Thomas Francis Bourke
By Michael O'Donnell*
The lives of most men are determined by their environment. They accept the circumstances amid which fate has thrown them. They are like tram-cars running contentedly on their rails. When, rarely, one finds a man who has boldly taken the course of his life into his own hands, it is worthwhile having a good look at him. One such man was Thomas Francis Burke.
Of Burke, John Devoy wrote: "Thomas Francis Bourke was one of the finest characters in the Fenian movement, of a most lovable disposition, generous and good-natured, he had no enemies. Although he could fight for his opinion when necessary, his manner even in the hottest debate was conciliatory he was essentially a peacemaker"1.
Burke was born in Fethard on 10 December 1840, and was baptised in the local Catholic Church three days later. From the register we learn that the family name was spelled Burke, that he had two brothers (James, baptised 2 September 1838, and Edward, baptised 10 May 1844) and two sisters, Annie, baptised 25 January 1843, and Mary Anne, baptised 26 May 1846, and that the father's name was Edmond and the mother's maiden name Mary Dwyer 2. In America another child (a girl?) seems to have been born to Edmond and Mary Burke. A source who personally knew Thomas wrote of his being one of six children 3. From the same source we learn that “Ned” Burke, who was a house painter, was a man of noted intelligence, his education had been above that of most working men.
Burke senior is said to have been successful in his occupation. He was also connected with the new rising catholic class. The Crean family of Gurtskaugh, Fethard, who claimed relationship, was in the middle levels of farming, with sons in the professions 4.
Before emigrating, the Burke family apparently lived on the edge of Fethard town close to the present Augustinian church. As a patriotic gesture in the centenary year of 1898, Fethard Town Commissioners changed the name of The Moor (or Moor street) to General Thomas Francis Bourke (or Burke) street. Local folk tradition would then have known the birthplace of Thomas Burke. A house at the "corner of Moor St." the property of a family named Burke, was leased from the local landlord, Barton of Grove, on 9 June 1817 for three lives at a yearly rent of £4. The three lives were: Thomas Burke, Edmund Burke, and the son of agent Richard Wright. "Ned" Burke may then have been a minor and unmarried 5.
The famine of the late 1840s probably affected the Burkes. The whole family-father, mother, and five young children (the oldest only 12) - decided to move to New York in 1852. They must have felt that such a drastic move would improve their lot. 6
In emigrating the family had to tear up their roots, face a voyage that could take from four to seven weeks with the danger of shipwreck, and then face the unknown at journey's end. The steerage fare for the voyage, which may have been in a sailing-ship, would have been in the region of £3.1Os. each.
They would have been packed like slaves in a slave-ship. At storm time the hatches would have been closed on them with no chance of cooking a hot meal, assuming fear and seasickness permitted them to enjoy food. With the hatches closed down and a storm likely to last a week, the holds could become cess-pools.
From Waterford or Cork the family would have sailed first to Liverpool in an open boat at a cost of about 10s. each. This could have been the beginning of their misery, if the weather was wet or stormy. Since the Burkes left no account of their journey, one can only surmise at what they endured. An account of a voyage from Liverpool to New York in October 1850 shows that steerage passengers were treated worse than slaves by the crews of vessels, subjected to irrational violence and often left without water or food. 7
Like the million-and-a-half other Irish immigrants who landed in America between 1845 and 1854, the Burkes would have not received a hearty welcome in New York. In those years Irish poverty, crime and disease were seen as placing a tremendous strain on the resources of the government of that city. The Irish were labelled a social plague, creating problems for law and order. 8
The hardships and hazards of a voyage to America were described in a letter written in April 1848:
... the Captain said we would have a storm, and truly Boreas spent his rage on us that night. We were tumbled out of our berths, the hold was two feet full of water, a leak was gaining an inch a minute on us, our top sails were carried away, the most of the male passengers were all night relieving each other at the pump and in the morning I left my hammock at seven o'clock to look at the terrible sea ...
Ten o'clock, the scene below no light, the hatches nailed down, some praying, some crying, some cursing and singing, the wife jawing the husband for bringing her into such danger, everything topsy turvey, barrels, boxes, cans, berths, children rolling about with the swaying of the vessel, now and again might be heard the groan of a dying creature and continually the deep moaning of the tempest ... 9.
In America the Burkes spent their first two years in New York. Edmund Burke began again to build up a business as house-painter. By 1854 he had acquired a modest practice. But he had to move to St. John's in Newfoundland because Mrs. Burke's health had declined seriously.
The family did not settle there either. Edmund Burke's health now necessitated a further move to Toronto in Canada. This illness may well have been that bane of painters in those times: lead poisoning. Edmund's health deteriorated further about 1858, and in 1859 he died. According to a 1867 account, this "villainous disease peculiar to painters, combined with the physical exhaustion which resulted from overstrained exertions during his earlier struggles to make ends meet in the new country completely undermined his constitution and ended in consumption" 10.
From an early age the two boys James and Thomas had joined their father as painters. Thomas became so skilled that he was permitted to travel on his own. James now drops out of the picture; no further account of him can be found.
Having a relative in Boston, Thomas seems to have spent some years working there, sending regular contributions to the support of his ailing father and family. Unfortunately, the panic of 1857 had so depleted the savings of the Irish in America that employment among them was spasmodic. Between 1856 and 1861, Tom Burke travelled much of the United States seeking work in the next town when jobs became slack in the last. 11
Although some authorities state that the Burkes had a relative in Toronto who was a member of the city's legislative assembly, it has not been possible to prove this from a list of members, and when the Burkes were leaving one learns that the family had "no ties in Toronto". With the death of Ned Burke, his wife sold their cottage in the Toronto suburbs and moved back to New York. The 1867 source (oddly) states that they left behind the youngest child Edward with a relative to be educated in Toronto.
Following the move to New York, "the girls found work and relieved their brother in part of the burden he had so loyally borne. And when the tea-things were removed, they read from the morning papers which Tom was always sure to fetch home, and from some national journal which they received from an unforgetful friend in the old country"12 . By 1860, the Burke family consisted of mother, two sons (Thomas Francis, and Edward who was still in Toronto at school), and three sisters. However, John Devoy in his Recollections records that the father with James, Thomas and Edward all joined the Fenian Brotherhood in the late 1850s 13 & 14.
In 1858 an organisation was founded which was to have a profound effect on the life of Tom Burke. In that year James Stephens founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin, and in New York John O'Mahony transformed the Emmet Monument Association (of which he and Michael Doheny were co-directors) into the American wing of the Fenian Brotherhood. Following European practice, the Brotherhood were formed into 'circles' each commanded by a 'centre', and each circle being divided into smaller cells led by a 'captain' who had authority over 'sergeants' who supervised the work of 'privates'. Stephens was head centre for the home country and O'Mahony held that post in the United States.
Until the middle of the 19th century the U.S. economy was essentially agricultural; then the Industrial Revolution reached America. The southern states, however, remained agricultural; their principal crops were cotton and tobacco and essential to the cheap production of these were the black slaves. Many in the north were opposed to slavery, which soon became a major political and economic issue.
Those in the south felt that the remedy was to leave the Union. Secession began with the adoption of a secession law by South Carolina in December 1860, and on 8 February 1861 the Confederate States were proclaimed. In April the northern government was faced with a demand from Carolina to surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston. Upon refusal by the fort commander, the southern forces opened fire and compelled its surrender on 14 April 1861. The U.S. Civil War had begun.
Tom Burke was then working in New Orleans, the centre of a large Irish population. The Irish were anti-black in outlook, at the bottom of the social ladder with blacks and contending with them for the less menial work; consequently, they were opposed to the northern government. Devoy states that Burke was working in New Orleans when Fort Sumter was fired on, and like most Irishmen fought with the state in which they lived.
A check of Confederate records in the National Archives, Washington, shows that six Thomas Burkes enlisted in Louisiana regiments. But using the scraps of information that have survived living in New Orleans at the outbreak of war, a campaign in Virginia, wounding and capture at Gettysburg - it is possible to pin-point Tom Burke as serving the Confederacy as a private in Company B, 7th Louisiana Infantry
Most men saw the Civil War as a campaign of short duration, a summer of adventure. Probably Burke's friends were enlisting so he went along too; but, as Devoy wrote, "he was only a little over twenty and, as he admitted later, was not capable of doing much thinking, else he would not have taken that step". Devoy and other leading Fenians were pro-Union, so he felt the need to explain away their supporters having joined the Confederacy. In Burke's case there was much to cover up.
It is not known when Burke enlisted. The 7th Louisiana Infantry is not recorded in the official histories until the spring of 1862. He may have been taken up following the Confederate Conscription Act of 16 April 1862, or he may have felt impelled to join following the capture of New Orleans at the end of April 1862. Devoy notes that "he took part in the fighting around New Orleans when the Union General Butler landed some Northern forces there". Burke was to meet Butler under very different circumstances years later.
In February 1862 the Union army moved through Harpers Ferry and across the Potomac River into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Because the Valley was of strategic importance in the protection of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Confederate troops were moved north.
By mid-May 1862 Burke's regiment was on the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Valley. They had been led there through sleet, rain and mud, in a series of forced marches under the command of General "Stonewall" Jackson. The first battle in the Valley campaign was at Front Royal on 23 May 1862. Here the Union ranks soon broke, to be chased northwards to Cedarville.
