of Butler's life by insistently locating his thoughts and actions in terms of southern Protestantism. Instead of proceeding in a chronological order, the chapters examine central themes and concerns in Butler's career in a looping sequence: ‘The Intellectual Genesis of a Southern Protestant, c. 1900–30’; ‘Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and War, 1930–45’; ‘Irish Community and Protestant Belonging, 1930–49’; ‘Christianity, Mass Society, and Cold War, 1945–72’; ‘Public Controversy and Intellectual Dissent, 1949–72’; ‘History, Heritage, and Scholarship, 1930–72’; ‘The Intellectual Legacy of a Southern Protestant, 1972–91’. Through this process a rounded portrait of Butler is forsaken (more detail about his crucial sojourns in central and eastern Europe either side of the Second World War would have been particularly welcome). Having said that, the author's formidable archival research, the thorough bibliography and extensive appendices, which collate Butler's disparate writings and broadcasts, mean that this book will undoubtedly serve as an invaluable touchstone for all future work on Butler.