Wednesday 23 October 2019

David Ryan: 'The rake's progress: Buck Whaley's lesson for today'

Thomas 'Buck' Whaley was a reckless gambler with ups and downs that still resonate more than 200 years on, writes David Ryan

Adventurer: Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley
Adventurer: Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley

For many readers, the name Buck Whaley will bring to mind a certain nightclub on Leeson Street in Dublin. Until it closed its doors for the last time a few years ago, Buck Whaley's was the scene of many a late-night ruckus, sometimes headline-grabbing.

This is actually quite appropriate given its madcap namesake: a rake and gambler who embarked on one of the greatest adventures in history.

Born in Dublin in 1765, Thomas 'Buck' Whaley was a daring and eccentric character, well-known for his hare-brained schemes and reckless gambling. Most famously, at the age of 22 he set out on a hazardous journey to Jerusalem on the back of a £15,000 wager.

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An engraving of the execution of Louis XVI
An engraving of the execution of Louis XVI

At the time, very few people would have contemplated travelling to the Middle East, and going to Jerusalem was almost unheard of: you might as well have proposed a trip to the South Pole. Whaley's track record did not inspire confidence and almost no one believed a man like him could pull off the expedition. But he proved them wrong.

Setting out in September 1788, Whaley travelled via Gibraltar, Smyrna (Izmir), Constantinople (Istanbul), and Acre, finally reaching Jerusalem five months later. In the course of his journey he was nearly shipwrecked in the Sea of Crete, almost killed by plague in Constantinople, waylaid by bandits in the Holy Land, and encountered a fearsome Arab warlord known as ''the Butcher''. Somehow surviving these perils, he returned triumphantly to Dublin in July 1789.

But this was as good as it got for the young man and in the next few years he racked up huge gambling losses and spiralled downwards into debt and poverty.

Fleeing to the Continent to evade his creditors, during the height of the French Revolution he found himself in Paris, where he came up with a crazy plan to rescue the French king from the guillotine. He also attempted to ascend Mont Blanc but was nearly killed in a rockfall.

Eventually he fled to the Isle of Man to escape his debts, and when he died aged 34 he had blown £400,000 (equal to around €100m today) ''without ever purchasing or acquiring contentment or one hour's true happiness''.

Whaley described his journey to Jerusalem, which won him £15,000, as ''the only instance in all my life before, in which any of my schemes turned out to my advantage''. Apart from that, virtually every bet he made ended in disaster.

To name but a few, he lost £14,800 in Lyons in 1784, £8,400 in Newmarket in 1790 and £26,000 in London in 1791. For most of his life Whaley suffered from classic gamblers' syndrome: terrified of suffering another horrendous loss, he played on in hopes of a windfall that would make good his losses. It was not to be, and by the time of his death in 1800 he had obliterated a huge family fortune, squandering estates in Dublin, Carlow and Armagh.

One of the things that makes Whaley's story so intriguing is that it is so timeless, and relevant even today. In many ways, he resembles the fictional hero Sinbad the Sailor. In The Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad undertakes seven voyages and in each he goes from prosperity to poverty and back again to prosperity. Whaley repeated the same cycle many times over the course of his life. While still a teenager, he headed off to France on his grand tour but caught syphilis from a prostitute and lost thousands of pounds gambling.

He recovered his health and wealth on his return to Ireland, but then proceeded to squander his inheritance.

The great Jerusalem wager and expedition followed, and its success brought him money, fame and adulation. But over the ensuing years he gambled heavily again and lost almost everything, winding up in London's Bridewell prison. This was followed by a desperate period of debt evasion on the Isle of Man until something happened to jolt him into wisdom and self-awareness and in his final years he managed to turn many things to his advantage.

There may be a lesson here for us today, if we think about the trajectory of Ireland's fortunes in recent years. Emerging from economic stagnation in the 20th Century, we attained unprecedented economic growth during the Celtic Tiger years, only for it all to come crashing down with the bust of 2008.

Now, more than 10 years later, the country is again enjoying prosperity, but will it prove to be as short-lived as Buck Whaley's? I hesitate to invoke Brexit, but who knows what's going to happen in the next few weeks...

  • 'Buck Whaley: Ireland's Greatest Adventurer' by David Ryan is published by Merrion Press

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