However, often in this war regiments stood aside while their brother regiments bore the enemy's firepower. It is thus not possible to state Burke's position during the May-June campaign. On 24 May the regiment moved west to Middleton and then north to Winchester, where the Union army was again defeated. Here Burke's regiment came under heavy fire as they charged uphill. The defeated Union army continued to move north; the Confederates, shoe-deep in mud, followed.
On 8 June the two armies met again at Cross Keys. Burke's regiment had been marching south of and parallel with Jackson's main army, and was ordered to march the intervening three miles to join their colleagues. On arrival they were thrown into battle and given the task of capturing the Union guns which, after some heavy fighting, they did. This battle was the final one in the Valley campaign.
A new general now began to emerge as overall commander of the Confederate forces: General Robert E. Lee. In a series of brilliant moves he forced the Union army to retreat from Richmond where it had positioned itself. Both armies, between 28 August and 30 August 1862, engaged in bloody fighting at Bull Run, about 100 miles south of Washington, D.C.; 19,500 men were killed or wounded.
From here the Confederate army swept across the Potomac into Maryland state, which was Union territory. Lee had hopes of taking the war into northern lands and relieving Virginia. But he was stopped at Antietam near the little town of Sharpsburg, Maryland on 17 September 1862. On this day the Union lost 12,400 men; the Confederates left 10,700 men dead.
In this engagement Burke's regiment, the 7th Louisiana, played a glorious part; through a storm of shot and shell they drove back one of the crack Union regiments. When the battle ended their losses were as high as 50%. Although this clash was said to have ended in a draw, it was really the beginning of the end for the Confederate forces. As Lee turned south to winter quarters, he was engaged once more on 13 December 1862 by the Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Writing on this battle, the English correspondent of the London Times who travelled with Lee's army, wrote: "Never at Fontenoy, Albuera or Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the Sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes".
Burke had now survived a year of warfare. After this last battle of 1862, the Confederate army moved into winter quarters. While in such quarters men were permitted furlough, but it was hardly possible for Burke to have used this, since his home was in New York, across Union lines.
It is difficult to state what effect the 1862 campaign and especially the semi -guerrilla one in the Shenandoah Valley had on Burke. Jackson showed what could be accomplished by a small mobile army operating on the enemy's flank and threatening his rear. This campaign could have served as a yardstick for the one Burke tried to command later in Tipperary, although he was merely a part of the "foot cavalry".
In the early summer of 1863, Lee decided to take the war north again into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Before moving northwards, Lee fought a pitched battle at Chancellors Ville in May; Burke's regiment was at nearby Fredericksburg. In June Lee sent a brigade northwards, of which Burke's regiment was a part. It left Culpepper, Virginia on 10 June, clearing the Union Army before it, and on the 15th crossed the Potomac into Maryland, marching with great speed.
On 22 June the brigade was ordered to move to Pennsylvania and capture Harrisburg, the capital. The Confederates came within four miles of Harrisburg, a town that Burke was soon to see as a prisoner of war; but events forced the Confederates to turn back to Gettysburg.
Here for three days -Wednesday 1 July 1863 to Friday 3 July - the bloodiest battle in the whole Civil War was fought. When it ended the Confederate cause had shot its bolt even though it struggled on for a further two years, and Tom Burke was wounded and a prisoner. At least he was alive; in three days 23,000 Union soldiers and 20,000 Confederates had died.
At Gettysburg (probably on Friday 3 July 1863, since records show that as the date of his capture) Burke was wounded. John Savage tells that two bullets passed through his upper thigh. The hospitals were crowded with wounded, and although he got as much care as possible, his thigh muscles withered until "the skin alone covered the bone". He now had a limp.
After his capture Burke was taken to Harrisburg on 7 July, which he had almost helped capture a month before. From here, on 12 July 1863, he was transferred to the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Fort Delaware in the Delaware River 16.
This camp, Pea Patch Island, known as Fort Delaware, was on a small island near Delaware City. The camp had been constructed originally as a fortification to defend the ports and shipyards of Wilmington and Philadelphia. By the beginning of 1863 there were 1,000 prisoners on the marshy island, but following the battles of that year the prisoner-numbers had risen to 12,787.
Primitive sanitary facilities and the general unhealthiness of the place gave it a deserved notoriety. Food seems to have been in short supply. The conditions can be guessed at when we read that 2,436 Confederate prisoners died there between August 1863 and May 1865. It was to this fort that Burke was transferred in July 1863. As far as is known he never spoke or wrote on this period of his life, which cannot have been healthy or wholesome.
When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, the prisoners were given the chance of swearing allegiance to the Union and then returning home. It seems that Burke availed himself of this and went home to New York. One can only guess at what he endured on Pea Island from the description of him made at the time of his arrest in Tipperary in March 1867. 17
In May 1865 Tom Burke was putting behind him the experiences of youth, of travel, of war and of prison life and making his way to home, family and what he hoped would be a better future in New York. Home was at 209 East Thirtysixth Street in Brooklyn. 18 According to a family friend:
Burke arrived in New York ... with a shattered limb and an impaired constitution. He did not sit down to talk of feats of arms and hair-breath escapes; but he manfully set to work at the trade which his father taught him and . . he soon became foreman to one of the largest firms in that business in the city, at a handsome salary 19.
He joined the Wolfe Tone circle of the Fenian Brotherhood (in June 1865), into whose cause he at once threw all the talent and energy that God had given him. He was that sort of man that never knew how to do anything by halves. He rose rapidly in the estimation of his brethren of that excellent circle, who elected him delegate to the disastrous Philadelphia Convention.
Because of his work in the Wolfe Tone circle, he was, according to Devoy, soon appointed an organiser for the district of Manhattan. Burke now forsook his job with the painting company to further the cause of Fenianism in New York city 2O.
Burke was a successful organiser. When he took up his duties, for which he was paid about 70 dollars a month, New York State contained about 10,000 members; two months later the city had 30,000. No man was more popular with the Fenians there than "honest Tom Burke"*. By the end of 1865 there were 50,000 in the Fenian Brotherhood, and the central treasury had collected 228,000 dollars.
In the following year this fund rose to 500,000 dollars; but all this was lost to Ireland at the Philadelphia convention of October 1865. There a new structure was drawn up based on that of the U.S. government, with the post of Head Centre and Central Council becoming President, Senate and House of Delegates. A split on strategy occurred.
Colonel W. R. Roberts, a dominant personality in the organisation, was insistent on a strike at Canada, while Stephens and O'Mahony held that resources should be concentrated on a revolution in Ireland. At Philadelphia Burke vehemently supported O'Mahony and saw the intended invasion of Canada as a waste of men and resources. He contended that every dollar collected was subscribed for a fight in Ireland, so that diverting the funds to other purposes was a breach of faith with those in Ireland. 21
In January 1866 Burke was unanimously elected District Centre for the District of Manhattan at the New York congress, possibly as a consequence of his continued support for O'Mahony. In the O'Mahony system, which had remained unchanged since the Philadelphia split, a District Centre assumed the army title of Colonel. This explains Burke being widely referred to as Colonel Burke. As organiser Burke worked from Fenian headquarters at Moffat Mansion near Union Square, New York 22.
News from Ireland in the spring of 1866 hinted that a rebellion was imminent. To help the coming struggle, the American Fenians purchased and fitted out a ship for Ireland; Tom Burke resigned his District Centreship to join it. But neither ship nor shipment reached Ireland; both were diverted to Canada, where in May 1866 an abortive invasion took place. 23
James Stephens landed in New York on 10 May 1866 after his spectacular escape from prison in Dublin. On his arrival he replaced O'Mahony as head of the Fenian Brotherhood and appointed Colonel Thomas J. Kelly as his deputy and began whipping up support and enthusiasm for a rising in Ireland.
That summer Stephens and Burke worked out of Fenian headquarters, though it seems that Stephens did not think Ireland was ready for rebellion. However, in his public utterances and actions he appeared all set for action, and he decided to enlist the help of some trained military officers with European experience. He appointed Gustave Cluseret as commander-in-chief of Fenian forces in Ireland; the latter choose Octave Fariola and Victor Vifquain as his adjutants 24.
At a number of stormy meetings held in New York in mid-December 1866 Stephens declared strongly for post-ponment. However, Burke favoured an early rising in Ireland. Stephens was then deposed from leadership; Colonel Kelly succeeded him and a date was fixed for an American supported rising in Ireland. 25
In the final days of December 1866 the new leaders "cut their hair short, shaved off their moustaches and changed their style of dress" before setting out for Ireland 26. Shortly before Burke left for Ireland a friend described him:
He was a man of remarkably striking appearance. His height was about five feet ten inches.. somewhat diminished by a slight stoop.. His eyes were full but not prominent, and when lit up by enthusiasm they flashed upon you the full power of his splendid natural genius. His face was pale and bore the traces of strong physical suffering though his temper betrayed nothing of the kind.. He was deeply religious and his affection for his mother and all his family filled his whole being.. He possessed an easy grace, a clear ringing, and very pleasing tone of voice, a good education (although self-acquired) 27
Although he was prepared to help in the planned Irish rising, Burke, like the other Irish Americans who joined him, saw no great hope of success. All felt in honour bound to carry out the pledges they had given to help to free Ireland 28.
