By Rev. Thomas Ambrose Butler
161 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2010

Father Butler was pastor of St. James Church in St. Louis from 1878-1884. Born in 1837 in Ireland, he experienced the famine, became a priest in 1864 and migrated to rural Kansas in 1867. While serving a parish of Irish immigrants in Kansas he wrote a great deal of poetry and published his rather interesting volume in 1874. In 1875 he went to St. Louis to try to attract more Irish settlers to Kansas and returned there with some 60 or more settlers two years later.

In 1878 he returned to St. Louis and in that same year became the pastor of St. James and St. Malachy’s. Later he also served a newly settled area of St. Louis in a mission church and in 1882 he founded a parish there, St. Cronan’s. He left both St. James and St. Malachy’s and settled for the rest of his life at St. Cronan’s. He died in 1897, just 60 years of age.

His book of poetry and another non-fiction book on Irish immigrants in Kansas have become important historical documents.

I was first attracted to his poetry simply because he was the pastor for 6 years at St. James, where I was born and raised, albeit, about 70 years after he was pastor of St. James. I found a copy of his book of poetry, THE IRISH ON THE PRARIES AND OTHER POEMS and discovered the tremendous complexity of his personality. That led me to study his life and his poetry to try to get a better understanding of who this man was and how he thought and acted.

In general I think immigrants might be described as in two major categories or focuses:

The first are those who leave their homeland, normally because there are difficulties in living a quality life there, and, while always somewhat nostalgic for the homeland, they adopt the new land and move on to become citizens of that land.

There are others, like Father Butler, who leave home for much the same reasons as the first group, but see themselves as “in exile” and are wanting and ready to return home, even to fight for a better life in the homeland if that seems more possible in the future.

These folks may even LIKE the new land of exile, and certainly Fr. Butler has much to say in praise of the U.S., especially its freedom and possibility of having a decent material life, yet their real life’s focus is on the old country.

Not much seems known about Fr. Butler’s life from about 1884 until his death in 1897, but in the earlier 17 years from his arrival in the U.S. until becoming pastor at St. Cronan’s, Fr. Butler’s focus was much more on the return to Ireland than on adapting to and embracing his new country.

Three sorts of themes dominate in his major long poem, The Irish on the Prairies,

  1. A highly idealized view of life in rural Ireland, contrasted with the harshest view of life on the prairies of Kansas.
  2. The encouragement of young Irish men to be ready to return on a moment’s notice to Ireland to participate in the freeing of Ireland from England when the right moment for military action arrived.
  3. He loves the freedom and opportunity in the U.S., but detests the cultural emphasis on wealth and the seeking of wealth as opposed to the simple life of the village, family and church which he sees as Ireland’s great virtue.

In his major poem he writes:

My children! we fled from the famine -- the evil that tyranny made,
And exiles o'er seas and the prairies in search of some happiness stray'd.
We found it afar from Old Ireland; -- but often I think, with a sigh,
Far better to live in "the Old Land," -- far better in Erin to die!
To live on a little contented, -- to manfully struggle awhile,
To go to the grave of my fathers, and sleep in the Sanctified Isle.
Far sweeter to follow old customs, and live like our fathers of old,
Than wander a stranger midst peoples, and die in the struggle for gold!

Then later he contrasts the two lands:

My children! -- the home of my fathers -- the spot where my being began
The scenes of my youthful affection -- how fair to the vision of man!
The cot on the hill, midst the hedges, whose walls were as white as the snow
The valleys, with vesture of verdure, where silvery rivulets flow
The meadows, where "butter-cups" mingle with "daisies" at birth of the May,
The woods, where the black-birds are piping their notes through the length of the day,
The mountains, in majesty standing, as sentinels guarding the vales,
With brows that are furrow'd by streamlets, and wrinkl'd by wintery gales!

Out here on the beautiful prairies the scene is delightfully grand,
For signs of the richest fertility cover the face of the land,
And waves of the brightest of verdure are rolling forever amain,
When Winter releases the meadows, and lifts up his garb from the plain.
But sameness of scene is before us; for Nature, though lavish of stores,
Bestow'd not the gift of variety found on "the Emerald shores."
But far through the boundless dominions a prairie, or forest, appears,
As changeless in form as the ocean that roll'd through the thousands of years.

Around on "the Settlement" gazing, the Exile can never behold
A scene to remind him of Erin -- a home like his fathers of old
The hedges of hawthorn and sallow -- the furze, with its yellowish flow'r
The trees that are standing majestic, by hillock and cottage and bower.
Ah, no! We have left them forever, and rude are the dwellings we see
The huts of the logs of the forests, of branches of many a tree,
And rough are the fences surrounding the confines of many a home.
O! naught like the hedges of Ireland we find wheresoever we roam!

