Saturday 20 April 2019

Biography of Buck Whaley - who gambled away the family millions - is a rollicking read

Biography: Buck Whaley: Ireland's Greatest Adventurer

David Ryan

Merrion Press, paperback, 272 pages, €19.60

Chancer: Whaley famously took a wager that he could make it from Dublin to Jerusalem and back within in year
Chancer: Whaley famously took a wager that he could make it from Dublin to Jerusalem and back within in year
Chancer: Whaley famously took a wager that he could make it from Dublin to Jerusalem and back within a year
Buck Whaley
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

For several generations of revellers, Buck Whaley's was a popular Dublin nightclub until it was sold in 2017. It was also one of those clubs which frequently saw celebrities behaving badly and, given the origins of the club's name, that was entirely appropriate.

We have a long tradition of wanderers, reprobates and general ne'er do wells from this country going abroad and causing mayhem.

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Whether it be the life and times of Wexford man William Lamport, who would go on to be the inspiration for Zorro, or the numerous Wild Geese who found themselves working as revolutionaries all over the world, we have a history of larger-than-life figures who made their own mark on the world - for better or worse.

Thomas 'Buck' Whaley deserves to be included near the top of that list, even though he has largely fallen out of public consciousness these days.

Thanks to David Ryan's tremendously researched and snappily written Buck Whaley - Ireland's Greatest Adventurer, the memory of this grossly irresponsible yet strangely appealing chancer may be reintroduced, although given his spectacularly dissolute behaviour, it's unlikely that his reputation could ever actually be rehabilitated.

To say that Thomas Whaley was a bit of a boyo is to put it mildly.

Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in Dublin in 1765, Whaley was destined for the easy life of the landed gentry.

Set to inherit vast estates dotted across Dublin, Carlow and Armagh, the young Whaley, indulged by a doting mother and kindly stepfather, proceeded to live a life that genuinely would not be believed if it was presented as fiction.

In fact, fiction has, in its own way, erased much of the man's actual legacy - he has been hailed in some circles as the inspiration for both Barry Lyndon and Phileas Fogg and when you consider his greatest achievement, such recognition was hardly surprising.

That achievement was the legendary wager that he could make it from Dublin to Jerusalem and back within the year - or maybe two years, or maybe 18 months.

As with most things involving Whaley, the finer details remain murky. But what remains beyond doubt is that the 22-year-old, already struggling with massive gambling debts, made a joke about heading to the then-mysterious city and, in typical style, then decided to plunge headlong into the perilous venture.

The story of Whaley's time in the Middle East quickly became the stuff of legend.

Then, as now, Jerusalem was the centre of fierce jockeying for power, and while the controlling Ottoman Empire was beginning to creak at the seams, this was a dangerous time, and place, for any Westerner.

As the author points out, travelling to Jerusalem at the time was almost like travelling to the South Pole - few people recommended it and even fewer attempted.

But as one would expect from a man who, throughout the course of his life would gamble away the equivalent of €100m in today's money, he relished taking on insurmountable odds.

The journey to and from Jerusalem reads like a work of fiction, and when it comes to anything Whaley said, it's always best to approach with caution.

But through corroborated reports, we learn that he nearly died in a shipwreck near Crete, almost succumbed to the plague - the one thing that terrified him the most - in Constantinople and, in some of the most fascinating passages in this book, met with a fearsome Ottoman warlord, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazaar, known as 'the butcher', who spent his time boasting about his empire and how the English, French and Russians would rue the day they tried to colonise the Levant.

As it happened, while Whaley was disgusted by the behaviour and the boasts of 'the butcher', the warlord would become the first man to beat Napoleon on the field of battle 10 years later.

It was this foolhardy yet successful jaunt to the Holy Land that made Whaley famous but he would never find happiness. If nothing else, his wild enthusiasm for gambling wasn't matched by any skill and he was routinely ripped off by cheats and sharks - and seems to have spent most of his adult life on the run from either the law or criminals, and even found himself in a debtors' prison in London.

There were horrors in his life, not least, as Ryan recounts, the time he was forced to watch his travelling companions being raped by French vagabonds. But apart from that and his generally appalling treatment of women, most of Thomas Whaley - Ireland's Greatest Adventurer consists of ripping yarns and tales of derring-do.

It's also remarkable how much of Whaley's life seems so familiar to us today, more than two centuries after his death. Apart from the predictably similar tensions in the Middle East, his first foreign foray, the so-called 'Grand Tour' reads like a typically gilded gap year for modern rich kids, while his first duel - he would contest two - took place in the Phoenix Park in 1786 following, of all things, a road-rage incident in Chapelizod when he objected to be overtaken by another carriage.

By the time he died at the age of 34, he had found some degree of peace in his life, although even the details of his death were shrouded in legend.

Thankfully, unlike his subject, author Ryan is a most reliable narrator, and Thomas Whaley is a thoroughly enjoyable and, dare one say, a rollicking good read.

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