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Burke / Bourke

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The history of the energetic Burke family is complex and widespread. William de Burgh (called William the Conqueror by Irish annalists and wrongly described as William Fitzadelm de Burgo) was the progenitor of the Burkes in Ireland and brother of Hubert de Burgh, "the most powerful man in England next to King John". These brothers claimed ancestry directly from Charlemange. William came to Ireland in about 1185 and was made Governor of Limerick and succeeded Strongbow as Chief Governor. He consolidated his social position by marrying a daughter of Donal Mor O Brien, King of Thomond (now the area around Shannon airport). He set out to conquer Connacht and after much massacre and pillaging he overcame the reigning O Conors. According to the annals "he died of a singular disease too horrible to write down". He was buried c. 1205 in Athassel Abbey which he had founded. William's son, Richard (c. 1193 - 1243), Viceroy of Ireland and Lord of Connacht and Trim in County Meath, despite his continual assaults on the O Conor kings of Connacht, married an O Conor daughter. It is said that he founded the city of Galway. Certainly he built himself a fine house there between Lough Corrib and the Atlantic Ocean. His eldest son, Walter (d. 1272), acquired the Earldom of Ulster through marriage with a daughter of Hugh de Lacy. He fortified his Ulster territory with many castles which still enliven the coast in counties Donegal, Down and Antrim. It was he who built the amazing Dunluce Castle near Portrush in County Antrim which was used in succeeding centuries by the MacQuillans and the MacDonnells. From Walter, 1st Earl of Ulster, descend the Burkes of Limerick and Tipperary.

Burke (Bourke, de Burgh), gaelicised as de Burca, is much the most numerous of the Hiberno-Norman surnames. It is estimated that there are some 19,000 people of the name in Ireland today: with its variant Bourke it comes fourteenth in the list of commonest names. Sir John Davis said in 1606: "There are more able men of the surname of Bourke than of any name whatsoever in Europe". Having regard to the large number of Burkes, or Bourkes, now living - the figure 19,000, given above, must be multiplied several times to include emigrants of Irish stock to America and elsewhere - it is hardly possible that they all stem from the one ancestor (the name, it may be remarked, is not found in England except in families of Irish background); nevertheless, even if several different Burkes came to Ireland in the wake of Strongbow, it is the one great family, mentioned above, which has been so prominent in Irish history. The Burkes became more completely hibernicised than any other Norman family. They adopted Brehon Law and proclaimed themselves chiefs after the Irish fashion, forming, indeed, several septs of which the two most important were known as MacWilliam Uachtar (Galway) and MacWilliam Iochtar (Mayo). Minor branches became MacDavie, MacGibbon, MacHugo, MacRedmond and MacSeoinin. Of these the name Mac Seoinin is extant in Counties Mayo and Galway as Jennings, and MacGibbon as Gibbons. As late as 1518, when the City of the Tribes was still hostile to its Gaelic neighbours and the order was made that "neither O nor Mac should strut or swagger through the streets of Galway", a more specific instruction was issued forbidding the citizens to admit into their houses "Burkes, MacWilliams, Kelly or any other sept".

Lacking a male heir, the title of Ulster went from the de Burgos to the royal family of England when Elizabeth de Burgo, Countess of Ulster (d. 1363), an only child, married Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the third son of the Yorkist king of England, Edward II. Lionel became Earl of Ulster, a title still used by the royal family. The Burkes saw to it that no Duke of Clarence, Earl of Ulster or not, would get hold of their Connacht territory. In fact they had grabbed it from the native O Flahertys, having driven them from Galway city. They leased some land back to the O Flahertys, but, as no rent seemed to be forthcoming, a Burke was sent to collect it at the O Flaherty headquarters at the magnificent Aughanure Castle in Oughterard. They were enjoying a banquet and he was invited to join them. During the feasting he mentioned the rent. Immediately, an O Flaherty pressed a concealed flagstone which hurled Burke into the river. They cut off his head and sent it back to the Burke stronghold, describing it as "O Flaherty's rent".

Bernard Burke (1814 - 92) and his father John Burke (1787 - 1848) were genealogists and publishers of a succession of weighty volumes containing the pedigree of the British and Irish aristocracy, including Burke's Peerage which became known as "the stud book of humanity". Bernard Burke was Ulster King of Arms at the Genealogical Office in Dublin Castle, precursor of the present day Chief Herald. Of his own name, Sir Bernard wrote: "The family of de Burgh, de Burgo, or Bourke (as at different times written), Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, ranks amongst the most distinguished in the Kingdom, and deduces an uninterrupted line of powerful nobles from the Conquest. John, Earl of Comyn, and Baron of Tonsburgh, in Normandy (whose descent has been deduced from Charlemagne), being general of the King's forces, and governor of his chief towns, assumed thence the surname of de Burgh. The family of de Burgh, or Burke, has, since the reigns of Henry III and Edward I, been esteemed one of the most opulent and powerful of the Anglo- Norman settlers in Ireland, under Strongbow. It held, by conquest and regal grant, whole territories in the counties Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Tipperary, and Limerick; and so extended were its possessions, that its very cadets became persons of wealth, and were founders of distinguished houses themselves." This extract from Burke's Peerage 1876 sets the scene for a Norman family which was to become highly influential in Ireland.

