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The Irish Khan of Merv

Edmund O'Donovan / Location : Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Print CollectionOne of the more curious episodes of the Great Game played out in Central Asia between Britain and Russia concerned an Irishman named Edmund O'Donovan. With a colourful background including involvement in underground Irish revolutionary movements and a spell in the French Foreign Legion, O'Donovan found himself in the region as a special correspondent of the London Daily News. Arriving at Geok Depe in 1881, he found the place in the throes of Russian attack. Determined not to be tardy for battle again, he set out for Merv, reasoning that this was likely to be the Russians' next major target.

When O'Donovan eventually reached Merv, he found not the mythical city of shining domes, but 'some wretched hovels'. He was led to a tent, which immediately became packed out with curious Turkmens, many of whom seemed to have made up their mind that the stranger was a Russian spy. He was held under 'tent arrest' until a letter was eventually received from the British consular agent in Mashhad, confirming his identity. Thereafter, his position gradually improved. The Turkmen leaders evidently felt that, with O'Donovan around, they might be able to secure military support from the British against the advancing Russians. They thus determined both to keep him in Merv, and to accord him progressively greater status. This process culminated in the two local hereditary leaders installing him as the Supreme Ruler of Merv. The people, he was told, had accepted British rule, and looked to him for guidance.

O'Donovan found, however, that life as Supreme Ruler was anything but comfortable. His tent filled at mealtimes with hungry visitors. He acquired a reputation as a physician, and attempted to rid himself of the milling crowds of patients by prescribing everyone dandelion juice. Newborn babies were brought to him, their parents having accorded him the honour of naming their child O'Donovan Beg. He was never given any peace. And his position was fraught with potential dangers. The arrival of bundles of newspapers, sent to him from Tehran, caused some difficulties, as the people of Merv assumed they were currency notes of great value. They were only persuaded otherwise by witnessing what O'Donovan did with the newspapers after reading them.

O'Donovan only managed to escape from his 'subjects' by engineering a letter from the British Minister in Tehran, requesting that he be sent to Persia immediately to make a full report. The people of Merv believed that he would return to them, bringing British support against the Russians. But he was never to do so. His travels next took him to the Sudan, where he lost his life accompanying the expedition against the Mahdi.