Buck Whaley: drinking, dissipation and destruction

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), News, Volume 15

WHALEY, Thomas (‘Buck’) (1766–1800), politician and rake, was born on 15 December 1766, son of Richard Chapel Whaley, a wealthy landowner and notorious priest-hunter of Whaley Abbey, Co. Wicklow, and his second wife Anne, daughter of Revd Bernard Ward. On his father’s death in 1769 Thomas—the second, but eldest surviving, son—succeeded to his father’s estates, worth about £7,000 a year. Educated in Dublin until he was 16, he was then sent to France in an attempt to curb his profligacy. Already a gambler and libertine, Whaley cut a swathe through Parisian life before returning to Ireland, where he continued with his reckless lifestyle. Entering the Irish House of Commons, he was MP for Newcastle, Co. Dublin (1785–90), but had little interest in politics. Instead he was more concerned with being a young ‘buck’, dedicating his life to drinking, dissipation and destruction.
On 1 July 1786 his sister Anne married John Fitzgibbon, later earl of Clare and lord chancellor. This proved to be a useful connection, although Fitzgibbon was often frustrated by Whaley’s eccentricities and violent behaviour. In 1788 Whaley made a famous wager to travel to Jerusalem and back within a year; it seems that the story of his playing handball against the walls of the city was a subsequent embroidering of the legend. Leaving Dublin on 29 September 1788, Whaley returned to Ireland in July 1789, collecting his £15,000, and was greeted with bonfires to celebrate his success. His triumph was recorded in the popular song ‘Round the world for sport’, and he was thereafter sometimes known as ‘Jerusalem’ Whaley. In late 1789 he visited revolutionary France and was seduced by the opportunities for high living. Selling part of his estate in Dublin, he wasted his remaining money, and often resorted to cheating at cards.
With the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, Whaley decided to leave the country. He ended up in a debtors’ prison in London, from which he unsuccessfully attempted to escape. Once again his luck held and he was rescued by Lord Clare, who purchased his release in 1793. Whaley later claimed that he had squandered a fortune of £400,000 in his lifetime, ‘without one hour’s true happiness’. Reduced to his last £5,000, he resolved to recover his fortune at the gambling table, but lost everything. He retired in penury to the Isle of Man, where he began to write his memoirs, which were only published posthumously in 1906; in these he claimed that he was telling his story as a warning to other young men, insisting in his defence that ‘my extraordinary levities proceeded, not from a corrupted heart, but an eccentric and exalted imagination and ridiculous pretensions to notoriety’.
Returning to Ireland in 1798, he purchased a seat in parliament as MP for Enniscorthy. Present during the debates on the proposed legislative union, he supported the measure in January 1799 before offering his vote to the highest bidder. Opposing the union in 1800, he switched sides a second time and ended his parliamentary career on the side of the government. In January 1800 he married Mary Catherine Lawless, sister of Valentine Lawless, Lord Cloncurry. He had two sons and one daughter from a previous relationship, and these were raised by his widow after his death.
He died on 2 November 1800 at the George Inn at Knutsford, in Cheshire, while travelling to London. Although the newspapers of the day attributed his death to a rheumatic fever, there were rumours that he was stabbed by a woman after she and her sister had quarrelled over him. At his funeral it was said that a Mr Robinson, an Irishman, danced a hornpipe over the coffin. Whatever the truth of these stories, they reflect the feverish excitement and myth-making that usually accompanied Whaley. Cloncurry later described him as ‘a perfect specimen of the Irish gentleman of the olden time’. Whaley himself insisted that he had been ‘born with high passions, a lively imagination, and a spirit that could brook no restraint’.

Patrick M. Geogheghan is a former editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography and now lectures in history at Trinity College, Dublin.

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