John Butler (1808 – 1854), 20th Earl and 2nd Marquess of Ormonde was born in Dublin and like other members of his family he was educated at Harrow and then Christchurch Oxford. Like his father James Butler (1774 -1838) he was elected a Whig M.P. for Kilkenny (1833 -32) at 22 years old.
Shortly after his election as a member for Kilkenny John began to record his recollections and interests in his diary. Today there are seven volumes of his journals that survive and they are in the National Library of Ireland. The handwriting in the journals has faded and often the script can be difficult to read. The late Frank McEvoy of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society carried out the colossal work of deciphering the diaries and we are indebted to him for the wealth of historical information that has now been rediscovered.
The early journals cover John Butler’s recollection of his childhood, his time in Garryricken House in Callan, his schooldays in England and a trip to Paris with his father just a year after the Battle of Waterloo when he was 8 years old. In one of the later journals, he recounted his time-spent travel around Europe with friends, where he travelled to Rome and Sicily. This became the basis for his book “An Autumn in Sicily” a travel account of his excursions and observations around the island and his account was published 18 years after his journey. Before his Sicilian travels, John had prepared himself by familiarising himself with the Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman histories of the island and his book is peppered with references to the classical writers Virgil, Cicero and Juvenal.
It must have been while at Christchurch, Oxford that John Butler became acquainted with works of Greek and Roman classics, this became an interest that remained with throughout his life. Unlike his father and his Uncle, John was an academic by nature and was fascinated particularly by history. He later became patron of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society and with the assistance of the Rev. James Graves began the classification and arrangement of the collection of Ormonde manuscripts in the muniment room of Kilkenny Castle.
He recorded in his journal of his time in Brussels, possibly visiting a relation living there, when he heard about a collection of medieval manuscripts housed in the Burgundian Library. A part of the collection had come from the Irish College of Salamanca and among the manuscripts was a Latin work the “Vita Sancti Kannechi”, The Life of St. Canice. It was a collection of the lives of forty-six saints attributed to an unknown scholar cited by historians simply as “S”. There was another version of the text on Marsh’s Library in Dublin known as the “M” version of the work. Later historians have emphasised that the “S” version of the Life was a direct translation from the original Irish and was therefore the earliest in date. John discovered that by comparing the two account that the Marsh’s Library Lives had been altered. Some of the more colourful passages in the “S” version had been sanitised to make them more acceptable. An example of this where St. Brendan came to St. Canice to get gold for an altar chalice, St. Canice prepared a feast and them vomited and his vomit turned to gold; in the other version he obtains the gold by simply blessing some bread.
The Burgundian version became the basis for John Butlers published work of the Vita Sancti Kannechi, which remains today a work of outstanding scholarship. He was to present a richly bound copy to the first hundred members who paid their subscription to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, a very generous gesture of support.
Later in his life, he began to neglect his journal entries, and he was to focus on repairs to Kilkenny Castle and began improvements from his father’s time. The family were to move to Butler House and Dunmore Lodge during the works. Each summer he rented Loftus Hall in Co. Wexford from the Marquess of Ely. He was there with his family in September 1854, when he suffered what was most likely a heart attack on the seashore and tragically died. He was just 46 years old when he died and we could only imagine what later works that he could have produced.
His funeral was reported in The Illustrated London News with images of his funeral procession from Kilkenny Castle. There was genuine sense of widespread sadness from all corners of society, his tenants, the local gentry, the mayor and the pupils of Kilkenny College. At St. Canice’s Cathedral, the Lord Bishop of Ossory met the procession and the Death March from Saul was played. In his funeral oration, the Bishop mentioned that he left not an enemy behind, a very fine compliment to a very extraordinary life.
Peter Kenny Sept. 2022.