With other Irish American Civil War veterans, Burke sailed on 12 January 1867 from New York for Liverpool 29. Despite opposition from Stephens (who did not sail) and from local leaders in Ireland, a rising was fixed for 11 February 1867. According to the informer Corydon, Burke, when he landed in Liverpool, attended a Fenian meeting at Mullin's beer-house. Here he said his purpose m coming to Ireland was to bring matters to a point of crisis since the organisation in New York was "burst up".
From Liverpool, Burke went south to London where he stayed from 27 January 1867 until about 6 February. Godfrey Massey (Patrick Condon), who had been given overall command of the southern region in the forthcoming rebellion, and carried £550 in English gold to distribute among the American officers, sailed for Liverpool on 13 January 30.
Colonel Kelly and the Frenchmen Cluseret and Vifquain sailed a day earlier for France, arriving in Paris on 25 January where on 27 January they were joined by Octave Fariola. All then went to London to meet Burke and the remaining Irish-Americans 31. In London Burke had, according to Massey, lodgings at No. 1 Regent's Square.
While in London he met Massey in several public-houses and attended meetings held by the leaders at the lodgings of Colonel Thomas Kelly at 5 North Crescent, Tottenham Court Road. Here the final preparations for a rising in Ireland, now fixed for Shrove Tuesday, 5 March 1867, were made. Massey was to have overall charge of the rising from his headquarters at Limerick Junction. 32
The earliest evidence of Burke's arrival in Ireland is that of Head-Constable Richard Hanlon who was in charge of the R.I.C. barracks in Fethard. In his report he said he knew Burke (though he does not say how) and that he saw him in Fethard on 10 February, and discovered that Burke had arrived on 8 February. It was probably here that Burke learned that the date of the rising had been postponed to 5 March.
In Fethard Burke visited a local Fenian, John Kenrick, from whom he presumably discovered the nature of conditions in Ireland and the preparedness of the local Fenians. He would also have met old friends; it was only 17 years since he left.
The R.I.C. in Clonmel, led by Sub-Inspector Kelly, went to interview him on Sunday 17 February. That night Kelly went to Cantwell's Hotel, Clonmel together with a Head-Constable and a Constable to talk with him; although the police waited until 2 a.m. Burke did not appear. The next day the Sub-Inspector met Burke in the hotel bar and interviewed him and checked his baggage and -person.
Burke said he had come from New York to get medical advice and to see his friends in Fethard before he died. The Sub-Inspector reported that Burke "wrapped his trousers round his leg, and there was to be seen through them his thigh, which was no thicker than a man's wrist". Burke also said he was a reporter for the New York Tribune and other papers, and that he intended soon to return to New York.
Burke told the inspector that, to the best of his recollection, he had stayed in Head's Hotel while in Dublin. Burkes bag (a carpet-bag tied by a belt) was searched, it contained only a few articles of clothing and an air cushion. Burke had to use the latter when sitting because of the condition of his leg. He was searched for arms, but had none on him.
The reason Burke was not available in Clonmel when the R.I.C. called was that he had been detained by the police in Fethard. Head-Constable Hanlon reported that he arrested Burke when the latter, on his second known visit to the town, was going from the local hotel to the Clonmel mail car. Hanlon took him to the barracks and searched him; he carried only a change of clothes.
Burke queried his arrest and was told that strangers were not permitted to wander about the town without the police knowing their business. Because of his ill health and being a native of the town, Burke said he had every right to walk at liberty, and was later released. He then disappeared from notice for over a fortnight, until he surfaced at Bansha and Ballyhurst on March 5.
Later speaking on this month in Ireland, Burke gave out a more idealized version. Speaking in St. Louis, Missouri in 1871, as quoted in the St. Louis Celt of 11 May, he said:
For four weeks I was in one of the most populous counties in Ireland, living among the poorest of Ireland's children, sharing their scanty meals, sleeping in their huts and cabins, and although a reward of three hundred pounds was offered for me, and it was perfectly legal to kill me, not a man or woman could be found to give information to the enemy that an Irish rebel slept under their roof.
In New York in the previous March he told of a policeman's wife who had saved him more than once from arrest by giving him notice of the intended movement of the police. She furnished him with a pen portrait of himself that had appeared in the police gazette, the Hue and Cry. With the passing of time it seemed that Burke mixed fact and romantic vision when he recalled his short period in Ireland 33. How he spent his time between the day he was questioned in Clonmel and when he appeared at Ballyhurst on 5 March may well have been as he described, though with less hardship than he suggested.
As mentioned, the rising was postponed from 11 February because the government were aware of the plans. In the last week of February word was sent to the leaders that Shrove Tuesday (5 March) was the day hostilities were to begin. All were to assemble at their posts on the night of 4 March. Savage, whose account of Fenian events seems occasionally far-fetched, alleges that Burke issued a proclamation from "Head Quarters, I.R. Army, Limerick Junction, Tipperary"; but there is n other evidence for this document 34.
The events of Ballyhurst are too familiar to be described in detail. The rising was a fiasco: a group of labouring men and boys playing at the serious business of war and led by men with no experience in military command; beset by snow, sleet and frost, and the usual betrayals 35. Before it began Massey (Condon) had collapsed into the arms of the authorities and told all.
It had been stated that even before the night of 4 March Massey had already been informing on the Fenians, and that his arrest was a "cleverly contrived theatrical" one. The Fenian papers in the Catholic University of Washington contain a letter sent to Stephens by the Fenian circle in New Orleans casting serious doubts on Massey's integrity; this letter was apparently ignored by Stephens.
Had Burke also ignored the guerrilla tactics advocated by Fariola (the second in command to Cluseret) at the London meeting in late January 1867? If he had carried them out the rising in Tipperary might have been more successful. Why Burke did not implement them we will never know. In a letter 12 March 1867 from Clonmel Thomas Kelly, the acting chief executive of the Fenians in Ireland, wrote:
I do wish you could be in Tipperary just now. I will be plain with you. A mistake was ... made by the officer having the disposition of the forces in that locality. . He ... has now to suffer for mistakes, or rather violations of orders 36.
Thomas Ryan of Kilfeacle, one of the those at Ballyhurst, when examined by the Crown Solicitor said “I heard Thomas Burke tell the party that we were to go into and take the town of Tipperary" 37. If such were his plans, how did he get trapped on a hilltop on a winter's day? The official history of the 31st Regiment, 60 members of which chased the rebels from the hilltop, dismisses the event two in sentences 38.
As the main body of the rebels ran from Ballyhurst, Burke rode away in a different direction shouting: "To the mountains". Did he hope to escape to fight another day? While riding down the hillside he fell from his horse. Soldiers took him prisoner before he could remount and brought him to the Bridewell in Tipperary with others captured.
A week later Burke, "looking very pale and suffering from ill health", with 40 others, were taken from the goal (handcuffed in pairs) to the local railway station. Here they were held in cattle pens until placed in the third-class carriages of a train bound for Clonmel 39. From there Burke was taken to Kilmainham in Dublin. Meanwhile the Crown Solicitor, Thomas Kemmis, was busy in Tipperary seeking information for the trial, which opened on 8 April 1867 40. Before the trial began, Burke wrote to his mother a letter which displays his deeply religious nature:
Dearly Beloved Mother:
Long before this reaches you my sentence ... will have been made known to the American world ...This is the night before my trial, and what that sentence may be I do not know; but I am resigned and prepared to meet, in a manner that becomes your son and my own manhood, whatever God, in his mercy, has destined for me ... He will not desert me in my hour of trial, nor you in your deep affliction.
O my dear dear mother, there is only one thought that almost unmans me…that… I, who was only happy in your happiness, should, in your declining years, cause you even a moment's pang of sorrow... I have carefully preserved the Agnus Del which you suspended round my neck at our parting.. On last Easter Sunday I partook of Holy Communion at a late Mass . . . 41
The Special Commission, to try Burke and others for treason, first sat on 8 April 1867 at Green Street Courthouse, Dublin. The presiding judges were The Chief Justice, James Whiteside, Mr. Justice Fitzgerald, and Baron Deasy. The opening days were spent in selecting the grand jury, whose task was to discover if a bill for high treason should be brought against Burke.
The grand jury handed down bills for high treason against Burke, and on 10 April he was taken to the bar of the court where the indictment was read to him. He was then notified that he had ten days to prepare his evidence. He was given liberty to name his counsel, he choose Isaac Butt, Richard Dowse and Michael O'Loghlen as counsel and John Lawless as his attorney 42.
Burke's trial began on Wednesday 24 April 1867. A favourable account of him at this time appeared in The Irishman of 27 April 1867.
He is lame and walks with difficulty and painfully. As he enters we all bend forward to look... He is dressed in a suit of plain grey tweed, and appears to be stooped ... He does not impress you with the idea of being an athletic man, and his hands are worn and thin . . Sallow in complexion, the lower portion of his face is covered with a black and bushy beard; his eyes gleam and his countenance impresses me with the idea of cool determination. He has an anxious look... As he stands gazing around him, first at the judges, and then at the crowded bar and galleries, he strokes his moustache with his fingers, as if it was a habit with him ...
The above was most likely written by Richard Pigott who, in his Personal Recollections, wrote also:
Colonel Burke, in the dock, looked a soldier all over, and a gentleman. His features were regular, and were well set off by a fine flowing beard. He had an open and frank expression and there was much sympathy for him, even on the Bench 43.
