The Burke Family

Burke family crest

(Crest No. 8. Plate 67.)

The Burke family is of Norman origin, and, with the Butlers and Fitzgeralds, is ranked with the most distinguished of the Norman-Irish. The ancestor of the Irish Burkes was William Fitz-Aldelm de Burgo, who accompanied King Henry the Second to Ireland as his steward, in 1171. The family was related by blood to that of William the Conqueror. Two of them, Robert de Burgo and William, his half-brother, were with him at the invasion of England, and the former was afterward created Earl of Cornwall.

Burke family crest

(Crest No. 11. Plate 69.)

In the reign of King John the Burkes obtained large possessions in Connaught through the rivalry and quarrels of the O’Connors. Becoming powerful, they subsequently renounced their allegiance to the kings of England, and adopted the Irish language, dress, and customs, and compelled all the other families of Norman origin in Connaught to do likewise. Two of them proclaimed themselves Irish chiefs—Mac William Eighter, or the Lower, whose territory comprised the six baronies of Loughreagh, Dunkellin, Killartan, Clare, Athenry, and Leitrim and MacWilliam Oughter, or the Upper, which embraced the greater portion of the present County of Mayo. Other branches of the family settled in the Counties of Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary.

Sir Theobald Bourke, a distinguished officer in the Elizabethan wars, was created a peer by King Charles the First in 1627. His descendant, Walter Bourke, sat in the Dublin Parliament of 1689, and raised a regiment of infantry, which he commanded at the Boyne and at Aughrim. At the latter engagement he held the key to the Irish position, and defended it so tenaciously that of his regiment only himself and fifty-two men survived. The Burkes contributed between seventy and eighty commissioned officers to the army of King James the Second, many of whom passed into France after the capitulation of Limerick. Colonel Walter Bourke, already mentioned, served with distinction under Marshal de Catinat in the army of Italy, and in 1697 commanded his regiment in the campaign of the Rhine. In 1701 he fought at Chiari, in 1702 at Luzzara, and in 1703 at Vittoria and San Benedetto. As brigadier, and subsequently as major-general, he served in Italy and Spain through several campaigns.

Other representatives of this family were officers in the Regiments of Dublin, Albemarle, Dillon, Berwick, Lally, and Walsh. One of these, Michael Bourke, who attained the rank of brigadier-general, was at the battles of Luzzara, Cassano, Turin, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet and several other battles and sieges.

Many members of this family acquired distinction also in literature and statecraft. Edmund Burke, “one of the greatest of the sons of men,” was a descendant of this illustrious family. Yet, in replying to Onslow, whose father and grandfather had been speakers of Parliament, he refers rather modestly to his ancestry: “I am not descended from members of Parliament, nor am I descended from any distinguished character whatsoever; my father left me nothing in the world but good principles, good instruction, good example.” It is universally conceded that as a political philosopher, an exponent of latent principles, an analyst of human nature and an orator and statesman, Edmund Burke is not second to any other man of either ancient or modern times.

John Burke, the celebrated genealogist, planned with his son, the late Sir Bernard Burke, the genealogical and heraldic dictionaries of the peerage and family history of Great Britain and Ireland. The works of the Burkes are considered standard authorities on the subject.

John Burke, historian, dramatist, and journalist, born in Ireland and educated in Trinity College, Dublin, came to the United States in 1796 and settled in Petersburg, Va. He wrote a history of Virginia in three volumes and several works on Ireland. He was killed in a duel, consequent on a political dispute, in 1808.

Thomas Burke, a distinguished writer and patriot during the American Revolutionary War, was born in Galway, Ireland, in 1747, and after coming to America settled in Virginia, where he practiced law. He was present at the battle of Brandywine, and served in Congress from 1776 to 1781. In the latter year he was elected governor of North Carolina, and bore a principal part in the formation of the constitution of that State. Taken prisoner by the royalists, he broke his parole, returned home, and resumed his office. He died in 1783, aged thirty-six.

Robert O’Hara Burke, the celebrated Australian explorer, was also a native of Galway, where he was born in 1821. He was educated in Belgium, served in the Austrian army, and after emigrating to Australia became inspector of the Melbourne police. In 1858 he crossed the Australian continent, an enterprise never previously undertaken. Leaving Melbourne, he reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, a distance of 1,550 miles through an unexplored region, and died on the return journey, July, 1861, of exhaustion and lack of provisions. The body was found by a relief expedition, and buried in Melbourne, where a monument has been erected to his memory in one of the principal streets of the city.

Many members of this family were also distinguished ecclesiastics. Thomas Burke, Bishop of Ossory, born in 1709, is best known by his great work, “Hibernia Dominicana.” The late Rev. Thomas Nicholas Burke, one of the most eminent pulpit orators of the century, was born in Galway and educated in Italy. His sermons and lectures in America, in 1872-83, and especially his discomfiture of the prejudiced English historian, Froude, who sought to win the verdict of the American people in favor of England in her past and present relations with Ireland, gained him an enduring reputation.

A distinguished member of this family was the late General Denis F. Burke of New York. He was born in Ireland in 1841, and came to the United States in 1855. At the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted in the Sixty-ninth Regiment, New York, in the company then commanded by Thomas Francis Meagher. On completing the ninety days’ service Burke was commissioned second lieutenant in Meagher’s famous brigade, and was with it from Fair Oaks to Appomattox Court House, never losing a battle in which his regiment or brigade engaged during the entire war.

He had the distinction of being the only officer of the Irish Brigade that went out with it in 1861 and remained until the close of the war. He was promoted to be first lieutenant at the Battle of Malvern Hill, adjutant of his regiment at Harrison’s Landing, and captain at Antietam for conspicuous bravery. He was severely wounded at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, when the company he commanded was almost annihilated. Captain Burke was again wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville, and was commended on the battlefield of Gettysburg for his conduct by General Hancock.

During General Meade’s retrograde movement from the Rapidan, Burke again received high praise for his vigilance, and after the Irish Brigade was reorganized he was made lieutenant-colonel of his regiment. He participated in the battles of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, and his regiment was one of the first to cross the earthwork at the “bloody angle” on the morning of May 12. During the rest of the war Colonel Burke took a brilliant part in most of the bloodiest battles, winning frequent distinction and high commendation from his superior officers. At the close of the war he was breveted brigadier-general. He died October 19, 1893.