Burke Surname Genealogy

Burke is an Irish surname of Anglo-Norman origin.
The root in
Ireland is the Old French de Burca
meaning “fortified hill,” which had given rise to the Anglo-Norman
family name de Burgh (from the place-name Burgh in Suffolk).The two main spellings are Burke and Bourke (pronounced
Burke). Burke outnumbers Bourke by about four to one in Ireland.

Burke Resources on

Burke Ancestry

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

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

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

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


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

Many Burkes did well in this Anglo-Irish world, including:

  • Edmund Burke, the Dublin-born politician and orator who
    articulated the
    conservative political position at the time of the French Revolution.
  • His cousin, Sir Richard Bourke, who was appointed Governor of New
    South Wales in 1831.
  • John Burke, who began Burke’s
    , a classification of the English aristocracy, in
    1826. This work was carried on by his son Sir Bernard and by his
    grandsons Ashworth and Sir Henry. They, like Edmund Burke the
    orator, came from the Limerick Burkes.
  • Sir Thomas Burke, the Galway baronet best known for his love
    of horse racing. He was described in his time as “a genial
    handsome man, exceedingly popular with the country people, but by no
    means as prudent and business-like as his father.”
  • and Richard Bourke of Mayo, who was appointed Viceroy of India in
    1869 but was assassinated there during his period of office.

The Burke/Bourke names today are most common in north Munster and

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

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

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

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

John Daly Burke had escaped to America as a political refugee in
1796. In Boston he struggled unsuccessfully with newspaper
publishing. Success came when he found a dramatic formula which
suited the nationalism of his time by writing a play with a battle
scene depicting Bunker Hill. The play had long runs in Boston and
New York. He was killed in a duel by a Frenchman with whom he had

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

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

Burke Miscellany

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

Burke Names

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

Select Burkes Today

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



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