Two days were spent choosing a jury. After much wrangling, five Catholics were asked to stand down. Among the names finally agreed (all protestant and middle-class) were John Findlater, grocer and wine merchant, and William Bewley, Quaker.
Each day the prisoners were taken to and from Kilmainham in police vans. An escort of the Scots Greys was provided to foil rescue attempts 44.
On Friday 26 April the Attorney General opened the case. He noted that Burke was in command at Ballyhurst and was armed with a revolver. He detailed the prisoner's travels from New York to Ballyhurst, describing the papers found on him at his capture.
These papers included a copy of the Fenian oath, a map of the country and a plan of a castle- it was inferred that the latter was a plan of Dublin Castle - and a slip of paper containing the names of Dublin, Cork and Belfast Fenians. The defence counsel made light of the papers. They were Bradshaw's railway guide, a prescription for eye ointment, three photos of "very well-looking young ladies", a prayer book and a list of five names that could have been anybody's.
Then Godfrey Massey (Condon) was called. After his arrest at Limerick Junction, he had confessed his part in the rising and passed on all details to the authorities. Massey spoke of seeing Burke regularly in New York and of knowing that he had succeeded J. J. Rogers as district centre for Manhattan. When the American Fenians met in London at the end of January 1867 Burke, according to Massey, had been given £20 to enable him to travel to Ireland for the purpose of leading a rebellion there.
After Massey, the informer John Joseph Corydon was brought in. He traced Burke's journey from New York to Ballyhurst, confirming what the Attorney General stated. Corydon also described a meeting held in Liverpool at which Burke spoke of his loss of faith in Stephens as leader, also his wish to come to Ireland to help in a rebellion 45.
When Burke's case resumed on Monday 29 April, the Crown witnesses dealt with Burke's time in Tipperary. Sub-Inspector William Kelly described an interview with Burke in Clonmel. Burke, who was lame and had to use a stick, spoke of coming to the area to visit his friend Mr. Sayers in Fethard and his cousin, Dr. Crean in Clonmel. To the Sub-Inspector, Burke appeared to be a very intelligent man 46. The same day John Farrell, Thomas Ryan, Edmond Brett (all labourers), together with the soldiers who arrested Burke, gave an account of Burke's leadership at Ballyhurst 47.
The sitting of Tuesday 30 April opened with Isaac Butt addressing the jury. He began by discrediting the evidence of men who were mere informers, Massey (Condon) and Corydon he called the jury's attention to the fact that Burke had every right to be at Ballyhurst as an accredited correspondent for an American newspaper. This, Butt contended, would account for Burke riding away in a direction different from that of the main body of Fenians from Ballyhurst.
The actions of the leader at Ballyhurst were witnessed by mere informers and one or two others of doubtful character. After Butt the other defence counsel, Mr. Dowse, addressed the jury at great length 41. The it was the turn of the Solicitor General to present the case for the Crown to the jury 49
The court resumed at 10 a.m. on Wednesday 1 May 1867. The Chief Justice summed up the c for the jury. He gave it as his opinion that Massey (Condon) was a reliable witness, and that evidence was vital to the case. After this the jury retired, but soon returned with a verdict that two prisoners, Burke and Patrick Doran - the latter had been involved in the rising at Tallaght, Dublin - were guilty on all counts in the indictment, that is, of high treason.
The clerk asked the prisoners if they had any final plea to offer. Burke rose to speak, giving the address which has gained him an honoured place in the annals of Irish dock speeches. It gave him the glory which his attempts at military leadership could not, and wiped the fiasco of Ballyhurst from his record. Pigott noted that "in its delivery ... lay its chief charm. It was spoken with great deliberation, pleasing intonation, and an entire absence of affectation 50.
The Irishman described the scene.
….he speaks slowly and distinctly ... His words are well chosen, and his manner is as well chosen as his words. In ... that crowded court they ... reach its farthest corner, and they thrill upon every ear. . . I look around and I see some men affected to tears ... I look away again ... the fountains of my own eyes are almost open ... He declares his inalienable sympathies with Ireland… 51.
The Freeman's Journal wrote that he spoke in a calm, unimpassioned manner without the slightest p1ay of affection.
He gloried in the part he had acted. He wished to serve the country of his birth and was prepared to pay the penalty ... It was a most painful and impressive scene, and whatever the faults of Thomas Burke he met his fate like a man 52.
The Chief justice then pronounced sentence.
…As for You Thomas Burke, you appear ... to have been one of the ringleaders of this treasonable design ... You brought your knowledge and your skill as a soldier to the furtherance of this conspiracy, in which ... you seem to glory. You have exhibited no hesitation and no remorse. You have been the Fenian head-centre for the district of Manhattan; your name is on the list of officers who were to carry out this conspiracy, and the district of Tipperary was assigned to your command ... The sentence of the Court is [the Chief Justice at this point donned the black cap] that you, Thomas Burke . . . shall be taken from the place where you now stand, to the place from whence you came; and that on Wednesday, the 29th day of this month of May, you be taken on a hurdle, from that place to the place of execution, and that there you ... be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards the head ... shall be severed from its body, and the body ... divided into four quarters ... 52a.
(I owe a special debt to the late Hugh Ryan of Carrick-on-Suir and to Annie Slattery, Mike Foley, and John Carroll in Washington D.C. Hugh was ever ready to lend books; Annie, Mike and John pursued obscure references with an energy that amazed me).
- John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel (New York, 1929), 353; hereafter Recollections.
- Fethard Parish Register.
- The Irishman: 16 June 1867; hereafter Irishman. John Savage: Fenian Heroes and Martyrs, (Boston, 1868), 123/24; hereafter Savage. (It would seem that Savage based his account of Burke on the article published in Irishman with some imaginative interpolations).
- Genealogy of the Creans of Gurtskaugh (alias Bushypark) Knockelly, Fethard, compiled by Rev. W. C. Skehan, Skehan MSS. Thurles. J. P. B. Condon; The Creans and Fennellys, (privately printed, 1976). Margaret Rossiter: ‘The Creans of Clonmel’, Nationalist, 25 April 1981.
- Register of Leases of Barton family, 1758-1822. NLI, MS 5622.
- For an excellent account of emigration to America see Terry Coleman; Passage to America, (Penguin, 1974).
- Lawrence J. McCaffrey: The Irish Diaspora in America, (Bloomington, 1976), 62, 68; hereafter McCaffrey.
- Thomas Reilly, Albany, New York to John M. Kelly, Dublin, 24 April 1848 (see Irish Voice, New York, 18 March 1989).
- Ibid; Savage, 125/27.
- Recollections, 353.
- Recollections, 353/54. Confederate Records, National Archives, Washington, D. C.; Earl R. Niehaus; The Irish in New Orleans, (Baton Rouge, 1965).
- A good introduction to the Civil War is in Winston S. Churchill's A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Great Democracies, (1958). For the Shenandoah Valley campaign see Champ Clark; Decoying the Yanks, (Time-Life Books, 1984); Stephen W. Sears; Landscape turned Red, The Battle of Antietam, (New York, 1984); Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, (1866); Bruce Catton, Gettysburg, The Final Fury, (New York, 1974) Savage, 160.
- Andrew B. Booth: Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands, (Spartanburg, S.C.,1984), i, 188; Sherman Lee Pompey, Burial Lists of Confederates, etc. (Oregon, 1975); Harold Bell Hancock, Delaware during the Civil War, (Wilmington, Delaware, n.d.), 51, 110, 137, 144/45; John A. Munroe, History of Delaware, (Newark, nd.), 138,146.
- Seamus Pender, 'Fenian Papers in the Catholic University of America - a preliminary survey', Cork H & A Soc J. Ixxv (1970), 36, where the address is misread as 309E 37th St.
- Irishman; Devoy's Post Bag, 1871-1928, eds. William O'Brien and Desmond Ryan, (Dublin, 1948), i, 27, hereafter Post Bag.
- Recollections, 354; Irishman.
- McCaffrey, 121/22; Recollections, 355; Leon 0 Broin, Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma, (New York, 1971), 5; hereafter 0 Broin.
- Savage, 130; Evidence of J. I. Corydon, Dublin Special Commission, 1867, Informations and Indictments, 643, hereafter. Special Commission.
- Savage, 130'31; McCaffrey, 122/23; 0 Broin, 25/26; Irishman.
- Gustave Paul Cluseret began his military career as an officer in the French army, but was forced to resign his commission because of radical tendencies. He saw service under Garibaldi in the Italian campaign of 1859-60, and fat the outbreak of the American Civil War joined the Union army. In New York at the end of the war, Cluseret was asked by Stephens to lead the Fenian armies in Ireland. Cluseret accompanied Stephens on many of his ' lecture tours in the U.S. in 1866. When the decision to have a Fenian rising in Ireland in the spring of 1867 was confirmed, Cluseret appointed two other Europeans who had participated in the Civil War, Octave Fariola and Vistor Vifquain, as his adjutants. Later Cluseret wrote a scathing denunciation of Fenianism in "My Connection with Fenianism". His connection with Fenianism lasted from the summer of 1866 until March 1867. See Desmond Ryan: The Fenian Chief (Dublin, 1967), pp. 238/39.
- 0 Broin, 119, 120/21, 243, 245/45; William. D'Arcy, The Fenian Movement in the United States, 1858-1886, (Washington, D.C., 1947), 221; hereafter D'Arcy.
