by Martina Quinn

Dean Richard Butler Historian of Trim 1794-1862

150th Anniversary of his Death


Sesquicentennial Anniversary Tribute

The town of Trim is blessed with having a long and remarkable history with early records recording the foundation of a church by St Loman in A.D. 432, on or adjacent to the present St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street. Trim boasts many majestic historical buildings that are the envy of others towns, including King John’s Castle, the largest Norman castle in Ireland.  Trim is also remarkable in that it had many notable figures who lived in or were  associated with the town: Jonathon Swift, 1667-1745, author of Gulliver’s Travels; Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852, Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; Sir William Rowan Hamilton, 1805-1865, noted mathematician and discoverer of quaternions and last but not least Dean Richard Butler, 1794-1862, the anniversary of whose death occurs on 17th July 2012.

To many people residing in Trim today, the name Richard Butler may not ring a bell, but if you had been living in the town in the early and middle 19th century, he would have been a very familiar sight indeed.

The respect in which he was held when he died is still manifested in the large box tomb, elegantly inscribed, holding his remains and that of his wife in the south west corner of the graveyard surrounding the church he served for so many years.

His tombstone states that he was a ‘generous benefactor, the sympathetic friend and faithful pastor.’ The memorial clock in the church tower still to be seen today was installed by his friends after his death as a tribute to one who was known as the ‘Good Dean.’[i]

He was a careful scholar and author, a conscientious clergyman with a strong ethos of public service to the whole community, a keen gardener and a thoroughly likeable character with a loving wife who preserved many of his personal opinions by issuing a volume of memoirs and correspondence after his death.

Background and Education

Richard Butler was born on the 14 October 1794 in Granard, Co. Longford.  He was the second son of Martha Butler, the daughter of Richard Rothwell of Co. Meath. His father was the Rev. Dr. Richard Butler of the Dunboyne branch of the Butlers, and he was thus descended from the younger brother of the first Earl of Ormond, a family which played a major role in Irish history. Dr. Butler, a well known and popular clergyman, was the Vicar of Burnchurch, Co. Kilkenny and had studied medicine in Scotland after being ordained.  Therefore he was not only a doctor of souls but also of bodies.[ii]

The young Richard was educated in Kilkenny College until the age of thirteen.  In 1807 he travelled to England, where he attended a day school in Bath, and later with his elder brother, James, he boarded in Reading School.  The discipline there was strict, and the conditions spartan. His dormitory had a hole in the wall to encourage the intake of fresh air.  Richard attributed his great love of books to the easy and uncensored access he had to the school library at Reading. He also began his diligent correspondence habits, writing to his parents frequently.  From a young age Richard became convinced he wanted to study to be a vicar like his father.

Having left Reading, he secured a place in Oxford University.  He read the Classics, receiving a 1st class Honours degree and received his Deacon’s Orders in 1818.  During his college years, Richard often stayed with his uncle, Mr John Rothwell, to whom he was deeply attached.  Mr Rothwell tried to dissuade Richard from a religious life by offering him a place on his estate and succession to his fortune, which was large. Richard declined the offer, but the pair remained on good terms, and Richard did eventually inherit a small estate on this uncle’s death in 1826.

After obtaining his degree Richard applied for a fellowship, but failed, much to his embarrassment.  He stayed on at Oxford, privately tutoring students while living in the grounds. In March 1819 Richard’s father wrote to his son requesting his return to Ireland, to occupy the vacant seat of vicar in the parish of Trim, Co. Meath.  Dr. Butler had himself been appointed to the position by the Bishop of Meath, Thomas O’Beirne, but had to give it up on the grounds of his health. His letter was in the nature of a command and obliged Richard to leave England; ‘now let no false delicacy prevent you implicitly following my directions, if you do, you will make me more miserable than I am now’.[iii]

The Glebe, Trim.

Early Trim Life, Marriage and the Edgeworths.

The newly ordained Richard Butler arrived in Trim in 1819 and succeeded the Rev. William Elliot who had ministered to the town of Trim for thirty nine years previously.  Richard took up residence in The Glebe, the large vicarage of Trim, which was in a bad state of disrepair. The whole roof needed replacing along with other major restorations. Money was granted for the rejuvenation of the house, after Richard appealed to the Bishop with claims that he had to hand his guests umbrellas at the foot of the stairway.  The town of Trim itself was pleasantly situated on the banks of the River Boyne. There were about 3.000 Catholics and 600 Protestants residing in the town.  The Protestant population, though smaller was wealthier and more affluent.

