Select Burke Surname Genealogy

Burke is an Irish surname of Anglo-Norman origin.  The root in Ireland is the Old French de Burca meaning "fortified hill," which had given rise to the Anglo-Norman family name de Burgh (from the place-name Burgh in Suffolk). 

The two main spellings are Burke and Bourke (pronounced Burke).  Burke outnumbers Bourke by about four to one in Ireland.

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Ireland.  The first de Burgh to come to Ireland was William de Burgh, a Norman knight who had come with Strongbow, succeeded him as Governor and settled in Ireland in 1185.

"He consolidated his social position by marrying a daughter of the King of Thomond.  He set out to conquer Connacht and, after much massacre and pillaging, he overcame the reigning O'Connors. According to the annals 'he died of a singular disease too horrible to write down.'"

The later Anglo-Irish de Burghs, the Earls of Ulster, Lords of Connaught, and Earls of Clanicarde, descended from this William.   Jim Burke's 2005 book A History of de Burgh, de Burca, Burke of Ireland covers this lineage.

The Burke civil wars of the 1330's saw fighting between these various de Burgh descendants which resulted in the loss of almost all the Burke lands in Ulster and the formation of three distinct Burke septs - the Burkes in Limerick (clan William), the Burkes in Mayo (McWilliam), and the Burkes in Galway (Clanricarde). 

The family genealogy was first traced in a late 16th century illuminated Gaelic manuscript, The Book of the Burkes, undertaken by the McWilliam Bourkes of Mayo.  Tiobold na Long Bourke (Theobald of the Ships), the clan chief at this time, successfully made the transition from a Gaelic Ireland to an English-dominated Ireland.  The Galway Burkes meanwhile had already adopted the Protestant faith and become the Earls of Clanricarde.

Many Burkes did well in this Anglo-Irish world, including:
  • Edmund Burke, the Dublin-born politician and orator who articulated the conservative political position at the time of the French Revolution.
  • His cousin, Sir Richard Bourke, who was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1831.
  • John Burke, who began Burke's Peerage, a classification of the English aristocracy, in 1826.  This work was carried on by his son Sir Bernard and by his grandsons Ashworth and Sir Henry.  They, like Edmund Burke the orator, came from the Limerick Burkes. 
  • Sir Thomas Burke, the Galway baronet best known for his love of horse racing.   He was described in his time as "a genial handsome man, exceedingly popular with the country people, but by no means as prudent and business-like as his father." 
  • and Richard Bourke of Mayo, who was appointed Viceroy of India in 1869 but was assassinated there during his period of office.
The Burke/Bourke names today are most common in north Munster and Connacht.

England and Scotland
.  The name has been most commonly found in the inner city urban areas of Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow where thousands of Irish people had emigrated in search of a better life.

The surname Burke inspired a sinister verb "burking."  It came from the Irish criminal William Burke who migrated to Scotland and committed a gruesome series of murders in Edinburgh in the early 1800's.   Burke had set up in business selling the bodies of people he had suffocated for medical experimentation. 

AmericaThomas Burke, born in Galway, came to America in 1764 and initially settled in Virginia where he practiced medicine.  He was an early supporter of the American Revolution and became Governor of North Carolina in 1781.  Burke county in North Carolina was named after him.  An earlier arrival from Limerick in the 1720's was James Burk, one of the first explorers of SW Virginia.  He too ended up in North Carolina.

Aedanus Burke from Galway came later to Virgina and was the first Senator to represent South Carolina at Congress.  A man at cross-purposes with himself, he believed both in slavery and in democracy.  He was described in the Dictionary of American Biography as "an irascible man leavened with Irish wit."

John Daly Burke had escaped to America as a political refugee 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.

Australia.  Richard Bourke, a cousin of Edmund Burke's, was Governor of New South Wales from 1831 to 1837.  Bourke Street in Melbourne was named after him, as was the Australian variety of Bourke's parrot. 

Robert Burke from Galway came out to Australia in 1853.  Seven years later he was appointed as leader of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, the first to cross Australia from south to north.  Many of his party died during their journey, including Burke himself in June 1861.

Select Burke Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Burke Names

William de Burgh was the founder of the Burke dynasty in Ireland.
Edmund Burke was an 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman and conservative political theorist.
John Burke was an Irish genealogist and the original publisher of Burke's Peerage in 1826.
Martha Jane Burke, better known as "Calamity Jane," was a frontierswoman of the old American West.

Select Burkes Today
  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 46,000 in America (most numerous in New York) 
  • 61,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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