Barrister and Home Rule Party leader Isaac Butt (1813–1879) was born on 6 September in Glenfin, Co. Donegal. The only son of a Church of Ireland rector, Butt attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he helped to found the Dublin University Magazine in 1833. Butt was appointed professor of political economy at Trinity in 1836 and was called to the bar in 1838. He began his political career in the 1840s as a conservative opponent of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal movement. Elected MP for Youghal as a Liberal-Conservative in 1852, he moved to London and lived there until he lost his parliamentary seat in 1865. During this period Butt fathered two illegitimate children and ran up huge debts that left him in a precarious financial position for the rest of his life.
While in Parliament, Butt championed the rights of Irish tenants, and after 1865, at great financial cost to himself, he further enhanced his reputation with Irish nationalists by defending many Fenians in the trials that followed the suppression of the Irish People in 1865 and the failed rising of 1867. In 1868 Butt assumed the leadership of the amnesty movement, which sought the release of the imprisoned Fenians. In the following year Butt also became a leader of the Irish Tenant League, which campaigned for tenant-right legislation. After Gladstone's government failed to satisfy either of these movements, granting only a partial amnesty in 1869 and passing the limited Land Act of 1870, Butt argued that only a domestic Irish parliament could redress Irish grievances and launched the Home Government Association in 1870.
Although Butt was elected MP for Limerick in 1871, at first few other Home Rule candidates were successful. However, when the Catholic middle classes joined the new Home Rule League, and Fenians gave it their tacit support, Butt and his followers captured over half the Irish seats in the 1874 general election. Because the Home Rule Party was ill-disciplined, Butt accomplished very little. Soon some of Butt's impatient followers, led by Joseph Biggar and Charles Stewart Parnell, challenged his hesitant leadership by engaging in parliamentary obstruction. Although Butt retained control of the Home Rule League until his death on 5 May 1879, leadership of the Irish national movement had passed to Parnell in 1878. Butt won the support of Fenians, tenant-right advocates, clergy, and middle-class Catholics for a Home Rule Party, but because of his indecisive parliamentary leadership he failed to bring Home Rule any closer.
SEE ALSO Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Tenant Right, or Ulster Custom; Primary Documents: Resolutions Adopted at the Home Rule Conference (18–21 November 1873); Speech Advocating Consideration of Home Rule by the House of Commons (30 June 1874)
Comerford, R. V. The Fenians in Context. 1996.
Thornley, David. Isaac Butt and Home Rule. 1964.
Patrick F. Tally
Isaac Butt, 1813–79, Irish politician and nationalist leader. A member of both the Irish and the English bar, he was a noted conservative lawyer and scholar and an opponent of Daniel O'Connell. After the Irish famine experience of the 1840s, however, he became increasingly liberal, defended participants in the abortive Young Ireland revolt (1848), and entered (1852) Parliament as a Liberal-Conservative. He continually urged land tenure reform, defended the Fenian leaders, and founded (1870) the Home Rule Society. By 1874 the parliamentary group, the Home Rule League, comprised 56 members under his leadership. He remained nominal leader of the Home Rule movement until his death, although effective leadership gradually passed to Charles Stewart Parnell.
See L. J. McCaffrey, Irish Federalism in the 1870's (1962); D. Thornley, Isaac Butt and Home Rule (1964).