Our man in Bulgaria – An Irishman’s Diary on James Bourchier
Limerick-born James Bourchier was at the 1919 Paris peace conference, arguing on behalf of Bulgaria which, as a belligerent, was not entitled to a seat at the talks
The artist William Orpen was the only Irishman to attend the post-first World War Paris peace conference 100 years ago, in an official capacity. But there were unofficial Irish present in Paris, there to lobby representatives of the victors for various causes, and one of them was a Limerick native, the journalist James D Bourchier.
Bourchier, from Bruff, was not reporting, but arguing on behalf of Bulgaria which, as a belligerent, was not entitled to a seat at the talks.
How an Irish-born journalist ended up representing Bulgaria, however unofficially, began in 1888, when Bourchier travelled to Bulgaria in order to report on events in Bulgaria and the Eastern Balkans for the Times of London.
Bourchier was born to an Anglo-Irish and Huguenot family. He was educated in Trinity College Dublin, and subsequently became a very unhappy school teacher at Eton. He escaped Eton and ended up reporting from Sofia and the Balkans.
His career was eventful. He covered wars and insurrections in Crete, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Romania and Macedonia.
Of the statesmen who were his sources,18 met violent deaths, while four kings abdicated.
He also wrote on Greek and classical archaeology and covered the first modern Olympic games.
He learned Bulgarian, and relished rural life; there are paintings in the national gallery in Sofia which purport to show Bourchier in Bulgarian peasant attire, dancing in small cabins in the mountains.
By the time he became a champion of Bulgaria, the British ambassador was telling the Foreign Office in London that Bourchier had gone native.
After the war he retired from the Times, with which he had a fraught relationship, as the management felt his relationship with Bulgaria was too close.
Bulgarians nursed a huge sense of grievance. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the Russian-Turkish war of 1878, Bulgaria was enlarged with the addition of Macedonia, which was everything Bulgarian nationalists could have wished for. However, that did not last long as the Treaty of San Stefano was ripped up when Britain and France felt that such generosity would give too much influence to Bulgaria’s ally, Russia, and so another treaty, the Treaty of Berlin, reduced Bulgaria to its pre-war size.
That grievance meant Bulgaria allied itself with Germany in 1914, but Bourchier maintained it was only because Germany was willing to restore much of what it believed it lost 38 years earlier.
At the war’s end Bourchier arrived in Paris to represent Bulgaria as an unofficial representative. He argued with whomever would listen to him that had the Allies offered the Bulgarians what, he maintained, was rightly theirs, Bulgaria would not have joined the Central Powers. It was a matter of justice and freedom for a people, he maintained, who were ethnic Bulgarians, but had never been allowed to live together as Bulgarians, except for a brief period. In a letter to the Times in January 1919, he wrote that the question being dealt with at the peace conference was one of “ethnography, not rewards and punishments, and since it was so, Bulgaria’s rightful claims to Macedonia, were not to be disregarded”.
His role at the Paris Peace Conference has been compared to that of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), in that both were lone voices arguing for something no one was interested in anymore.
He died in December 1920. A day of mourning was declared in Bulgaria, and he was buried close to the beautiful Rila Monastery.
Whenever he visited Ireland he stayed in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, where his mother’s family came from. The essayist Hubert Butler recalls seeing Bourchier in 1919, after he had left Paris. Of his intervention in the peace talks, Butler wrote that in the violent passions aroused by the war there was little scope for his calm, well-intentioned intervention. Bourchier, Butler continued: “put all his gifts of imagination and understanding at the service of Bulgaria; he played no part in Irish politics. I say this with regret because I think in his own country he could have exercised a great and good influence where it was badly needed”.
Bourchier is still remembered in Bulgaria. There is a Bourchier Boulevard, a set of stamps was once issued in his name, a bust stands in the national gallery, and recently a metro station was named after him. For a number of years he was remembered by this country when the then-ambassador to Bulgaria, Geoffrey Keating, organised an annual event that included laying a wreath at Bourchier’s grave in the forest in the mountains outside Rila.