Hidden in a private library in Istanbul is an extraordinary 300-page manuscript: an unpublished account of an Irishman’s trip to Jerusalem in 1789. His name was Buck Whaley, and a new biography reveals his incredible story.
He was the rake and the mad gambler who made it to Jerusalem thanks to a bet of £ 15,000. Born in Dublin in 1765, Thomas “Buck” Whaley inherited an immense fortune and extensive land holdings in three counties. A rake and a spendthrift, he was infamous for his mindless schemes and reckless bets, which usually resulted in huge losses. He himself believed that his adventure in Jerusalem was “the only time in my entire life … where one of my plans turned out to my advantage.”
Over 200 years later, Whaley is still remembered as one of the most extraordinary and eccentric figures in Irish history: he even had a nightclub named after him on Leeson Street in Dublin. But what exactly happened during his 10-month odyssey in Jerusalem and back? For a long time, all we had to do was his autobiography, published posthumously in 1906 under the title Buck Whaley’s Memoirs. The memoirs tell the story of Whaley’s travels, but are strewn with bias and exaggeration. But now a fascinating independent account of the Jerusalem expedition has resurfaced in Istanbul.
This long-forgotten manuscript was buried for centuries in obscure family archives until it was auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 2013 and purchased by Turkish billionaire and philanthropist Ömer M Koç. This is a 300-page journal kept by Whaley’s traveling companion, Captain Hugh Moore, who designed it “simply as a pastime.[p]s at sea, to dispel the many heavy hours of boredom, to which I must, without a job of this kind, have been subjected … I have no idea that it ever appears more publicly than in the small circle of my most special friends ”. However, the journal is now poised to reach a much larger audience than Moore intended, as this is a key source in my new book. Buck Whaley: Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer chronicles Whaley’s many adventures during his and Moore’s journey to Jerusalem: his near-death from fever in Constantinople, his robbery by bandits in the Holy Land, and his encounter with a warlord. ruthless known as “the Butcher”.
Excerpts from Moore’s diary offer some of the story’s most spellbinding moments. Here, for example, is his description of a storm that nearly wrecked their ship in the Cretan Sea: candles… The total darkness of the night… was only interrupted by the continual strings of lightning that illuminated the sea. horizon, and our knowledge of our situation, considerably increased our apprehensions; almost surrounded by islands and low rocks that would only stand out when the flash of lightning lit the water ”. Venturing out onto the bridge, he “has never seen anything equal to the scene of horror and confusion …
Surviving this peril and many others, Whaley and Moore successfully completed the expedition and upon Whaley’s triumphant return to Dublin in July 1789 he overnight became a celebrity in Ireland and Britain. . But it was just as good as that for the intrepid adventurer known as “the pilgrim from Jerusalem.” In the years that followed, a sad tale of dissipation unfolded, with Whaley losing tens of thousands at the gaming tables and fleeing to Paris to escape his creditors. Yet his adventurous spirit remained intact. He attempted to climb Mont Blanc but was almost killed in a landslide, before returning to Paris in time to witness the worst excesses of the French Revolution. With the dethroned king, Louis XVI, condemned to be guillotined, Whaley devised a plan to save him which presumably ended in failure. He eventually returned to Ireland, but was once again forced to flee his debts and ended up on the Isle of Man. When he died at the age of 34 in 1800, he had squandered an astronomical £ 400,000 (around 100 million euros in today’s money) “without ever buying or acquiring any contentment or an hour of true happiness” .
And yet he left a powerful legacy. Today, at least for those of us who live in first world countries, foreign travel is generally sterile and uninspiring. For Whaley and the adventurers of the past, traveling was a far more complicated and dangerous business. For him, this involved long days at sea at the mercy of storms and pirates, grueling land voyages, and makeshift accommodation in any shed or roadside stable that could be provided for this purpose. Through his experiences, compellingly recounted in Moore’s journal, we get a sense of what long-distance travel used to be, long before the era of online booking.
In my research, I consulted not only Whaley’s memoirs and Moore’s journal, but also many other sources, including hundreds of unpublished letters. Now, for the first time, my book tells the true story of Buck Whaley.
Buck Whaley: Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer by David Ryan is published by Merrion Press