Burke Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Burke Surname Meaning

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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Burke Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Connacht)
  • to Scotland, America and Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America.  James Burk, from Limerick, who arrived in the 1720’s, was one of the first explorers of SW Virginia. He ended up in North Carolina.

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.

Aedanus Burke from Galway came later to Virginia 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 quarreled.

Heading West.  John M. Burke, an innkeeper and farmer from Herkimer county in upstate New York, departed in the 1820’s to Ohio where he was baptized into the Mormon faith.  He moved with the Church to Nauvoo, Illinois and then headed West to Salt Lake valley in Utah territory in 1848.

Burke was once a thriving mining town in Idaho, established in 1887 and named after John M. Burke, a Virginian from Utah, who financed the first silver mine in the area.  But Burke is now a ghost town.  John’s name lives on in nearby Burke Canyon.

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 Surname Miscellany

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.”

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.

Burke Names

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

Burke Numbers 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)

Burke and Like Surnames

The English came to Ireland as early as 1170 with Strongbow’s invasion.  The invaders – largely Anglo-Norman – stayed and many became large landowners and public officials.

Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – le Gras to Grace, de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance.  They became more Irish, often Catholic.  When the English came again, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sided with the English and were rewarded.  But others resisted and had lands confiscated.

Here are some of these Anglo-Irish surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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