The history of the Burke family is complex and widespread.
William de Burgh 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 1185
and was made Governor of Limerick and succeeded Strongbow as
Chief Governor. He consolidated his position by marrying a
daughter of Donal Mor O'Brien, King of Thomond. He set out
to conquer Connacht and after much massacre and pillaging he
overcame the reigning
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, despite his continual assaults on the
O'Connor kings of Connacht, married an O Connor 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.
Burke (Bourke, de Burgh), gaelicised as de Burca (Burke), 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.
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).
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
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".
Richard Burke, known as Richard 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. Just 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 went back 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.
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 French army.
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.
Robert O Hara Burke (1820 - 61) of St Cleran's, Craughwell,
east of Galway City, 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.
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".
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 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.