Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Fr Thomas Hilary Burbage 1879-1966

Thomas Burbage was born in Borrisokane in 1879 to James and Isabel Burbage (nee Dunne). James was an RIC officer, and the family opened a shop in Portarlington following his retirement. Thomas studied at Maynooth and was ordained in 1904. After ministering in Carlow, he was transferred to Geashill in late 1916. After the Easter Rising, Burbage began to gravitate towards republicanism.

This was a political journey taken by many in the period and one which was advocated by the monthly Catholic Bulletin. Throughout the summer of 1916, the Bulletin published a series of profiles on the rising’s leaders focusing on their social lives and personal piety. The paper was edited by J.J. O’Kelly also known as Sceilg. The Kerry born O’Kelly later served as a TD in the first Dail, voted against the Treaty and was president of Sinn Féin during in the 1930s. Both O’Kelly and the paper he published have faced allegations of antisemitism.

During 1916, the Bulletin published a series of articles written by Burbage entitled ‘Ritual Murder among the Jews’  promoting anti-Semitic canards. At the time of the 1911 census there were about 5,000 Jewish people in Ireland, with only 3 were recorded as living in Kings County. Nevertheless, such tropes, sometimes accompanied with conspiracy theories focusing on the Free Masons were quite prevalent. 

Throughout 1917 and 1918 Burbage emerged was an energetic public speaker, supporting the Irish language, Sinn Féin and the volunteers, while vehemently opposing conscription. He was the principal speaker at a Wilson Day meeting in Tullamore on the eve of the Versailles conference as republicans across the country invited the U.S. President to visit Ireland in the hope that he would support a bid for self-determination.

Burbage remained a thorn in the side of the British authorities during the War of Independence. In October 1920, he alleged that uniformed men had attempted to shoot him. Arrested in 1921, he was imprisoned at the Curragh, Arbour Hill and transported by ship to Belfast, where a lorry transferring him and other prisoners to Ballykinlar Interment camp was attacked by a loyalist crowd.

Burbage’s presence in Ballykilnlar is credited with lifting morale among the detainees and his daily masses attracted hundreds of prisoners. When Cork republican and trade unionist Tadgh Barry was shot dead by a British sentry in November 1921, Burbage administered the last rites as internees knelt and recited the rosary.

On his release from the camp, he was presented with a gold monstrance, a set of vestments and the so-called ‘Book of Ballykinlar’ signed by Eamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill, Michael Collins and 1,000 prisoners; later in life he donated these gifts to the National Museum. Returning to Geashill his parishioners presented him with a two-seat motor car.

Strongly opposed to the Treaty, when Burbage used the pulpit to forcefully condemn the Free State government’s execution policy, Richard Mulcahy complained to the priest’s Bishop.

In the aftermath of the war, he was active in republican commemorations and veteran’s organisations. While ministering at Mountmellick he expanded the local church and helped develop a cinema. President Sean T O’Kelly attend his golden jubilee mass in 1954.

When Burbage died in January 1966. President de Valera and Gerry Boland were among the mourners at his funeral. He was buried in Mountmellick churchyard, where Lieutenant T. Cuiliton oversaw a detail from E. Company, 9th Battalion of the FCA in providing ceremonial duties.

In April 1968, when the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin unveiled a commemorative bust of Burbage at Geashill paid for from voluntary contributions the Offaly Independent reported…

‘Dr. Lennon was greeted by & guard of honour of the F.C.A., and the Tullamore Pipers Band was also in attendance. Following the unveiling, he spoke in Irish and paid tribute to the work of Fr. Burbage for the language. He described him as a man who had served God and his people at all times, placing prayer and patriotism above politics.’ (1)

 

The Author wishes to acknowledge the existing work by Margret Mulligan White on Fr Thomas Burbage and Sean McEvoy on the rise of Sinn Fein in Offaly


Sources:

Bureau of Military History Statements. Francis O’Duffy (Witness 665) Dominic Doherty (846). Search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/bmhsearch/

1911 Census. Search online at https://www.nationalarchives.ie/

Brian Hanley. Jewish Fenians and antisemites Online at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/jewish-fenians-and-anti-semites-the-jewish-role-in-the-irish-fight-for-freedom-1.4526074

Liam O’Duibhir. Prisoners of War: Ballykilnar an Irish Internment Camp. (Cork) 2013.

Alan Dundes. The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore. (Wisconsin) 1991.

Phillip McConway. Offaly and the Civil War Executions in Offaly Hertiage 5 edited by Rory Masterson. Tullamore 2008.

John Noel McEvoy ‘A study of the United Irish League in Kings County 1899-1918’ Masters thesis online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/297016622.pdf

Margret Mulligan White. Fr Thomas Burbage. In Offaly Heritage 11 edited by Ciaran Reilly.(Tullamore) 2020.

Freemans Journal 27 March 1915. 28 December1918.

Irish Independent.  2 March 1959.

Irish Press. 28 March 1932. 11 January 1966. 22 April 1968.

Leitrim Observer 15 January 1966.

Offaly Independent 15 January 1966. 22 January 1966.

Westmeath Independent. 25 March 1922. 15 January 1966.

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