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Edward Butler (1823–1879)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Edward Butler (1823-1879), barrister and politician, was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, son of Michael Butler, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Joyce. He was educated at Kilkenny College and according to Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences of My Irish Journey in 1849 (London, 1882), later failed to become a priest: 'Maynooth pupil this editor, a burly thick-necked sharp-eyed man;—couldn't be a priest; in secret counterworks [Archbishop] M'Hale … and despises and dislikes his courses and him'. By 1849 Butler had become a journalist and was a member of the Young Ireland movement and the protégé of Charles Gavan Duffy. When Carlyle met him in Galway he was one of the chief organizers of the nationalists in the west of Ireland and sub-editor of Duffy's famous newspaper, the Nation. Carlyle was hospitably entertained by Butler and was impressed by him.

In 1848 Butler was editor of the Galway Vindicator and used it to express his bitter sorrow for the victims of the 'great famine'; from 1 February to 11 March deaths in Galway totalled 181 and were described by the Vindicator as 'systematic murder'. The newspaper gave advice on the acquisition and use of firearms while Butler quickly and efficiently organized 'United Irishmen' clubs, as the Young Ireland cells were known. By July the Galway club had over 200 members and the Nation reported that 'Mr. Edward Butler, of the Vindicator, is one of its most zealous and active members'. Butler was imprisoned briefly for his activities. On his release he at once resumed his nationalist work.

Butler's dedicated work for Young Ireland reflected his whole-hearted acceptance of the movement's ideals. In 1842 Duffy, Thomas Osborne Davis and John Blake Dillon had decided that Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association was likely to lose touch with the rising generation of Irish intellectuals. They founded the Nation, which quickly set new standards for Irish journalism as it voiced the nationalist aspirations of thousands of young Irish people. The journal was enthusiastic and rational 'in a way no other newspaper has ever approached, the tongue and brain, soul and conscience of a whole people'. Soon Duffy's group was a distinct spearhead of the Repealers and in 1846 separated from them. They rejected O'Connell's gradualism and inevitably came to question his constitutionalism. For them liberty was worth the shedding of blood. With most of their leaders Protestants they sought the rejuvenation of the whole national movement through the co-operation of both Catholics and Protestants. They preached ardently a system of education common to all denominations. They ridiculed superstition, false piety and the identification of Ireland's freedom and religion's progress with Irishmen's placement and promotion in the civil service. With their zestful nationalism they combined a romanticism that eventually nullified their political aims. They felt for the mass victims of Irish famine but could never appreciate that the survivors' bare hold on life was no base for revolution. They reflected the agonizing ambiguity of most mid-nineteenth-century Irish intellectual nationalists: they were ultimately loyal to both Queen and country. They were opposed by the Catholic bishops, especially Archbishop MacHale.

Butler was well formed in Young Ireland's mould. He was independent, humane and generous, tolerant, outgoing and romantic. In 1849-51 he existed parlously as a journalist. In 1850 he was a founder of a tenant league to elect to the House of Commons men who would reform the land laws, and in 1852 helped to get Dr Brady elected for Leitrim. He had hopes of a legal career but like many other Catholics in Ireland found that the British government's control of the legal system virtually disbarred him. In 1852 he decided to migrate and arrived in Sydney in May 1853.

Butler soon began to work on Henry Parkes's Empire and formed a friendship with him that lasted for twenty years. He arrived in New South Wales at a crucial time in the struggle for responsible government, joined energetically in it and gradually became prominent as an opponent of the entrenched officials and squatters. Like other liberals he was dissatisfied with the 1855 Constitution and determined to amend it by removing property qualifications for members of parliament, extending the franchise to adult males and making the Legislative Council elective. In 1855 Butler reminded Duffy that 'we are much indebted to Parkes' and warned him not to give himself 'unreservedly to our poor enthusiastic Irishmen', and to 'Remember these colonies are English and any sympathy beyond that of Irishmen will be with you personally, not with the Irish cause'. In March 1856 he was a leader of the welcome when Duffy visited Sydney. Butler was also active in Catholic affairs; in 1855 with Parkes he was at a public meeting to raise funds for the Sisters of Charity; in 1858 he was elected a fellow of St John's College within the University of Sydney. He joined the mixed opposition to Archbishop John Bede Polding and in 1858 he was on the lay committee that submitted a list of grievances; in 1859 he supported John Plunkett in the de Lacy affair.