- Recollections, 356; Savage, 132/37.
- D'Arcy, 225.
- Massey, alias Patrick Condon, who was to be one of the leading witnesses in the trial against Burke, was reputed to have been a lieutenant-colonel in the Confederate army. Appointed Fenian organiser in the states of Texas and Louisiana in November 1865, Massey continued to organise and lecture for the Fenian cause with great zeal. The Fenians in New Orleans wrote to Stephens in October 1866 warning him against Massey who, they wrote, was a fraud. They contended that he did not hold rank in the Confederate army - a fact referred to by Burke in his dock speech - and that he was even then suspected of being a British spy. See D'Arcy, 152/53.
- 0 Broin, 123.
- Joseph Denieffe, A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, (New York, 1906), 138/40 (hereafter Denieffe); D'Arcy, 225; Special Commission, 641, 643, 683; William G. Chamney, The Fenian Conspiracy, (Dublin, 1869), 147, 393 (hereafter Chamney); Peter Nolan, Fariola, Massey and the Fenian Rising', Cork H & A Soc. J., lxxv (1970), 5; Walter McGrath, 'The Fenian Rising in Cork', The Irish Sword, viii (1968), 245.
- Chamney, 393, 401; Freeman's journal, 28 May 1867; Special Commission, 721, 723; Irishman, 27 May 1871, 6 May 1871, 10 June 1871.
- Savage, 137/38.
- For a full account of the rising see D. G. Marnane, Land and Violence: A history of West Tipperary from 1660, (Tipperary, 1985), 78/85 (hereafter Marnane); Seamus Keating, 'Oration at Ballyhurst', Nationalist, 11 August 1984.
- Denieffe, 278.
- Special Commission, 717.
- History of the East Surrey Regiment, i, 234.
- Marnane, 81/82.
- C.S.O. Reg. Papers, SPO, Dublin Castle, 1867/6130.
- Irishman; Freeman's journal, 13 June 1867.
- Chamney, 24/25. This account of Burke's trial is based on Chamney.
- Richard Pigott, Personal Recollections of an Irish National Journalist, (Dublin, 1883), 250; hereafter Pigott.
- Freeman's journal, 25 April 1867.
- Chamney, 200.
- Ibid., 264/331.
- Ibid., 273/90.
- Ibid., 382/410.
- Ibid., 418/29.
- Pigott, 251.
- Irishman, 4 May 1867.
- Freeman's Journal, 2 May 1867.
52a. Chamney, 466-68.
The barbarity of the sentence (death for treason) imposed on Bourke at once aroused public anger. Even as he and the other prisoners were being escorted back to Kilmainham Jail, protests began. Along the route a great mass of people had gathered; there was stone-throwing on the quays. Three constables in the police van were struck, though not seriously injured. No attack was made on the military escort. 53
Within weeks, public opinion across in the United States began to be expressed. On 15 May, 1867, Secretary of State Seward wrote to his Minister in London.
"The sanguinary sentences of the court shock the public sense. Executions conforming to them would leave a painful impression in a country where traditional sympathy with the revolution in Ireland is increased by convictions of national injustice." 54
Seward was probably keeping an eye on the Irish vote. The private thoughts of the U.S. administration may have been expressed by Benjamin Moran on 18 May. He was secretary to the American ambassador in London, and that day he wrote in his diary: "We got a cipher telegram from Mr. Seward to interpose and prevent the execution of Burke and Doran. But neither is a United States citizen. Still they will not be hanged, although they deserve it."55 Meanwhile, appeals for clemency continued to pour into Dublin and London.
As to Burke himself, we can gauge his feelings from a letter he wrote from Kilmainham on 4 May to a priest in Clonmel.
Dear Rev. Father:
I am perfectly calm and resigned, with my thoughts firmly centred with hope in the goodness and mercy of that Kind Redeemer, also in the mediation and intercession of His Blessed Mother. I have only one thought which causes me much sorrow, that my good and loving mother will break down under the weight of her affliction, and, oh, God I who loved her more than the life which animates the hand that writes, to be the cause of it. I wrote to her at the beginning of my trial along and last farewell. I have not written since, it would break my heart to attempt it, but I would ask you to tell her I am happy and reconciled to the will of God, who has given me this opportunity of saving my immortal soul. 56
John Savage, never are liable withes, wrote an account of Burke in Kilmainham, said to have been copied from one published by one of Burke's visitors. Burke was lying on a hammock, with a table beside him on which stood a crucifix, books and holy water. This account suggests that he was in feeble health; he had to raise himself by a cord attached to a lower end of his hammock. 57
This implies too that Burke had a cell to himself. However, a report of 20 May 1867 from the Governor of Kilmainham to the Chief Secretary's office noted that the prison was overcrowded. All 20 cells had three prisoners in each. 58
Mass was celebrated for the political prisoners on Sundays and Wednesdays by the chaplain, Fr. Kennedy; this was accompanied by religious instruction. 59The Sisters of Mercy from Goldenbridge are said to have called on Burke on one of his last days in prison. 60
In the week after the trial, the movement for reprieve was low-key. Some Irish MPs, led by Sir John Gray, the member for Kilkenny, began working for a reprieve for both Burke and Doran as early as 3 May. Then on 12 May Doran's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, with the Government still determined to make an example of Burke.
On 8 May at Westminster the Chief Secretary, Lord Naas, pointed out that the Chief justice was bound to apply laws on high treason. 61 A report on Burke compiled on 9 May had a note which read: "Let the law take its course except that part of the sentence which directs that the head be severed from the body and that the body be divided into four quarters". 62 But the public was not aware of this; so from 13 May the demand for reprieve began to gather momentum.
At a meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin on 14 May a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant requesting a reprieve was drawn up. On 15 May Kilkenny Corporation drew up a petition, and the next day memorials were presented by Galway and Athy Town Commissioners. Other memorials came from the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Dungarvan Town Commissioners. 63 On 18 May U.S. Minister Adams received a telegram from Secretary of State Seward denouncing the sentences.
Still the government seemed determined to carry out the sentence, although the last such barbarous execution had been as far back as 1803, when Robert Emmet was publicly executed. The reform party in the Commons was pressing hard for a reprieve, and the English press agreed that the sentence should be commuted. Irish conservatives alone demanded the full measure of the law.
However Cardinal Cullen, writing on 10 May to Monsignor Kirby in Rome, expressed his strong opinion that the sentence would be commuted. Cullen had also given his support to the organisers of the Mansion House meeting. 64
The warrant authorising the execution of Burke was handed by the Clerk of the Crown to the head High Sheriff on the afternoon of Thursday 23 May. He arranged the execution for 6 a.m. on Wednesday 29 May. The Governor of Kilmainham, Henry Price, then set about his preparations. He wrote on 25 May to the Town Major suggesting "the propriety of placing 80 or 100 soldiers inside the Prison on Tuesday night", adding that a strong military force should also be stationed outside. 65
On Friday 24 May the Lord Lieutenant returned from London. He had hardly settled in Dublin when a deputation from the Corporation called. Although he listened with courtesy to their plea, he could hold out no hope for a reprieve.
In London U.S. Ambassador Adams, in an interview with Lord Stanley, the British Foreign Secretary, gave him his views of the American government. Adams's secretary Moran noted in his diary: "Burke is a murderer and deserves death and as he is an Irishman I see no reason why we should intercede for him. It's carrying American politics too far to become the champions of these Irish rascals because they have votes at home". 66
However, the movement for reprieve gathered momentum. On Saturday 25 May an influential deputation of from 40 to 50 MPs, including the famous economist John Stuart Mill, waited on the British Prime Minister at his London residence to make a final appeal for Burke. The Premier Lord Derby replied:
We have weighed the subject well. We have discussed it in Cabinet, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in the presence of the Chief Secretary of Ireland. We could find nothing that should keep Burke from suffering the extreme penalty of the law. Nothing could have prevented the effusion of blood on the occasion except the extreme cowardice of the party who fired a volley on the soldiers at 100 yards distance, and who when they saw the soldiers advance ran away, Burke being captured in a ditch when endeavouring to make his escape. The Government agree that if we were justified in sparing the life of this unhappy man, nothing would have given us greater satisfaction than to extend that clemency to him; but there would a very serious risk being though guilty of dereliction of duty if they failed to visit with the severest punishment, one who, induced a number of unhappy dupes in Ireland to join in that which might have led to serious consequences. 67
That Saturday afternoon (25 May) at about 2.30 pm, Cardinal Cullen with his vicar-general, Monsignor Forde, and his private secretary, Monsignor (afterwards Cardinal) Moran, called on the Lord Lieutenant. According to the Archbishop of New York Cullen, although a strong opponent of Fenianism, pleaded for clemency for Burke. After the meeting the Lord Lieutenant telegraphed to the Cabinet then meeting in London. 68
At this meeting, the government appears to have decided to reprieve Burke. What caused it to change its mind? The question cannot be answered with certainty, since Cabinet minutes were only taken from 1904. Was it the vast number of letters from individuals and memorials from public bodies? Did the visit by Ambassador Adams to the Foreign Secretary swing the decision? Or was it the Cardinal's plea that steered the Cabinet towards clemency? It may have been a combination of all those factors. However, the Cabinet decision had still to go to Queen Victoria in Balmoral for her assent.
