Select Burke Surname Genealogy

Here are some Burke stories and accounts over the years:

Burke as an Irish Surname

Burke or Bourke is much the most numerous of the Anglo-Norman surnames in Ireland (the name, it should be pointed out, is not found in England except in families of Irish background).  Sir John Davis said in 1606: "There are more able men of the surname of Bourke than of any name whatsoever in Europe." 

It is perhaps not possible that they all stemmed from just one ancestor.  But even if several different Burkes came to Ireland in the wake of Strongbow, it has been one particular Burke family that has been so very prominent in Irish history. 

The Burkes became more completely Irish than any other Norman family.  They adopted Brehon Law and proclaimed themselves chiefs after the Irish fashion, forming septs.  As late as 1518, when the City of the Tribes was still hostile to its Gaelic neighbors 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."

Tiobold na Long Bourke (Theobald of the Ships)

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 in the English point of view.  Like his mother, he knew how to play both sides and when he failed to get elected to the leadership of the Burkes of Mayo, he returned to England.  He fought on the English side in 1601 at the battle of Kinsale.  He was later rewarded by Charles I and created 1st Viscount Mayo in 1627.

The Galway Burkes

There was no official peerage granted to the Burke family until the time of Henry VIII.  Then the English King, wishing to make Ireland Protestant, made a bargain with two of its chieftains that they would became English Earls in return for their adopting the Protestant faith.  One of these chieftains was the head of the Burke family in south Galway who, on becoming Protestant, was created the Earl of Clanricarde.

Richard Burke, the fourth Earl of Clanricarde, built Portumna castle in south Galway in the early 1600’s.  It was at the time without equal in Ireland in terms of style, grandeur and distinction.  The Earls of Clanricarde continued to live at Portumna castle until the latter half of the 19th century.  The last of their line, the 15th Earl and second Marquis, died in 1916, leaving two million pounds to his great nephew Lord Lascelles.  

Another Burke line in Galway had begun in the late 15th century with the Burkes of Castlehacket in north Galway.  This family remained Catholic during Tudor times and they were able to hold onto their properties until the time of Cromwell.  They were then confiscated.  A sub-branch of these Burkes were the Burkes of Ower. 

Sir William Burke Teeling in his 1932 book The Burke Family – A History told the following story:

“At Ower, all that remained was a gate near the house leading into the orchard.  This, of wrought iron, was originally in the market square at Tuam.  My great uncle John Burke purchased it to beautify Ower. When Ower was being sacked, according to Dermot Donelan, they came to take the gate at night, it being too heavy to remove at the first sacking.  They all swear they found the ghost of John Burke there in a beaver hat and a cut-away coat protecting his gate.  So they have left it standing to this day!”  

Other Galway Burkes described by Teeling were: 

“The Burkes of Ballyglunin, represented by George Burke who is ranching in Canada, and the Burkes of Iserclerans, a branch of the Ower family now represented by Arthur Burke Cole of Iserclerans and his sister Anne, the wife of Neville Chamberlain the then English Chancellor of the Exchequer."

James Burk, Pioneer of SW Virginia

James Burk had come to Pennsylvania sometime in the 1720’s, it is believed, from Limerick.  He was then or soon after a Quaker as he married Mary (Polly) Bane at the Goshen Monthly Meeting in 1730.

"Whether he was a Quaker or not feeling against them was running high by 1720 in Ireland.  In 1719 James Cotter of the Irish gentry was hanged for an outrage committed against a Quaker family.  Cork and all the south of Ireland burst into outrage and Quakers were marked for punishment. The passion spread to Tipperary and Limerick, indeed all over Catholic Ireland.  A Quaker could not show himself in the streets.  Placards against them covered the walls.  If traveling about the country they were waylaid and beaten."

James Burk was recorded in Pennsylvania records as Burke, but later in Virginia as Bourk or Burk.  In 1745 when Augusta county was founded west of the mountains, James Burk(e) was living in the great expanse that is today the Virginia counties of Frederick, Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Botecourt and Roanake.

Burk's grandson Jesse Pepper wrote:

"Grandfather Burk was a great hunter; he would take his knapsack filled with bread and a little salt and a few potatoes and go to the woods, west of Pepper's Ferry which was all a wilderness at that time and stay several weeks.  On one of these excursions among the mountains, he got into a beautiful valley and having a few potatoes in his knapsack, he found a place clear of timber and planted his potatoes. The next fall he returned and found them growing."

James Burk's first wife died in 1750.  He remarried the next year and took his new wife and their combined complement of thirteen children to the place he had discovered, Burke’s Garden.  Here he built a cabin, cleared land, and planted potatoes.  But they did not stay there long.  The Indian wars prompted their removal to Cumberland county in North Carolina.

When the Revolutionary War came, James Burk was a Loyalist, backing the King.  He supported the Tory efforts and disinherited his son James Burk because he had fought for the Americans.  In his will he stated the following: “By the disobedience and undutifulness of my eldest son James Burk I have had just cause to deny him or his heirs any portion of my living."  He left him five shillings.

Burke and Wills

Robert O’Hara Burke from 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.

The Various Burkes

It has been said that the versatile Burkes display a diversity of aptitudes: from William de Burgh, "the conqueror of Ireland," and progenitor of the Burkes in Ireland; to Edmund Burke, the Dublin-born politician and upholder of conservatism at the time of the French Revolution; to Martha Jane Burke of the Wild West known as "Calamity Jane" and that internationally acclaimed photographer, Margaret Bourke White; and, back in Ireland, to that “gentle rock star" Chris de Burgh, grandson of General Sir Eric de Burgh of Bargy Castle in county Wexford.

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