Richard quickly established good relations with local inhabitants, including the parish priest, Fr. Clarke, whom he befriended for over eighteen years, until the latter’s death in 1837. Richard’s curate was Rev James Hamilton, uncle of the famous Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the noted mathematician and astronomer. The two struck up a lasting friendship, and many pleasant evenings, before Richard’s marriage, were spent in Hamilton’s residence, St Mary’s Abbey, being entertained by the elderly curate. Richard’s brother Edward came to visit often and helped with the repairs of the house. The brothers frequently fished in the nearby Boyne River. Richard’s friend Bishop O’Beirne resided nearby at Ardbraccan House near Navan and on many occasions Richard rode on horseback the nine miles to visit him. Occasionally he walked there and stayed the night before returning the following morning.

These relationships helped Richard settle into Trim life, but he sorely missed the intellectual stimulation and friends from his days at Oxford. He was often lonely in his damp, rambling home and turned increasingly to the comfort of the literary world, consuming books at a great pace. He also began what would become a lifelong hobby, his study of Trim’s history and geography. As time went by, he derived great pleasure from the letters of friends and he became more and more active in Trim life. Richard had a long standing connection with the Edgeworth family of Co. Longford.  Richard Lovell Edgeworth was an old friend of Dr Richard Butler, the former having married four times and fathered twenty two children in all. Richard had visited their house several times, one memorable occasion was when he was invited to visit and meet the famous author Sir Walter Scott in 1826.  After renewing his acquaintance with the Edgeworths during his early years in Trim, he met the family more often. He became very friendly with the two sisters, Maria and Harriet, in particular. He fell in love with Harriet, and they got married in August 1826.  Maria records her feeling about the event in a letter to a friend; ‘my curly haired little sister is now the happy wife of a gentleman suited to her in every respect… I do like him.’[iv]

Harriet was the second born of Richard Edgeworth’s fourth wife, Frances Beaufort.  Born in 1801, she was highly intelligent, and the pair were well suited.  She had an independent spirit, she was an enthusiastic carpenter and busied herself with repairing and improving the Glebe almost straight away.  Harriet and Richard had no children but they adopted the three children of Harriet’s sister, Sophia Fox, in 1836, when she died. In a letter to Cosmo Innes, an Oxford friend, Richard says ‘my house is, however no longer silent and solitary- the three little Fox children fill it with life and noise, and I love to hear their young laughing voices ringing about me.[v]

Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was a close friend and companion to the household from the time of their marriage.  Although she was thirty four years older than Harriet, the two step-sisters got on well and Maria was a frequent guest at Trim.  Richard and herself were intellectually compatible, and spent many hours talking and discussing ideas, although they were not always in agreement.  Richard wrote about Maria that ‘having her here is like having sunshine constantly around you.[vi]

His many interests.

Richard Butler loved books, ‘He read everything… divinity, classics, travels, history, antiquities and poetry’.[vii]  He was rarely seen in the evening without a book in his hand, and had a well cared for and extensive library at The Glebe.  Dean Butler’s friend, Cosmo Innes, who was Professor of Scottish History in Edinburgh, regularly sent him complimentary copies of his many books.  In the letters which they exchanged he mentions other books he has been reading; George Borrow’s  Lavengro, ‘very clever, very unsatisfactory and above all very impudent, but it tells truths and suggests thoughts’. Alison’s History of Europe during the French Revolution, “I think more highly of it than I did.’ Acts of the Scottish Parliament, ‘The book is so large that I am obliged to read it lying on mouth and nose on the sofa’.[viii] Unfortunately there is no record of this library and it would appear that the books were dispersed by Harriet after his death.

Title page to third edition of Notices of the Castle and of the Ecclesiastical Buildings of Trim

During his lifetime Richard made many detailed studies of life around him.  He compiled many of these studies into booklets and several became books. He is best remembered for his works on the historical sites and buildings of Trim.  Among his larger works is, Notices of the Castle and of the Ecclesiastical Buildings of Trim.[ix] A man who shunned the limelight, Richard, printed the book anonymously in 1836. In 1835 a printer, W. H. Griffith, settled in Trim and gave a fresh impetus to his research. In March he published an anthology of Poems, Religious and Moral, the first book to be printed in Trim.[x]