At police headquarters in Dublin Castle that Sunday preparations were being made to execute Burke the following Wednesday. The Commissioner of Police, Colonel Henry Atwell Lake, noted that the ground before the jail would be kept by 190 constable, 10 sergeants and 6 inspectors. All would assemble at 4 a.m. under the command of a Divisional Superintendent; each constable would be armed with a sword and a loaded revolver.
The military would also be involved: an infantry company would be stationed inside the jail and a company of dragoons would take up positions on the left and right flanks outside. The garrisons in Island Bridge and Richmond Barracks were placed on alert. 69 The prison governor was planning for the disposal of Burke's body. A coffin was ordered from a Mr. Lawlor of Dublin, and permission was sought to have the body disposed of within the prison. 70
All through Sunday the public and the press waited for word of a reprieve. Irish MPs were preparing to journey north for an audience with Victoria if no directive for clemency came before Monday. Then just after midnight on Sunday the decision to save Burke came from Victoria by special courier. 71
The news reached Dublin at 3 p.m. on Monday 27 May. At 4 p.m. mounted orderlies were despatched from the Viceregal Lodge to the Governor of Kilmainham, the Lord Major of Dublin and Cardinal Cullen. At Kilmainham the chaplain, Fr. Kennedy, had the duty of informing Burke that his death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. No account has survived of Burke's reaction. The governor acknowledged receipt of the news at 4.30. 72 The reprieve was announced in the Commons at 5 p.m. by the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer and in the Lords by the Premier. 73
In along editorial on 11 June 1867, the Freeman's Journal, organ of the Home Rule Party and a stern opponent of Fenianism, stated:
There was no doubt as to the evidence, it only remained for the public opinion of the Empire to intervene between the prisoners and the scaffold. Never was that opinion so unanimous and one would suppose the friends of the prisoners would have been delighted at such a generous and universal manifestation of British and Irish humanity.
Not at all. They are highly indignant that the cause was not sanctified by the blood of martyrss. They were anxious to appear to be for the preservation of the lives of the prisoners but when they were preserved they are furious because they were not martyred. Fenianism, according to the New York Herald, has become a nuisance and a positive evil. The American government, which so long humoured the swindle, now thinks it high time to break with it. 74
Shortly after 5 a.m. on Tuesday 28 May Burke was removed from Kilmainham to Mountjoy prison. Here he was dressed in convict uniform, had his face clean-shaved and his hair cropped close. Because of his poor health, he was not put to hard labour; instead, he was placed under medical treatment. 75
Burke's stay in Mountjoy was short. Early in July l8ó7 he left Ireland forever, arriving in Millbank prison on 4 July. This prison stood on the Thames near the Houses of Parliament. Built in the early 1800s as a model prison to reform criminals through solitude and constant work, it was famous for its tomb-like silence, the loneliness and bleakness of the cells and the grinding monotony of the prisoner's existence there.
A prisoner spent some nine months as a probationary in either Millbank or Pentonville. This was passed in solitary confinement, strict silence observed even when meeting other prisoners. The remainder of the, time was spent alone in the cells on such things as bag-making, weaving or oakum-picking, with periods for reading and eating. Convicts were permitted to write one letter on reception at Millbank, but no more until the probation had ended.
The cells at Millbank, about nine feet long and eight feet wide, were furnished with a plank bed, a bucket fitted with a lid, a wooden platter and spoon, a pint tin and a chamber pot. The bucket both held water and did duty as a seat. For up to ten hours a day a prisoner was expected to sit on this performing his work, even in winter in a stone-floored cell so cold prisoners became numb. They were not allowed to pace the floor to warm themselves. Bedding was dirty and inadequate. Prisoners could bathe only once a fortnight, several having to share the same water.
Like bedding, the food was inadequate. The standard rations for convicts were: for breakfast, 8 ozs of bread and 3/4 pint of cocoa; for dinner, on week days, 4 ozs of meat on four days, one pint of soup on one day, and 1lb of suet pudding on one other day. Sunday dinner comprised 12 ozs of bread, 4 ozs of cheese, and one pint of water; for supper, 6 ozs of bread and one pint of gruel. 76
On 27 February 1868, having completed his probation, Burke was transferred to Working Convict Prison in Surrey. This was considered to be a hospital prison for both the physically and mentally ill. For an unknown reason he was moved back to Millbank on 20 April 1868; he spent only two weeks there, returning to work.
In Woking Burke's diet consisted of bread and tea for breakfast. He was allowed 20 ozs of bread, 1/4 ozs of tea, 4 ozs of milk and 11/2 ozs of sugar daily. His dinner was soup, potatoes (8 ozs) and bread. Prisoners were permitted 10 ozs of meat each day,, but appear not to have always got it; it may have been used to make the soup. The supper was bread and tea.
Each prisoner on punishment was granted a daily concession of 8 ozs of bread, 1/4 ozs of tea, 11/2 ozs of sugar and 4 ozs of milk. 77
After the public outcry, which followed the exposure of the treatment of O'Donovan Rossa while in prison, the MP for Cork county secured the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into prison conditions. Headed by the Earl of Devon, this met in the summer of 1870. Burke was one of those granted an interview. He wrote also at length to the Commission on the sufferings of his deranged friend and fellow-Fenian in Woking, Ricard US. Burke - no relation.
He had been only three times to exercise... I believe, the only times he has been out of bed since 23 July. I am also told ... that for the past thirteen days he has taken little or not food. This treatment is well calculated, if not intended, to provoke him to some desperate act of violence... from my experience of the officials of this prison I feel confident they would be but too anxious to avail themselves of any colourable pretext to lay violent hands upon my poor friend, by laying open his head with their staffs, or cutting him down with their sabres; for the criminal imbeciles,. confined in this prison, have not an immunity from this inhuman and brutal treatment; and from the course adopted by the officials of this prison towards my fellow prisoners within twenty-four hours after they had submitted their evidence to the Commissioners, that the submitting of evidence ... by any prisoner should not prejudice the future treatment of that prisoner while in prison... I have every reason to believe that my poor friend will be subjected to ... all the worst effects of penal discipline, and the treatment which has already deprived him of reason will be persistently and steadily followed up until it deprives him of life. 78
Burke's own prison career was coming to an end. As The Tipperary Fenian Denis Dowling Mulcahy wrote his father:
Between half-past twelve and one o'clock, Thursday, the 22nd December 1870, the Governor, Captain Bramly, communicated to me, Dr. Power, Colonel Burke, and Mr. Dillon, that he had instructions to ask us if we would accept our release on condition of leaving the country, never again to return to it, or the alternative of remaining in penal servitude to finish our sentences. 79
How did it come about that Fenian prisoners were being released after serving only three-and-a-half years of their sentences? Following their harsh sentences and the accounts of English prison conditions, public opinion in Ireland veered from indifference to Fenianism to being sympathetic to the "Irish State Prisoners". The treatment of the Fenians as if they were wild beasts captured the sympathy of many people.
A movement for the release of all Fenian prisoners took final shape in the Amnesty Association founded in Dublin on 28 June 1869. Isaac Butt, its president, who had defended Burke two years previously, laboured unceasingly to obtain the Fenians' release. Meetings were held all over the country; many were compared with the Repeal gatherings of Daniel O'Connell.
Under Butt all shades of nationalist opinion were drawn together, even the Fenian organisation supporting the agitation. One monster meeting held in Tipperary town on Sunday, 24 October 1869 was alleged to have attracted 20,000 people. 80
The agitation was taken to the electorate when a vacancy occurred in Tipperary in November 1869. O'Donovan Rossa's name was put forward; despite all opposition, he won. Although the result was declared void, it showed English public opinion that Ireland was determined to have all prisoners released. (In New York on 24 July 1872 Burke chaired a meeting to collect funds to defray the expenses of this and the subsequent election.) 81
The amnesty drive was ultimately successful. Between December 1870 and January 1871 groups of Fenians were released. Burke and eight other prisoners were moved from Portland and Woking to Millbank 82. From there they were taken by train to Liverpool on 13 January 1871. A week earlier another batch of Fenian prisoners had passed through Liverpool on their way to America. 83
The British Government paid Burke's passage to America and supplied him with clothes suitable for winter travel and £5 in pocket money. The outfit and the pocket money totalled in value £35. 3s.Od. 84
From Millbank Burke wrote on 9 January 1871 a letter to Kickham at Mullinahone.
My Dear Friend Kickham: Will you give me the pleasure of "gripping your fist" before I take my last look of the old land? As we understand the arrangement, we are to call at Cove on Sunday en route for New York. I hope you will find it convenient to grant me this favour, as I am most unwilling to leave, without seeing you. I regret, for many reasons, the stringency of the conditions which will not permit me to spend a day or two in "the valley near Slievenamon". Well, never mind. You promised that you would "put in a good word" for me; but I suppose you may now consider released from this obligation. I expect you will have your carte for me. Don't disappoint me. 85
At Lime Street station in Liverpool, where the train arrived at 3.40 on Saturday morning, the only people awaiting the prisoners were the mother and a young brother of Peter Maughan, and a correspondent for The Irishman. The arrival had been kept secret to avoid a demonstration. The prisoners were taken from the rear carriage of the train, had a few quick words with friends and were bundled into a bus which took them to the landing stage.
