Article Honors James Bourchier, Irish Friend of Bulgaria
By Frank McDonald, Irish Times
On an aptly damp day in the Rila mountains southwest of Sofia, with the tall trees all around us dripping wet, we stood at the grave of James Bourchier on a hill just above the spectacular fortress monastery of Rila as Geoffrey Keating, Ireland’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, reminded us why we were there.
Bourchier, from Anglo-Irish stock in Bruff, Co Limerick, was the London Times correspondent in the Balkans and became the staunchest and most faithful friend Bulgaria ever had, in the words of his biographer, Lady Elinor Grogan. When he died in Sofia in 1920, he was given the kind of send-off that few journalists ever get.
His body lay in state in the splendid St Alexander Nevski cathedral, built in the late 19th century in memory of (as an inscription outside says) the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid down their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire.
Bourchier was no ordinary journalist, but a champion of Bulgaria’s cause even after it sided with Germany in the first World War. He was a confidant of King Boris III and the country’s unofficial representative at the peace conference in Paris; it was Boris who consented to the old Portora boy’s wish to be buried at the ancient Rila monastery.
Interestingly, he had been a contemporary of Oscar Wilde at Portora Royal School, near Enniskillen, between 1865 and 1870. Afterwards, Bourchier went to Trinity College Dublin, where he won a gold medal in classics, and this led him to King’s College, Cambridge, where he again excelled in Latin and Greek, winning seventh place in his class.
For 10 years, he taught at Eton where he felt fettered and trammelled by the conventions, according to his biographer. He was also hard of hearing, which made the job more difficult. Writing for periodicals offered relief from school life and gave Bourchier a taste for journalism. But it was a chance meeting in Vienna that sealed his future career.
As my former colleague Michael Foley has written, Bourchier ran into another old Etonian, the Times correspondent in Vienna, who later asked if he was free to cover a peasant uprising in Romania, and then go to Bulgaria which was in a state of turmoil following a war, a coup by military officers, and the forced abdication of Prince Alexander.
During his first three years in the Balkans, he was freelance, offering pieces to the Times and to other reviews and journals. He wrote a long series on Bulgaria for the Fortnightly Review , which shows that it was the scenery that first attracted him, but it was not long before he became an expert on the politics of the region.
He travelled all over the Balkan peninsula, making his first contacts with the insurgents seeking the independence of Crete, a cause he would also champion. He visited monasteries, and the remoter parts of Bulgaria, often living with peasants, eating their food and living in their homes, giving him a unique insight into the people and the place.
Four kings he knew had to abdicate and, of the rulers and statesmen who were often his sources of information, 18 met violent deaths, Foley recalled. Bourchier also wrote with great authority on the archaeology of Greece and the classical world, and is credited with popularising interest in ancient Greece through his articles in the Times .
Ireland has few historical associations with Bulgaria, so when Geoffrey Keating became our ambassador there in 2005 he played the Bourchier card by organising an annual pilgrimage to his grave. After all, Sofia has its own James Bourchier Boulevard; on it, you can find the Bulgarian Red Cross, two university faculties and the Kempinski Hotel.
Before laying a green, white and orange bouquet on the limestone slab of Bourchier’s grave, the ambassador lamented that his adopted hero had been identified as English in one newspaper report that morning. But then, Bourchier used to describe himself as English as he travelled around the Balkans; perhaps it was easier to explain.
His love for the heavily-wooded mountains of Bulgaria inspired Keating to do something many other ambassadors might consider subversive – join up with two campaigning organisations, the Green Balkans Federation and Citizens for Rila, in sponsoring a James Bourchier award for the best environmental journalism in Bulgaria.
The environment can be a touchy subject, especially if it gets in the way of someone making money from tourism projects, for example. As Neli Arabadjieva, of Green Balkans, told a symposium at the Irish embassy, a shadowy figure pointed a submachinegun at some of its activists and threats were made to burn down its headquarters.
Thugs in SUVs would turn up outside our offices, she recalled. That happened after Green Balkans had taken court actions to halt projects it saw as damaging to ecological areas. In one case, a mountain resort in an area of glacial moraine was so overdeveloped that the river burst its banks and fish were swimming through the main street.
Green Balkans have been active in defending Rila nature reserve against development pressures, although the abbot (who attended the Bourchier wreath-laying ceremony and later gave us tea) thinks they go too far in objecting to small-scale hydroelectric projects in the area. One wonders if the man from Bruff would have agreed with him.
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