Burke Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Burke 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 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
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
    , 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.


Select Burke 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

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

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
a more specific instruction was issued forbidding the citizens to admit
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
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,
created the Earl of Clanricarde.

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.

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

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
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!”

Galway Burkes described by Teeling

Burkes of Ballyglunin,
represented by George Burke who is ranching in Canada, and the Burkes
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

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
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.”

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

Jesse Pepper wrote:

was a great hunter; he would take his knapsack filled with bread and a
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
knapsack, he found a place clear of timber and planted his potatoes.
The next
fall he returned and found them growing.”

first wife died in 1750.  He remarried
the next year and took his new wife and their combined complement of
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.

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
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
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.


Select Burke Names

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

Select 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)


Select 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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