Meanwhile Butler had found time to take up his legal studies and was admitted as a barrister on 16 October 1855. In 1857 he was appointed crown prosecutor for the metropolitan and coast district at a salary of £500 and travelling expenses, and commissioner of the Court of Claims. In 1859 his appointment was renewed and in 1860-67 he concentrated on criminal cases; from 1868 he began to appear more frequently in common law and commercial cases and by 1870 had begun firmly to establish himself as a leader in these fields.

Butler continued his political activities in the forefront of the 'liberal party'. He remained on close terms with Parkes and in the intricate politics of the colony strongly supported John Robertson's land policy and Charles Cowper's policy on the withdrawal of state aid to religion. In September 1861 Cowper appointed him to the Legislative Council where he helped Robertson to pass the crown land alienation and occupation bills against sustained opposition from squatters. In 1862 another triumph for the liberals was the passage of Cowper's grants for public worship prohibition bill. This measure represented popular opinion that religious equality was bound up with social equality and that the state should not subsidize any denomination. Cowper ensured that the withdrawal should be made on the best possible terms for the churches; Butler agreed with him but was eloquent and adamant on the principles involved. In 1861 in a minority of 3 to 12 he had supported a bill that would have declared certain church lands waste lands resumable by the Crown and had argued that 'whether [the income from the land were] distributed to one or four denominations, it was nothing more or less than a monopoly, and as a monopoly he should oppose it … He had come from a country in which there unhappily was a monopoly for one church [the Church of Ireland], and he desired to see no such monopoly here … he held that each … denomination should provide for its own pastors'. In the 1862 debate he reaffirmed these views and scorned Plunkett's opinion 'that if State-aid were abolished the whole country would go to wreck and be overspread with infidelity'.

In 1863 Butler resigned from the Legislative Council to concentrate on his legal career. By then the liberals had achieved their major objectives and were in disarray. In 1868 Robertson asked Butler to serve as his attorney-general. He declined but next year, with an assured income, was induced by the racial and religious turmoil that followed Henry O'Farrell's attempted assassination of Prince Alfred to try to return to parliament. On 13 December he won Argyle unopposed.

Butler's mature political and social views were revealed in election speeches. He restated his religious and racial ecumenism 'in the present unhappy position of the country', and said 'it was a terrible mistake for those claiming to be liberals to try to drive the Roman Catholic population into a position of antagonism'. He denied that there was any important opposition to the 1866 Public Education Act, but warned against 'the dumb devil of [educational] uniformity'; he recalled that Roger Therry, William Duncan, Plunkett and himself had sat on the old National Board of Education and suggested that a Catholic be appointed to the Council of Education; he believed ardently in education 'and they never would be worth the attention or consideration of other countries unless they educated their children'. He thought that the price of land was too high at £1 an acre to attract 'a proper population', that a widespread system of freehold would produce 'a population fixed to the soil' and that land-jobbing and monopoly should be prevented. He was open-minded about immigration: 'they might bring in as many Protestants as they liked and from any part of the world, but he should never be in favour of imposing disabilities on any class or country'. He scorned protection and was strongly opposed to patronage in the public service. He was 'bound to no party or set of men', but hoped that the 'liberal party' would reform, and defined it as 'those who had made their roads and their railways, who promoted settlement on the lands … and … encouraged education'.

Butler also recalled how he himself in the 1850s had seen 'the Roman Catholics carry Mr. Parkes on their shoulders in triumph'. In January 1871 he wrote to Duffy that 'notwithstanding the apprehensions of some and the remonstrances of many of our leading Catholics I persisted in withdrawing my support and that of such members as I could influence from the worthless and unprincipled administration [Robertson-Cowper, 1870] who sought to use us as tools', and that the Martin-Robertson coalition had resulted in 'an indescribable confusion of tongues' in parliament, with many members anxious for a lead from himself. Although Butler was astounded at 'the horrible absurdity' of Parkes's current insolvency he told Duffy of his continued admiration for their old friend. Butler decided that the success of his plans demanded renewed co-operation with Parkes and that his differences with Catholics over education, immigration and the O'Farrell affair were reconcilable; Parkes and Butler saw the social gains and mutual personal advantages involved in a partnership. In 1871 extensive correspondence between them resulted in a pact at the 1872 elections. With Butler using the incomplete Catholic support he commanded and Parkes effectively tapping other sources, their efforts succeeded. Parkes formed his first ministry in May with Butler as his attorney-general.

