Foolhardy Buck – Frank McNally on a new book about ‘Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer’, Thomas Whaley

In the prologue of his very entertaining new book on the subject, David Ryan asks "why should we care" about the life of Thomas Whaley, better known as "Buck", and described in the subtitle as "Ireland's greatest adventurer".

To the general reader, “care” might indeed be pitching it a bit high for a reckless gambler, who in a few short years squandered the vast fortune into which he was born, and seems to have cared about little himself, except staying ahead of his debtors, a task that defeated him in the end.

As with a certain fictional character of his era, except not in a good way, nothing became Whaley’s life like the manner of his leaving it. That happened in late 1800, a fateful year in Irish history, during which he had enjoyed one of his more successful bets: each-way, on the Act of Union.

As an MP in the Irish Parliament, he was a target for bribery from both sides. So first he accepted £4,000 (the same price he had paid for his seat) to vote against the union, after being "absolutely bought by the opposition stock purse".

The purchase was not final, however, because he then accepted another £4,000 to vote yes.

Thereby gaining a break from his creditors, he soon afterwards left for London, but never got there: his rootless life ending in mysterious circumstances near Liverpool. He was 34.

Insofar as his career can be justified by modern standards, it was as a pioneering traveller, and indeed travel writer, although he wasn’t especially talented at that.

His greatest escapade was a trip to Jerusalem in 1788, a time when the journey was much more difficult and dangerous than today. It started as a joke, then became an enormous bet.

Getting there and back within the prescribed period made his fame and, for a while, shored up his fortune.

It also persuaded him to write a travel memoir (unpublished in his lifetime), although when he suggests, for example, that on his first glimpse of the holy city, “the emotions that took possession of my heart beggar all the eloquence of language”, you suspect the deficit, of emotion or vocabulary, may have been all his own.

On the other hand he appears to have been genuinely horrified, and with good reason, when on another foreign trip soon afterwards, he was treated to a close-up view of the French Revolution. He had travelled to Paris in late 1792, despite the risks, to liberate a large sum of money that, for once, was owed to him.

While there, he briefly entertained a madcap plan to rescue King Louis VI. Instead of which, he fled the execution scene to a coffee house, where his writings record the aftermath – including the arrival of a blood-smeared “savage”, bearing a soaked handkerchief and some of the king’s hair – with the immediacy of a Twitter feed, viz:

“He has now cut the handkerchief in small pieces and is sharing it with the other bloodhounds [and] I have been forced to partake of some of the hair...The rascal [...] is an Englishman [and says] that everyone near the scaffold painted their faces as he did...Oh my lord, what a scene of horror is this town.”

Whaley might himself have died in Paris, which was also the scene of one of his duels.

Or at least it would have been the scene, had a troop of soldiers not arrived to arrest him, forcing the Dubliner’s hasty retreat.

But a decade earlier, back home in the Phoenix Park, there had been no such escape.

As Ryan writes, that duel arose from a “road rage” incident 1786-style.

Whaley’s carriage had been overtaken dangerously at Chapelizod, resulting in a near collision. First words were exchanged, but later the same day–- after a failed attempt at arbitration– it was pistols in the Park.

Whaley’s shot missed, his rival’s didn’t, lodging in the former’s thigh. Still, they shook hands afterwards, honour secured.

Another calamity to befall him, literally, was the rock slide that ended an ill-judged attempt to climb Mont Blanc: an adventure embarked upon, in the words of one more experienced alpinist, as if in expectation of a “pleasure trip”.

Courage was not among the things Whaley lacked. A sense of purpose, and sense generally, were. Despite working his way through £100 million in today’s values, he lamented never having acquired “one hour’s true happiness”. Ryan suggests it was his struggle with “deep human frailties” that makes Whaley’s life appealing. And whether we care about it or not, it’s a rollicking story.