‘Liberator of Bulgaria’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the journalist Januarius Aloysius MacGahan
Januarius Aloysius MacGahan: one of the most influential journalists of the 19th century
A plain granite monument in a cemetery in New Lexington in Perry County, Ohio, bears the inscription “MacGahan – Liberator of Bulgaria”. It stands over the grave of an Irish-American who became one of the most influential journalists of the 19th century.
Januarius Aloysius MacGahan was born near New Lexington 175 years ago on June 12, 1844, to a Co Derry man who had been a sailor on the ship that had taken Napoleon to St Helena and had later emigrated to America with his second wife Esther Dempsey, who was of Irish descent.
As a youth, he was mentored by Gen Philip Sheridan, of Co Cavan stock, who was also brought up in Perry County and was, according to some accounts, a cousin.
Acting on Sheridan’s advice to broaden his experience, he travelled to Europe in June 1868, and spent two years travelling and learning languages.
In July 1870, as he was out of funds and about to return home, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and Sheridan, who had arrived in Paris as an observer for the American War Department, introduced him to journalists in his entourage.
His ability to speak French helped him to source his own stories, and soon he was employed directly by James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric editor of the New York Herald. When the war ended in January 1871 with the defeat of France, Paris was in chaos and he barely escaped execution during the subsequent brief regime of the Paris Commune.
In 1872 he covered the Third Carlist War in Spain for the Herald but it was an initiative in 1873 that established him as an outstanding reporter.
When the tsar of Russia decided to extend his control of Central Asia by seizing the khanate of Khiva, journalists were forbidden to go to the area but MacGahan disobeyed and travelled 600 miles on horseback from St Petersburg in time to observe its capture. The Russians were so impressed by his audacity that they allowed him to report unmolested.
He penned vivid dispatches about the slaughter of up to 30,000 people, and his reports are disturbing to read, even today
In 1875, Bennett financed an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage between the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and MacGahan was sent along to cover it, but the attempt failed and he returned to Europe.
Early in 1876, when the two men quarrelled about his possible involvement in a second attempt at finding the Passage, he resigned from the Herald and joined the London Daily News.
This paper sent him to Bulgaria, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to investigate stories of atrocities being committed by the exotically named but cruel and undisciplined Bashi Bozouks or “Crazy Heads”, Turkish mercenaries employed to crush Bulgarian nationalists after a failed revolt in April.
During the following months, with the assistance of Eugene Schuyler, the American consul-general in Constantinople, he penned vivid dispatches about the slaughter of up to 30,000 people, and his reports are disturbing to read, even today, because, as he wrote, “certain things are too horrible to allow anything like calm enquiry, things the vileness of which the eye refuses to look upon and which the mind refuses to contemplate”.
During the communist era, Bulgaria played down his role but last year the Sophia government gave him posthumously the Order of the Golden Laurel Bough
At the time, the great issue in European politics was the “Eastern Question”, which centred on the fear that the balance of power on the continent would be disturbed if Russia took advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain was an ally of the Ottoman Empire and MacGahan’s reports weren’t welcomed by prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, but when the Liberal leader William Gladstone used the journalist’s work for a pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, that sold 200,000 copies, public opinion turned strongly against the Turks. As a result, when Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24th, 1877, Britain remained neutral because of what Disraeli described as “the state of public feeling”.
Meanwhile, MacGahan was fortunate that he had become friendly with the Russian commander Mikhail Skobelev when they were both in Khiva and he was embedded with the army and able to cover every battle. He was also present at the signing of the treaty of San Stefano on March 3rd, 1878, which ended the war and granted most of Bulgaria, which had been under Turkish rule for 500 years, the status of an autonomous principality.
Two months later, he contracted typhus in Constantinople and died. A career which has often been compared with that of Tallaght-born William Howard Russell, the famous war correspondent of the London Times, had only lasted seven years.
In 1884, the American government repatriated his remains at the request of the Ohio legislature, and each June he is remembered in New Lexington.
During the communist era, Bulgaria played down his role but last year the Sophia government gave him posthumously the Order of the Golden Laurel Bough, the highest award of its foreign ministry.
Aloysius is a familiar enough name to Irish people of a certain vintage. But Januarius? His parents James and Esther were married in 1841 on September 19th, the feast of that fourth-century martyr. Not surprisingly, he was generally known as Jan.