  Richard Burke, known as Richard an Iarainn (of the iron), possibly because of the iron mines on his Burrishoole lands, was the second husband of Grania O Malley the pirate queen, one of the outstanding Irish women of the Elizabethan age. Their son, "Theobald of the ships", was born at sea just before his mother fended off marauding Turkish pirates. Theobald was taken hostage by the English and brought up to the English point of view. Like his mother, he knew how to play both sides, and when he failed to be elected to the leadership of the Burkes of Mayo, he returned to England. He fought on the English side in 1601 at the decisive battle of Kinsale. He was created 1st Viscount Mayo in 1627 by Charles I - a title which lasted only until 1767. The de Burgos had long since sprouted new family branches. Like the Irish, they appointed chieftains over their separate territories. The most prominent County Galway Burke family was that of the chiefs of Clanricarde. In 1543, Ulick de Burgo had submitted to Henry VIII who created him Earl of Clanricarde. In the seventeenth century, to prevent their lands from being confiscated by the followers of William of Orange, they changed from Catholicism to Protestantism, as did many of the neighbouring families. The Clanricardes built a fine castle at Portumna which was inherited by Viscount Lascelles, the husband of Princess Mary, only daughter of George V. It came to him from a great uncle, the last Marquess of Clanricarde (d. 1916), an eccentric who lived in miserly squalor in rooms in London. In Mayo, the most significant de Burgh families are the Viscounts Mayo and the Lords Mayo (and Barons Naas). In successive generations they have been politicians, bishops, priests and statesmen at home and abroad.

Of the many Burkes who took service with continental powers after the defeat of James II, none was more distinguished than Toby Bourke (c. 1674-c. 1734), whose connection was with Spain. Raymond Bourke (1773-1847), a peer of France descended from the Mayo Burkes, accompanied Wolfe Tone to Ireland in the 1798 expedition and later became a famous Napoleonic commander. Several other Bourkes or Burkes distinguished themselves in the army of France.

One of the greatest statesmen of his day, Edmund Burke (1729 - 97), was born in Dublin. A political writer and a powerful orator, while a Member of Parliament in Britain at the time of the French Revolution he exhorted diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Nor was he afraid to say that British stupidity had lost America and would lose Ireland. Although far from wealthy, when he was Privy Counsellor he reduced his own salary by three-quarters! His book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was considered enormously important all over Europe. In one of his orations he said "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded". His only son, Richard Burke (1758-1794), was agent of the Catholic Committee.

Dr. Thomas Burke (1705-1776), was Dominican Bishop of Ossory and author of Hibernica Dominicana.

Walter Hussey Burgh, statesman and orator, was born in Kildare in 1742. He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. It was said of him, "No modern speaker approaches him in power of stirring the passions".

Contemporary with Walter, there was William Burgh of Kilkenny. He went into politics in England where he bravely advocated the abolition of the slave trade and vigorously opposed the Union which he saw would tie the Irish government even more tightly to England. He lived in York, England, for many years and left his library to York Minster.

William Burke (1792 - 1829) of Cork was hanged as a notorious criminal. With his fellow-countryman, Hare, he lured strangers into his Edinburgh lodging house, made them drunk, suffocated them and sold their bodies for dissection. His awful work gave a new word to the English language - "to burke" - meaning to suffocate.

Robert O Hara Burke (1820 - 61) of St Cleran's, Craughwell, County Galway, was of the Clanricarde Burkes. He served in the Austrian army as a captain, and later joined the Australian police as an inspector. He and his companion, W.J. Wills, were the first white men to cross Australia from south to north. Their expedition was far from well planned and, on the return journey in 1861, they both died from starvation after they had covered 3,700 miles by foot and on camel back. A film of their tragic adventure, Burke and Wills, was made in Australia in 1986.

Richard Southwell Bourke (1822 - 1872), 6th Earl of Mayo and also Lord Naas, was Chief Secretary for Ireland during the Fenian risings. In 1869, aged only 46, Disraeli appointed him Viceroy of India. He was regarded as being "One of the ablest administrators that ever ruled India". While on a visit to a penal settlement in the Andaman Islands he was assassinated.