Richard was a dedicated collector of coins during his years in Trim, and by the time of his death had amassed over 400.[xi] It was during the harvest season that many relics of the past were discovered in the earth and he asked locals to look out for old coins, for which he would pay them a small reward. As a result his house was often visited by small boys clutching specimens. He got to know the nearby historical and archaeological sites and was particularly interested in Newtown Abbey, where he found a range of previously undiscovered tiles, much to his delight. During the 1840s he was busily occupied in editing and translating several of the Anglo-Norman and Latin Annals for the Irish Archaeological Society.[xii]

Trim Model School

In April 1846 Fr. O’Connell and Rev. Richard Butler made an application for a grant for the erection of a model school.  A site of two acres was obtained on a lease for 75 years on an annual rent of 4s 6d (22 ½ p.). In 1848 the National Model School was founded in Trim and after its completion and opening, Dean Butler gave religious instruction to the boys and girls who attended, almost every day for the rest of his life. From the first, John O’Connell, the Catholic parish priest, and his curates were as much interested in the Model School as Dean Butler was.  The school was therefore managed jointly by both clergymen for the benefit of the whole community.[xiii]

Butler had great civic spirit and he took several steps to improve life for the general public.  The first was his support for the Goulburn Act in 1823 which divided the tithes of the land between the landlords and the tenants.  To Butler this appeared the fairer way to deal with tithes and he successfully stamped out stirrings of opposition to paying tithes in 1833. The second was the taking out of the Commission of Peace for Meath. The highlight of his political life was his election of Portrieve of Trim (which is the equivalent of Mayor), in 1823, He firmly opposed the Repeal of the Union but eventually accepted the inevitability of Catholic Emancipation. He was regarded as having liberal views, as he mixed with Catholics and the poor and was an educator with a far sighted vision. A few of his contemporaries resented this but for the most part he was appreciated for his modern thinking.  He said himself, ‘although my views may be mistaken, my intentions are good’.[xiv]

Later Trim Life

Richard developed a regular routine to his day. He rose at around seven o’ clock, would walk around the garden with his faithful servant, Reilly, and discuss what needed to be done during the day. He would then breakfast, read any correspondence received before setting off with his two dogs through the churchyard, stopping on the way to visit the sick or elderly of the parish. He was a daily visitor to the local hospital and jail.  He particularly cared about those who became ill as a result of the fever and he would urge them to attend the new Fever Hospital for which he laid the foundation stone in 1838 along with his young nieces. He was often called upon to read prayers to the Church of Ireland sick, and no Catholic invalid ever objected to his prayers.  He read the letters of emigrants to illiterate parishioners. He had grown to care deeply for Trim over the years and had turned down many offers to move to other districts.

In 1831 there was a bad case of cholera in Trim and thirty people died. Butler had observed the spread of the disease and was able to protect the town in a way by issuing precautions to citizens. He wrote in 1831 ‘At present we are very busy about the cholera we are removing dung hills, and preparing to white wash houses.’[xv] The Famine years did not hit the Trim district as hard as others further west and south but the potato crop failed partially in 1845 and wholly in 1846. Butler’s notes, recorded that in 1853, the produce of one rood from a field near Rathnally weighted only 22 lbs. A Relief Committee was set up in 1847 and it seemed to have functioned efficiently. The following spring he wrote, ‘If God gives the potato again, we shall do well.  How I scorn the idiots that exulted in their failure’.[xvi]

Richard was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1842 and was on the Council of the Irish Archaeological Society. He was awarded the title of Dean of Clonmacnoise in 1848.  In 1858 he was obliged to take on a curate because he was no longer able to run the parish single handed.  He disliked having to give over a section of his responsibilities, although his new curate, Mr. Weatherall, was very competent. In the spring of 1858 he became a semi-invalid after suffering a heart attack.  He resented his lack of mobility, but performed some of his religious duties from a bath chair. He was forced to give up the writing of letters, which he loved, but continued to communicate with his many friends through dictating to Harriet. In April 1860 the Dean was deprived of all powers of speech and movement as he was affected by paralysis.  On the 17 July 1862 Richard Butler died in the Trim Rectory, where he had just completed his forty third year as vicar of Trim.[xvii]

The Dean’s Clock


The average Church of Ireland clergyman in the first half of the nineteenth century was a personage of no little importance, especially in a parish of some substance.  We might be surprised at the number or areas in which he was interested and worked; religious, social, antiquarian, natural history – but his income, his social standing and his connections by marriage with members of the local gentry facilitated such interests.  He was assisted by a curate for much of his time as vicar of Trim; his family home was well run, his wife ensuring he had time for his pursuits.