Although opposed by many Catholics, notably William Bede Dalley, this result was a tribute to Butler's social insight as well as to Parkes's extraordinary political instinct. Their association was natural and beneficial although covert in the style and practice of colonial politics. By 1872 Butler was a leading politician whose sense of responsibility was leavened with good humour, ambition and emotional sensitivity. His hazy visions of orderly political development were based on racial and religious harmony. But he was embedded in the structure of politics and it was antagonistic to his fancies. While the new ministry lowered the hysterical pitch of bigotry it could not plan, let alone effect, a comprehensive legislative policy. In 1871 Butler had sat under the chief justice, Sir Alfred Stephen, on the law reform commission and in 1872-73 he failed to carry major reforms in criminal law and equity though he amended the Real Property Act. The ministry's sterility was aggravated by the Rossi case.

In 1873 Butler's political zeal had been diminished and his professional hopes resuscitated by the imminent retirement of Stephen. As attorney-general Butler was deemed to have first refusal of the chief justiceship. He also had the experience, qualifications and stature for the position and Parkes agreed that he should have it. As the retirement date, 5 November, approached, the complex hostility to Butler's elevation, stemming from envy, bigotry and political partisanship, was transferred into a simple and virtually united opposition when Martin intimated that he was also a candidate. Eminent in the law and prominent in society, Martin was Butler's senior in their profession, but not at the Bar; born in Ireland and a lapsed Catholic, he had come to the colony as an infant in 1821, taken a leading part in the winning of responsible government, become attorney-general in 1856 and premier thrice. In 1873 there was general agreement that he should become chief justice. Butler himself recognized Martin's claims, though he naturally wanted Parkes's promise fulfilled. If the premier had gone to Butler and explained the political difficulties the case was pressing on him, there is little doubt that Butler would have withdrawn. But Parkes chose to act deviously and appointed Martin. Butler at once resigned, published letters that revealed the subtle duplicity of Parkes's mishandling of the affair, and provoked a controversy that ended in widespread sympathy for Butler even though it confirmed the view that Martin was the better choice. Butler behaved throughout with typical warmhearted, if excited, propriety: 'It was a tribute to the stature of the man that he came through the ordeal and public humiliation with dignity, his integrity unimpeached and his reputation enhanced'.

He remained in the assembly until 1877 active in debate and consistently liberal despite hardening Catholic opinion that tested his firm conviction that a National system of education was the best. On 29 October 1877 he was reappointed to the Legislative Council. Meanwhile he had become a Q.C. in November 1873, concentrated on his career and gradually became recognized as the leader of the Bar. Early in 1879 he had a driving accident that accentuated a chronic heart condition. He dropped dead in court on 9 June. By this time he was highly regarded by Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan, Polding's successor, whose moving tribute at his funeral reflected the colony's respect and affection. Parkes was the only notable absentee from the service.

In many ways Butler was probably the most attractive of New South Wales nineteenth-century politicians. More than any other citizen he nullified the bitter sectarianism that flared after the O'Farrell affair. His whole career exemplified tolerance and gave practical proof that Catholics could accept and nurture democracy. He had serious trouble with various bishops but no one doubted the deep sincerity of his religious belief and practice. He showed that Catholicism was not antagonistic to learning, urbanity or a sense of fun and that being an Irishman was subversive neither of colony nor Bar. He injected a radical note into his profession's conservativism and helped to open the law to talent unaided by birth or influence. His personal life was free of scandal. At Parramatta on 1 May 1858 he had married Ellen Mary Connolly; when she died on 25 September 1871 they had four sons and five daughters; at Sydney on 22 April 1875 he married Marion, daughter of Edward and Susan Daintry; they had one daughter. As a result of his strenuous work and some fortunate squatting ventures he died wealthy.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, The League of North and South (Lond, 1886)
  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Henry Parkes and Electoral Manipulation, 1872-82’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 8, no 31, Nov 1958, pp 268-80
  • M. Rutledge, ‘Edward Butler and the Chief Justiceship, 1873’, Historical Studies, vol 13, no 50, Apr 1968, pp 207-22
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1869, 12 June 1879
  • Echo (Sydney), 9 June 1879
  • Sydney Mail, 14 June 1879
  • C. G. Duffy letters (State Library of Victoria)
  • Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Butler, Edward (1823–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Kilkenny, Ireland


9 June, 1879 (aged ~ 56)
New South Wales, Australia

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