Canon Ulick Bourke (1829 - 87) was from County Mayo. He was one of the first and most influential of the Irish language revivalists.

Thomas Henry Burke (1829 - 82) of Galway, while under-secretary at Dublin Castle, was walking in Phoenix Park with the newly-arrived Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, on Sunday, 6 May 1882, when they were knifed to death by terrorists styling themselves "Invincibles".

Great numbers of Burkes, many of them lawyers, went to America. Aedanus Burke (1742 - 1802) of Galway went to Virginia where his law studies led to his appointment as judge. He was the first Senator to represent South Carolina at Congress. A man at cross-purposes with himself, he believed in slavery and in democracy. During the French Revolution he wrote widely disseminated pamphlets advocating the abolition of all titles of nobility. He has been nicely described in the Dictionary of American Biography as "an irascible man leavened with Irish wit".

Thomas Burke (c. 1747 - 83), an aristocratic Galway man, prospered in law and politics in North Carolina where he called his estate Tyaquin after the family seat in Galway. He organised the US army in its fight for independence so thoroughly that the British kidnapped him, but he escaped. Burke County, North Carolina, is named after him.

John Daly Burke (c. 1775 - 1808) added Daly to his name in gratitude to a Miss Daly who aided him, as a political refugee, to escape to America in 1796. In Boston he struggled unsuccessfully with newspaper publishing. Success came when he found a dramatic formula which suited the nationalism of his time by writing a play with a battle scene depicting Bunker Hill. The play had long runs in Boston and New York. He was killed in a duel by a Frenchman with whom he had quarrelled.

John Gregory Bourke (1826 - 96) of Philadelphia was over-intensively educated by his parents who had emigrated from Galway. He ran away to join the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry and made a career in the army. He also studied the customs of the Indian tribes and was recognised as a reliable and scientific ethnologist.

Stevenson Burke (1826 - 1904), son of Ulster Scottish-Irish immigrants, was a lawyer who prospered in the nineteenth-century boom. He owned mines and railroads and conducted many important legal cases in Cleveland. He was the founder of the Cleveland School of Art.

Thomas Nicholas Burke (1830 - 83), a Dominican, preached throughout the United States of America in the mid-nineteenth century and, although his goals were chiefly Irish political ones, he was able to donate £100,000 to charities in America. Thomas Burke (1849 - 1925), born in New York of Irish parents, was a self-made lawyer. He practised in Washington DC for fifty years where, it was said, "his career was synonymous with Washington's history". He expanded trade to China and Japan and organised the railroads to the Pacific, and so became a leading citizen of Seattle, Washington State.

Many Bourkes went to Australia, including Sir Richard Bourke (1777 - 1855), a relative of the great Edmund Burke with whom he stayed in London as a student. Following a military career, he retired to Thornfield, his family estate near Limerick. The Colonial 06ice tempted him away with a political - military post in Cape Colony, where he demonstrated an enlightened attitude towards the Kafirs. In 1828 he was appointed Governor of New South Wales. It was a period of great economic growth and exhausting controversies. Although o6ered a number of other high colonial appointments, he resigned in 1838.

John Burke (1842 - 1919) and John Edward Burke (1871 - 1947) were from a Kinsale family who sailed on the emigrant ship Erin go Bragh to Queensland. With their many Burke children they were very much to the fore as shipmasters and shipowners in Australia.

Perhaps the strength of the powerful, well-recorded Burke presence in Ireland can best be demonstrated by the physical mark they have left on the island, where they built 16 abbeys and 62 castles in County Mayo and 121 castles in County Galway, and left at least 38 variations of the de Burgo - Burke - Bourke name!

The versatile Burkes display a diversity of aptitudes: from William de Burgh, "the conqueror of Ireland", progenitor of the Burkes in Ireland, to Martha Jane Burke (1852 - 1903) of the Wild West known as "Calamity Jane"; from the internationally acclaimed photographer, Margaret Bourke White, born in New York in 1906, and back home to "the gentle rock star", Chris de Burgh, grandson of General Sir Eric de Burgh of Bargy Castle, County Wexford.

In 1990, Ireland elected its first woman President, Mrs Mary Robinson. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, she is a distinguished lawyer. She was born in County Mayo where her father, a Bourke, is a medical doctor.


The Heraldry of the Burkes is well documented and there is a long list of coats of arms associated with the name. The following is regarded as the most ancient and is the coat of arms for the entire sept.

Arms: Or a cross gules, in the dexter canton a lion rampant sable.

Crest: A cat-a-mountain sejant guardant proper collared and chained or.

Motto: Ung roy, ung foy, ung loy (though the language is a little strange, the motto means "one king, one faith, one law").