From there they were taken by the tender Satellite to the Cunard mail steamer Russia, in which they were to sail to America. All the prisoners were described as looking well, in excellent spirits and enjoying their freedom. Aboard the Russia, said to have been the most superbly fitted vessel in the Cunard fleet, the prisoners were given saloon berths.
The vessel sailed for Cobh at 2.30 on Saturday afternoon, where it arrived at I p.m. on Sunday to be met by relatives and friends who went out to the Russia 86. The Cunard offices in Cobh had been besieged from an early hour by well-wishers wishing to board the passenger ship. The Government, however, opposed a demonstration, so a limit was placed on the number of people allowed to board the tender. The prisoners did however, get the opportunity to meet their families.
At Cobh, each prisoner was presented with £10, a rug and a warm Ulster overcoat by an amnesty group from Cork. The Cork committee paid the passages of Mrs. Roantree and Mrs. Brown who accompanied their husbands into exile. Money and clothing also came from the Dublin Amnesty Association. At 3 p.m. a flotilla of boats came alongside the Russia, filled with bands and cheering crowds.
Charles Kickham was not among those who went onboard the Russia. It seems that no one from Tipperary saw Burke leave Ireland for the last time. A Dublin man named Brady presented him with four years’ bound files of The Irishman, containing the reports of the trials and the efforts to gain their release. The Russia sailed at 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, 15 January 1871 from Cork harbour. 87
Twelve days later, on Friday 27January 1871,The Russia docked at Jersey City, where an immense and enthusiastic crowd awaited. Hardly had the vessel anchored when the Tammany Hall committee and the Wolfe Tone circle of the Fenian Brotherhood came on board to welcome the exiles. An address to Burke read in part: "On the hill sides of Tipperary, leading on the gallant and true men who rushed to strike for Ireland's independence, you displayed those soldierly abilities which the experience of many a hard-fought field had taught you". In his reply Burke played down the references to his abilities on the hill sides of Tipperary." Your address over-rates my abilities, but in its sincerity recognises that the motives were pure, which drove myself those with me, to stake all in the cause of beloved Ireland." 88
On the quay were John O'Mahony, O'Donovan Rossa and numerous Irish-American Fenians. There too were Burke's mother and sister, Tammany Hall providing a carriage to bring them to Sweeny's Hotel where Burke was to rest for some days. But the hotel was besieged over the weekend by well-wishers and the police had to be called to keep order.
By Monday delegates from Fenian centres and other Irish societies were arriving to congratulate the freed prisoners. In responding Burke seems to have acted as spokesman for the group. A figure from his past took a part in the congratulations; General Benjamin F. Butler, the former invader and ruthless governor of New Orleans in April 1862 may have been instrumental in seeing Burke into the Confederacy. On Monday 30 January 1871 he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives:
That the Congress of the United States, in the name and on the behalf of the people of the United States, give to J. O'Donovan Rossa, Thomas Clarke Luby, John O'Leary, Thomas F. Burke, Charles Underwood O'Connell, and their associates, Irish exiles and patriots, a cordial welcome to the capital, also to the country, and that a copy of this resolution be transmitted to them by the President of the United States.|
This resolution was passed by 172 votes to 21 in a thin house. It is likely that, rather than being a vote of support for Irish revolutionaries, this was an act of hostility against Britain because of her stance in the recent Civil War. 89
New York City Hall now decided to hold a parade on 9 February. A meeting between aldermen and the exiles was held the week after their arrival; here the first clash occurred between O'Donovan Rossa and W.M. "Boss" Tweed, who ruled Tammany Hall and the city council. This, and the fact that at the end of 1871 Rossa ran on the Republican ticket against Tweed for the New York senate, were to have unfavourable consequences for Burke.
Burke in a long speech poured what oil he could on the turbulent waters that flowed between Tweed and Rossa, and the exiles agreed to participate in a procession masterminded by Tammany Hall which was to meander around Brooklyn. Of this Devoy later wrote:
A little later there was a big parade in our honour and we were greeted by committees from every city in the East and from Chicago, who presented us with addresses of welcome and some of them with money to enable us to make a new start in life. Tanimany Hall (then controlled by "Boss" Tweed, who was fighting for his political life) collected 22,000 dollars for us, but about half of it went on the parade and Sweeny's hotel bill for the six weeks we were there was 6,000 dollars. But we got the rest of it. 90
Six weeks in Sweeny's hotel greatly improved the appearance and physique of the former prisoners. Also, a special edition of Burke's dock speech was printed in Philadelphia and presented to him. 91
On a Sunday night near the end of January 1871 Burke broke from routine of receptions to give a charity lecture in aid of the poor of the 19th ward. Held inalarge basement of a Dominican church, this was his first-ever lecture, one of many he gave in 1871. 92
Burke had discovered his vocation. He was to prove a commanding public speaker with an excellent presence, and to show great ability as an organiser. "He and Thomas Clarke Luby went together on a lecturing tour which extended as far west as Nevada; their meetings were very successful and did much to revive the Fenian spirit." 93
By now Burke had taken to spelling his name as “Bourke”; possibly he saw this form as more Irish and patriotic. He began also to use the military title "General". From soon after his landing in the U.S. he referred to himself, (and the title was applied to him) as General Thomas Francis Bourke. In Ireland he had used the title "Colonel" and was on occasion called "Captain". All these titles were granted by the Fenian Brotherhood, or self-proclaimed; Burke never earned them either on a battlefield or in a military college.
During February 1871, lectures and processions continued for Burke and his companions. On 13 February they visited the home of the Fenian John M'Clure's father, in upstate New York, where Burke spoke for the party. On 16 February, the Mayor and aldermen of New York laid on a banquet which 200 attended. Here Burke spoke of suffering "such indignities as no country but barbarous England would inflict on her prisoners."
For him, Ireland was a nation struggling for republican institutions. This party last until 2 a.m., ending with Burke singing, 'The Harp that once through Tara's halls". He was in Boston on 21 February; in a lecture in the Music Hall, he saw lack of united action as the bane of revolutionary movements in Ireland. 94
Money also flowed in for the new-arrived Fenians. The Irish American citizens of Boston, on 16 February just before Burke lectured there, collected 1,475 dollars which they gave to Burke and the others 95. Like the Tammany Hall contribution, this was only one of several sums subscribed to the exiles.
On 17 February, a delegation from the Mayor's office in Washington, D.C., invited the Fenians to sample the hospitality of the approaching carnival. Burke and his companions arrived on 20 February, taking rooms at Ebbit House where they were received by the Irish citizens. 96
The party consisted of Burke, Charles U. O'Connell, Henry S. Mulleda, Patrick Walsh, George Brown, Edward Power, John M'Clure, Peter Maughan, John Devoy, William F. Roantree, "Pagan" O'Leary, Patrick Lennon and E.P. St. Clair. Until the weekend they were entertained by the local Irish-American community 97. They also met the President. Devoy later wrote:
We were invited to Washington and were guests of the city for a week. During our stay President Grant expressed a wish to see us and he received us on the steps of the White House. Bourke was introduced by the chairman of the Reception Committee, and the rest of us by Bourke. He was quite sell-possessed and at his ease, while the President seemed a little embarrassed. The great soldier was a man of few words, but was very partial to the Irish. He appointed Tom Murphy Collector of the Port; Pat Jones Postmaster; and Jack Gleason, Collector of Internal Revenue for the Eastern District of New York - the best offices he had in his gift in New York.
As Bourke introduced each of us, he made a little speech and as Grant shook hands with us he merely said: 'Glad to see you'. The motion of his arm was like a pump handle. 98
A modern historian has placed those heady events in context.
If the exiles were not already aware of the extent to which American Fenianism was enmeshed in the jungle of American politics they soon were as both the Republican and Democratic political 'machines' sought to use their arrival to their respective advantages. The triumphal progress of the exiles which had begun with a tumultuous welcome in New York was to come to a climax with a meeting on the White House steps on 22 February 1871. President Ulysses S. Grant could not afford to ignore the Irish votes either. 99
Burke spent the spring and summer of 1871 travelling, lecturing and re-organising nationalist groups in the U.S., especially for the new Irish Confederation, formed in March 1871 by the Fenians released in December 1870 and January 1871. Its first directory included Burke, Devoy, O'Donovan Rossa, Thomas Clarke Luby and Edmund Power 100. The new body hoped to end the divisions in Irish nationalist circles.
However, the Confederation was never popular, being seen by many as formed solely to promote the interests of its founders. During March and April 1871 Burke toured extensively in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and upstate New York organising clubs for the Confederation. Everywhere he was met by bands and warmly welcomed by Irish-American community.
In a letter to John Mitchel, Rossa described the New Confederation.
Many of our correspondents ask us what pledge or oath is required. There is no oath, no pledge required other than what his subscription pledges to a man. Yet any men forming a club may pledge themselves to do all they can do as American citizens to aid their brothers in Ireland in a struggle for liberty. The Irish Confederation is a public organisation. It will impose no oath or no obligation that would repel any one disposed to give a mite to the cause of Ireland. 101
Into the early months of 1872, Burke continued his lecture tours for the Confederation. In May 1871 with O'Donovan Rossa he was in Springfield, Illinois, where the state governor presided; then on to St. Louis, Missouri 102. In June and July he progressed through Omaha and Sacramento to San Francisco, where there was a strong Fenian following with a Thomas F. Burke circle.103
However, while the Confederation made progress, few Fenians joined it. Most of its strength came from men who had taken no part in earlier Irish-American organisations. Still Burke continued to work for it to the end of 1872. The first annual convention was held in May 1872, when a directory of twelve members, including Burke, was created.