His time as Vicar of Trim encompassed important events in Irish history and in these he was by no means uninvolved.  In a very interesting publication privately printed in 1828 Butler addresses the Roman Catholic inhabitants of Trim about (from his point of view) the vexed question of Catholic Emancipation.  He had been living in Trim for nine years at that stage and claimed to have a very civil relationship with its Roman Catholic inhabitants.  At this stage, he was very much in favour of maintaining the status quo (out of interest he would claim for the betterment of the Roman Catholics).  His address (moderate and civil) is nonetheless from a late twentieth century point of view patronising in his attempt to speak to them as if they were children in need of paternal guidance.  He can quite ably twist an argument in an attempt to prove his point while ignoring the obvious injustice and disallowing a substantial proportion of the population of their rights.[xviii] His wife in her memoirs claims that this letter did not affect his relationship with the Catholic clergymen of the town – but one wonders.[xix]

A second letter dated 1831, again privately published, claims at the beginning that he was glad that Emancipation was granted – but that as he had foretold it had made no difference to the populace.  This time he wishes to persuade the Catholic inhabitants that they should not seek repeal and not be lead astray by people like Daniel O’Connell – who he would claim was seeking self-glorification.  In his letter on 1831 he writes to the Catholics of Trim; ‘I tell you that if it had not been for the violence of Mr O’Connell, and of men like him, Emancipation would have been granted long ago…[xx] It does not appear that he wrote to the Catholic inhabitants of Trim again – but however he was involved in all aspects of Trim life – in the work-house and Trim gaol attendance- in efforts to prevent the spread of cholera which would have necessitated his involvement with the Catholic population.  He was by no means a bigot and for his times remarkable in his care and concern for all the people of Trim.

Looking back on his long life it could be fairly said I believe that he gave willingly, lovingly and generously to the town he made his home.  He contributed to its buildings – its knowledge and its pride.  For his epitaph no words seem more suitable than his own (written in 1825 to Cosmo Innes);

‘Yet Trim is and is to be my home and Trim churchyard will be my burying place.  I like the place and the people, and I could not be insensible to the regard of the people for me, and in short, I have resolved to stay.’[xxi]

The author, Martina Quinn, is originally from Galway and now lives in Trim where she runs a Montessori school.

Photographs: Noel French

[i] Conwell, E.A. A Ramble Round Trim, (Dublin, 1878).

[ii] Leslie, J.B. Ossory Clergy and Parishes, (Enniskillen, 1933).

[iii] Butler, Harriet, A Memoir of the Very Rev. Richard Butler, Dean of Clonmacnoise and Vicar of Trim, by his Widow;  (Private circulation) (Edinburgh, 1863), (hereafter Butler, Memoir).

[iv] Ellison, C.C. ‘Richard Butler, Vicar of Trim 1819-62’ in The Meath Diocesan Magazine, Sept. 1962, p. 5.

[v] Butler, Memoir p. 93.

[vi] Butler, Memoir p. 100.

[vii] Butler, Memoir pp 61-2.

[viii] Butler, Memoir pp. 143, 156-7.

[ix] Butler, Richard. Some Notices of the Castle and of some of the Ecclesiastical Buildings of Trim, compiled from various authorities. (Trim, 1836).

[x] Cotton, Henry. A Typographical Gazeteer Attempted, second series, (Oxford, 1866) pp 231-2.

[xi] Royal Irish Academy, Proceedings. 10 Nov. 1862: presentation of coins etc. from the cabinet of the late Very Rev. Richard Butler, by Mrs. Butler. Vol. 8, p. 219.

[xii] O Suilleabháin, Sean. Longford Authors: a biographical and bibliographical dictionary. (Mullingar, 1978) pp 18-19.

[xiii] Walsh, Lorcan. ‘The Trim Model Schools’ in Irish Educational Studies, 1985, pp 261-82.

[xiv] Butler, Richard. A letter to the Roman Catholics of the Parish of Trim on the Repeal of the Union. (Dublin, 1831).

[xv] Cusack, Danny The Great Famine in Co. Meath (Navan, 1996) p. 35.

[xvi] Butler, Memoir, p. 144.

[xvii] ‘Obituary of the Very Rev. Richard Butler’ in The Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser, 26 July 1862.

[xviii] Butler, Richard. A letter to the Roman Catholics of the Parish of Trim on Catholic Emancipation. (Dublin, 1828)

[xix] Butler, Memoir, pp 63-4.

[xx] Butler, Richard. A letter to the Roman Catholics of the Parish of Trim on the Repeal of the Union. (Dublin, 1831)

[xxi] Butler, Memoir, p. 47.