William Francis Butler

A Life

By: Martin Ryan

Publication Date: May 2003


William Francis Butler: A Life by Martin Ryan

Tipperary-born, Victorian adventurer William Francis Butler is ripe for discovery at a time of changing definitions of what it means to be Irish. This fascinating biography describes an atypical Irishman, Bonapartist and O’Connellite in sympathy, who had a dazzling career in the British army.

Butler’s life encompassed treks across Canada’s prairies in the 1870s (when he founded the Mounties); Gladstone’s 1884-5 attempt to rescue Gordon from Khartoum; co-respondency in the sensational 1886 London divorce case involving ‘sex-goddess’ Lady Colin Campbell; command of the imperial forces in South Africa 1898-9; a political career as 1904 Dublin Home Rule Party and 1905 Leeds Liberal Party candidate, and 1908 election to senator in the new National University of Ireland.

He also wrote fourteen books – among them the bestselling Red Cloud, about the Plains Indians, and The Great Lone Land, a Canadian travel classic. His wife, artist Elizabeth Butler (nee Thompson), was a celebrated scene-painter; and his friend, the flamboyant Dubliner Garnet Wolseley, became one of the dominant figures of the British military hierarchy during the scramble for Africa.

William Francis Butler: A Life portrays a sympathetic, anti-jingoistic figure, whose public ambitions were tempered by a concern for the underdog and a late-developing, Parnellite sense of Irish nationalism.

Maps, photographs, engravings and paintings illustrate this intriguing contribution to Irish, British, North American and African histories.

‘Martin Ryan’s splendid biography of Butler shows how the rapidly expanding empire offered men of a certain class unprecedented opportunities for adventure, travel and intrigue … If Emerson is right in his observation that “there is no history, only biography”, Irish historians should take account of this necessary book.’Willa Murphy, Irish Times

‘This well written biography combines calm objectivity with deep sympathy and understanding.’Charles Lysaght, Sunday Indpendent

‘An excellent biography … a fine piece of historical research and writing. Like other figures such as Casement and Childers, Butler illustrates the tensions between Irish roots and intellectual empathy and a career in the service of empire … his interesting and reflective life helps fill out a more complex picture of the past than we may be generally used to.’Senator Martin Mansergh, advisor to An Taoiseach


MARTIN RYAN, scriptwriter and historian, was born in Dublin in 1944 and educated at University College Dublin and the University of East Africa, Kampala. After teaching in Kenya and Nigeria, he joined RTE. This is his first book.



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Weight 1 kg
Dimensions 160 × 240 mm
Publication Date

May 2003


Hardback, 258pp