The future of American Fenianism was not to lie with the Confederation, but with a secret organisation which had been founded in New York on 20 June 1867 by J.J. Colhns. This was Clanna-Gael. Modelled on the Masonic Society, each member had to take a solemn oath to take up arms to establish an Irish Republic. The new republic was to have complete political independence and a guarantee of full civil and religious liberty to all.
By the spring of 1873 "the Irish Confederation had collapsed; the Fenian Brotherhood remained moribund; the future was to belong to Clan na Gael."104 The Boston Pilot summed up the situation. "At present, the two most prominent organisations, but not the most powerful, are the Irish Confederation and the Fenian Brotherhood. The first has everything that is meant by honesty of purpose, and would become a power if there was anything but apathy in the breasts of Irishmen throughout the land. The Fenian Brotherhood has returned to John O'Mahony for a leader and is rattling its old bones a good deal and hopes for rejuvenation under the old man's banner". 105
Around 1877 Clan Na Gad concluded a formal affiance with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the home country and shaped itself into an organisation more disciplined and secretive than the (U.S.) Fenian Brotherhood. Burke had around 1874 switched his allegiance to Clan-na-Gael: so had Rossa, Devoy and other leading Irish-Americans. 106
From then on Burke was in the front rank of the Clan, helping by his position and influence to model and direct the policy of the body. He attended several conventions, including that of 1874 in Baltimore, where he was instrumental in having Devoy elected chairman, and he was a member of the reception committee for Parnell and John Dillon. 107
While in the Clan he was co-opted to the famous Skirmishing Fund and put his name to a letter calling for action and the creation of a "Special National Fund". This appeared in the Irish World of 21 April 1877. However, it seems unlikely that he subscribed totally to the ideals of the Skirmishing Fund, which was to bring a campaign of terrorism to England by dynamiting bridges, gas works and arsenals.108
Burke attended the convention of the Fenian Brotherhood in New York on 27 January 1876. Here John O'Mahony was elected Head Centre and Burke a member of the new council 109. The Brotherhood continued to function until 1886, when it was disbanded as a result of the November 1885 convention. 110
Burke had of course, also to earn a livelihood. In 1872 he ran for the office of Sheriff in Brooklyn, but was defeated because of his support for O'Donovan Rossa in the latter's campaign against "Boss" Tweed and Tammany Hall 115. Soon after Burke was appointed a deputy Sheriff; later he obtained the position of Clerk of Supply and Repairs in the Department of Public Works in New York, a post he held until his death. 111
In November 1872, Rossa expressed the hope that Burke might be elected to Congress; but Burke failed to obtain nomination, as Tammany Hall had not forgiven him. He ran for the Commissionership of Charities in November 1872; again he got nowhere. 112
Despite his popularity as an Irish National symbol, Burke could not break into American politics. This was because of his independent outlook and his unwillingness to be a part of the local political machine.
Little of Burke's private life in America 1871, has been recorded. However, in January 1872 O'Donovan Rossa gave an account of Burke's New Year's day celebrations.
At eleven o'clock a carriage called at my door, and in walked General Bourke and his brother Edward. Our Kilkenny housekeeper had to do the honours of the table in the absence of Mrs. U D., who was 'confined' to the care of a little visitor of her own she had brought us a few days before. The company insisted on my going out with them, and Tom Bourke having kissed the baby away we went.
Orders were given to the coachman to drive up town and pull up at Mike Ryan's, corner of Third street and Bowery. We met there a sister of Captain John M'Clure's, Mrs. Ryan, her sister, Miss Hannon, whom Bourke felt disposed to be very soft with (indeed I may say he did not feel indisposed to be very very soft with all the girls) - her mother, Mrs Hannon, a sister of Collector Murphy's.
Wine again and music with it, for Miss Hannon, who is a splendid pianist, and a splendid girl in every way, could not get Bourke out of the house, and we made our way to Mr Luby's, 311 Forty first street. 113
Burke, who never married, died at his home at 209 East Thirtysixth street in New York city on Sunday, 10 November 1889 from an acute inflammation of the kidneys after an illness of only ten days. The funeral took place the following Wednesday. His remains, carried on the shoulders of six members of the IRB, were taken to St. Gabriel's church, where Fr. E.J. Kennedy, assisted by Frs. Keeffe and McKernan, chanted the Requiem Mass. From there the funeral procession proceeded to Long Island ferry house. 114
John Devoy wrote: "I was away from New York and in financial straits when Bourke died on November 10, 1889, and did not know of his death until my return. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, not far from where Michael Doheny lies. Ireland lost one of her finest sons by the death of Thomas Francis Bourke; no truer Irishman ever lived."115
Ballyhurst apart, Burke had acquitted himself well. At his trial, and while awaiting death in Dublin, he showed a steady acceptance of his fate. He lived through the rigours of prison life with his sanity intact, and displayed a high sense of moral courage in speaking for his colleagues.
For an assessment of Burke one many rely on Gustave Cluseret, who, despite his attacks on the Fenian Movement, commented: "I have known Stephens, Bourke, Kelly and many others, gallant men who have made sacrifices for the cause of their country and liberty, unhappily unheard of in this age of selfishness and mean ambitions. Some of them like Bourke are of the true Roman mould, and will be transmitted to posterity, as the ideal of self-abnegation and sacrifice." 117
- 53. Larcom Papers, official Correspondence, N.L.I. MS. 7594.
- 54. D'Arcy, 255.
- 55. Moran Diary quoted in D'Arcy, 255.
- 56. Recollections, 361.
- 57. Savage, 159/60.
- 58. C.S.O. Reg. Papers, 1867/1737.
- 59. Annual Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons in Ireland for the year ended 31 December 1867. (Dublin, 1868), 18.
- 60. Savage, 161.
- 61. Daily News, 8 May 1867.
- 62. Convict Papers, B21,1867, S.P.O., Dublin Castle.
- 63. Ibid.
- 64. P.J. Corish, 'Cardinal Cullen and the National Association of Ireland', Reportorium Novum, iii (1962),47/ 48; Freeman's journal, 15 May 1867.
- 65. C.S.O. Reg. Papers, 1867/9420,1867/9290.
- 66. D'Arcy, 256, n.72.
- 67. Freeman's journal, 27 May 1867
- 68. P. MacSuibhne, Paul Cullen and his Contemporaries, (Naas, 1965),iii,423/24,419/20; hereafter MacSuibhne.
- 69. C.S.O. Reg. Papers, 1867/930; 0 Broin, 175/76.
- 70. C.S.O. Reg. papers, 1867/9394.
- 71. MacSuibhne, 424; Freeman's journal, 27 May 1867.
- 72. MacSuibhne, 424/26; Convict Papers, B21,1867, S.P.O.
- 73. MacSuibhne, 424/26.
- 74. Ibid.,426/28.
- 75. Irishman, I June 1867.
- 76. T.W. Moody, Davitt and Irish Revolution, 1846-82, (Oxford, 1982),145.49.
- 77. H.C. 1871, xxxii,56.
- 78. Ibid.
- 79. Irishman 31 December 1870
- 80. Marnane, 82.
- 81. Irishman, 17 August 1872.
- 82. William Francis Roantree, Denis Dowling Mulcahy, Edmund Power, Edward Pilsworth St. Clair, Patrick Lennon, Patrick Walsh, Peter Maughan, and George Broym.
- 83. Irishman, 21 January 1871.
- 84. H.C. 1871 (144), lviii, 461/62.
- 85. Irishman, 14 January 1871.
- 86. Irishman, 21 January 1871.
- 87. Irishman, 21 January 1871.
- 88. Irishman, 18 February. 1871.
- 89. Irishman, 18 February 1871.4 March 1871.
- 90. Recollections, 361.
- 91. Irishman, 4 March 1871.
- 92. Irishman, 18 March 1871.
- 93. Recollections, 362.
- 94. Irishman, 15 April 1871.
- 95. Irishman, 11 March 1871.
- 96. Ibid.
- 97. Ibid.
- 98. Recollections, 362.
- 99. K.R.M. Short, The Dynamite War: The Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain (Dublin, 1979), 25/26; hereafter Short.
- 100. D'Arcy, 372/73; Henri Le Caron: Twenty-five years in the Secret Service, (Wakefield, 1974), 104. hereafter le Caron.
- 101. Irishman, 29 April 1871.
- 102. Irishman, 10 June 1871.
- 103. Irishman,16 September 1871; R.A. Burchell, The San Francisco Irish, 1848 -1880, (Manchester, 1979), 99.
- 104. Short, 27/28.
- 105. D'Arcy, 285.
- 106. Le Caron, 120.
- 107. Recollections, 355/56,362.
- 108. D'Arcy, 392.
- 109. D'Arcy, 406/08.
- 110. Post Bag, i, 27/28.
- 111. Recollections, 362.
- 112. Irishman, 23 November, 1872.
- 113. Irishman, 3 February 1872
- 114. Irish American, 23 November 1889.
- 115. Recollections, 362.
- 117. Irishman, 25 January 1868.
*Revised version of talk given to Fethard 'General ' Thomas F. Bourke. Historical Society on 12 November 1989.
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