And later on he continues:

What sports we enjoy'd in the meadows, when labor had ceas'd for the day
What joy and excitement apparent, when "hurlers" prepared for their play!
What lively emotions, as onward the strugglers to victory sped!
Ah ! where are the friends of my boyhood? I sigh for the years that have fled.
I sigh! for my wealth cannot purchase such joy as I felt long ago
The peace of the poorest of peasants -- the calm that the rich never know.
I sigh on the breast of the prairies, and pray that kind Heaven may smile
On homes and the hearts of my people who dwell in the Emerald Isle.

Alas! I can never recall them -- the scenes 'neath the shadowing trees
The light-hearted "Piper," whose music arose on the wings of the breeze;
The men and the maidens who joyously join'd in the dance on "the Green,"
And danc'd till the sun-light departed, and darkness came down on the scene.
But hold! I will sing you a ditty-a song of the Dance in the Glen!
To lilt a sweet air of my country will cheer up my spirits again.
So stir the red-logs and be silent, or join in the chorus with me;
We'll joyfully sing of the customs of father-land over the sea.

He is especially interested to contrast his idealized view of the Irish village church, to the near impossibility of people even getting to church in the Kansas winter:

But here, in the wilds of the prairies, the Sunday no joyousness brings
No heart, like a lark in the morning, with feeling of happiness sings;
No dawning of hope with the daybreak to souls that are panting with love,
That thirst for a drop from the fountains that spring in the Kingdom above.
No music of bells from a distance -- no crowds of "parishioners" pass,
And offer a glad salutation as onward they haste to "the Mass;
Or come with us back from the chapel, and sit for awhile in our cot,
Ah, friends still at home in Old Ireland! how sadly I envy your lot!

And then later he complains about the lack of such community in Kansas:

No crowds in the shades of the chapel -- no little ones running around;
No tombs midst the trees in the valley to tell of the sanctified ground;
No "Soggarth" like him whom we honored as "father" in Erin of old,
Whose voice on the altar was pleasant as ring of the purest of gold!
'Tis true that we honor our Pastors, whatever the land of their birth,
'Tis true that we worship our Maker wherever His temple on earth;
But O! what a joy to the Irish -- to exiles what heavenly boon!
To hear in the church on the prairies the voice of their "Soggarth aroon!"

No fount with its water so holy is found in the Winter-time there,
For sprinkling the brow ere the worshipper enters the temple of prayer.
No "spring" on the hill-side is bubbling -- no "wells" that are blest can be seen,
Like those that are holy in Ireland, and sprinkle her garment of green
The "wells" where the pilgrims are halting and sad ones are seeking relief,
Where sick ones are freed from their troubles, and curd by the strength of belief
By faith such as faith is in Erin -- the faith that no pow'r could destroy
That lives in the hearts of our people, and lights the lone cabin with joy!

In another poem, Exodus, he reveals his interest in taking his newly formed Irish American Brigade back to Ireland to fight for its freedom:

They are leaving home for ever; and the fondest kindred sever
And the light of joy shall never brightly beam upon their breast;
Though the freeman’s flag is o’er them, and a life of peace before them,
Yet the mother fond who bore them sighs with sorrow in the West.

Let them go may Heaven speed them! be a blessed lot decreed them;
But if Ireland e’er shall need them, may they hasten o’er the sea
May the loving hearts that slumbered, by the weight of grief encumbered,
Beat for Erin’s woes unnumbered, to return and set her free!

In the poem: Irish American Brigade he celebrates the Brigade’s willingness to fight for the new land of America, but reveals that the real issue at heart is to see them return home to fight:

To guard “The Stripes and Stars”
They hasten’d to the wars,
For they love the land that gave the Irish aid,
And in the days of yore
Bade us “welcome“ to this shore.
So we’ll aid her with our gallant new Brigade —
New Brigade
So we’ll aid her with our gallant new Brigade.

Followed shortly by:

O! may the day yet come
When trumpets, fife, and drum
Shall sound a joyous anthem through each glade;
A welcome back again
To our brave, our banish’d men —
To the soldiers of our gallant new Brigade —
New Brigade!
To the soldiers of our gallant new Brigade.

Butler’s book of poetry is certainly worth a read, first and foremost simply as decent and interesting poetry. Secondly, it is an insight into the complexity of consciousness of this man of faith, both loving his new land, yet pining deeply for the suffering and potential freedom of his native land.

Bob Corbett


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