The original ‘Bunga Bunga’ — Frank McNally on an eccentric Corkman’s notorious prank

Horace de Vere Cole’s band of pranksters included Virginia Woolf

Decades before the late Silvio Berlusconi gave it renewed popularity in these pages, strange to say, the term “bunga bunga” had already made its debut in The Irish Times.

The chief instigator on the first occasion was a rich eccentric from Cork, Horace de Vere Cole. And there were no sexual undertones to the phrase back then. It purported instead to be a polite Ethiopian expression, meaning “very nice”. As which, it featured in an infamous hoax of 1910.

Aged 29 at the time, Cole must have been cut from similar cloth as the Rakes of Mallow, although he was born somewhat south of there, in Ballincollig.

His father was English, his mother one of the Anglo-Irish De Veres of poetic renown. He spent much of his youth at his mother’s estate in Galway, mixing with the Lady Gregory set and inhaling the Celtic Revival.


His fondness for England, where he also inherited property and spent much of his adult years, was nothing he would later declare “like the feeling I have for Ireland.”

But another of his life-long loves was for the practical joke, often very elaborate and typically poking fun at authority. Hence the “Dreadnought Hoax” of 1910, a prank of questionable taste even then, although a resounding success for its perpetrators and a great embarrassment to the Royal Navy.

Launched four years earlier, the HMS Dreadnought was Britain’s newest and finest battleship of the period.

It could be no surprise that in 1910, a visiting delegation of princes from Abyssinia should ask for a tour of it. Or indeed that such a group should have been visiting England in the first place. It was the height of Empire then. The world beat a path to London.

So the ship’s commander received a telegram from the Foreign Office urging him to afford the usual civilities. And the group was duly and ceremonially welcomed on board.

But the supposed princely entourage in fact comprised Cole and a few of his old Cambridge university friends, several in hired costumes and blacked-up faces. Under which flimsy disguise, they were shown the ships’ guns, torpedos, radio room, etc, while murmuring “Bunga bunga” repeatedly in impressed approval.

This schoolboy prank might be long forgotten by now except that the schoolboys included a girl, Virginia Woolf. Not yet a novelist then, she would go on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

And part of the price for her continuing fame today is a new book, published just before Christmas. The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax, by Danell Jones, revisits the 1910 escapade but puts Woolf centre-stage - or in the dock - for the racism, elitism, and other sins inherent in it.

Another of Cole’s pranks may have aged better than that one did. An Irish joke in more ways than one, it involved him and his friends dressing as Navvies and digging a trench in London’s Picadilly Circus. He happily paid for the repairs afterwards, as was his wont.

He was already notorious for such things by the 1920s. So it was a unnecessary gift to a man of his outlook then that he also came to bear a striking resemblance the UK’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.

He was sometimes mistaken for MacDonald while seeming to rail against his own policies in public. But via his sister Annie, Cole was also the brother-in-law of a future Conservative prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain once suggested his in-law “must be a little mad”.

Cole’s pranks do not appear to have resulted in anything worse than temporary arrest or fine. Some might have had more serious results, however, including one that peripherally involved a fellow Corkman.

In 1918, Cole had married a volatile heiress named Denise Daly, descended from the Lynches of Galway, whose money he would soon lose on bad investments. They spent part of their failed marriage at an estate in that county, Raford, which was raided (although not burned) during the War of Independence by the IRA.

Cole took shelter afterwards in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel where, in a 1931 interview, he claimed to have apprehended an English spy “for his own good” and sent him back to London with a message that he had been caught in person by Michael Collins.

Two days later, the story continued, Cole was accosted in his hotel room by two Black and Tans eager to claim the £5,000 award for a dead or alive Collins and proposing to shoot him there and then.

His protestations of mistaken identity were not at first believed. Then “I produced some whiskey and succeeded by lavish hospitality in reducing the men to a helpless state,” he claimed a decade later. “They staggered away saying that I was a jolly good fellow even if I was Michael Collins, and anyway, what was £5,000 to them.”