Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Thomas Francis Burke/ Bourke 1898-1955

Thomas Burke born in 1898 to Daniel and Ellen Burke of Portumna. Daniel Burke was a publican, corn merchant and horse breeder who died in 1909. In the 1920s Ellen Burke played host De Valera during his visits to the area. Two of Burke’s brothers were ordained as Cistercian priests and two of his sisters became nuns.

In 1915, Tom Burke joined the Irish Volunteers while a student in Dublin but was in Galway on university holidays during the Easter Rising. On Bloody Sunday, he was part of an IRA unit under Paddy Flanagan which raided a house on Pembroke Street where Captain Leonard Price and Major Charles Dowling were shot dead, and other occupants wounded.

Appointed as an organiser by GHQ in the spring of 1921, he was promoted to O.C. of the Offaly No. II Brigade following the capture of Sean Mahon. Under his command the Brigade began to focus on security. In mid June, two men suspected of providing information to the crown forces were shot dead in West Offaly. A fortnight later two loyalists Richard and Abe Pearson were killed at Coolacrease near Cadamstown.

Following the establishment of the 3rd Southern Division covering Laois, Offaly and north Tipperary, he was involved in a series of training camps during the truce.

On the withdrawal of British forces, Burke established a Brigade headquarters at Banagher. In January 1922, he issued a proclamation in response to rumours of UVF drilling in Birr. The local Y.M.C.A dismissed gossip regarding loyalist paramilitary activity as a ‘nonsensical absurdity’. In February Burke was among those involved in the pursuit of the Birr bank raiders.

Opposed to the Treaty, Burke was one of those who convinced the north Tipperary IRA leader Sean Gaynor to return the midlands from Kilkenny where he had been serving in the National Army. Gaynor’s return and espousal of the anti-Treaty position was instrumental to the republican takeover of Birr Barracks in March 1922.

In April, Burke was among a group of officers from the 3rd Division involved in an armed confrontation with soldiers in Athlone which resulted in the death of Brigadier George Adamson.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, he oversaw republican attempts to prevent pro-Treaty forces advancing from Athlone to Birr in a series of skirmishes at Ferbane and Belmont. Traveling south to consult with the IRA chief of staff Liam Lynch, he was captured outside Clonmel in late July and interned for the remainder of the conflict. A participant in the mass hunger strike of 1923 he was released the following year.

In the 1930s, the Fianna Fail government established a military reserve organisation titled the Volunteer Force. Burke was one of a number anti-Treaty veteran’s commissioned in the Irish Army to organise the new Force whose local Slaugh often contained former IRA men. During the Emergency he was one again tasked with coordinating the activities of the Local Defence Forces. 

In his retirement he farmed at Palmerston house, Portumna. On his death in October 1955, military honours were accorded at the graveside in Calvary Cemetery by the members of the old IRA under the supervision of Divisional Adjutant Seamus Lang.


Sources:

Military Service Pension Files. Thomas Burke (MSP34REF31573) search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923

Michael Collins Collection. Correspondence online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/fileadmin/user_upload/MAC-002/IE_MA_CP_05_02_17.pdf

Dr John Burke. Athlone 1900-1923: Politics, Revolution & Civil War. (Cheltenham) 2015.

Ian Kenneally. A medium for enemy propaganda in Journal of the Old Athlone Society volume 10 edited by Dr. Patrick Murray. (Athlone) 2015.

Daniel Murray. A death in Athlone: The controversial case of George Adamson, April 1922. Online at https://erinascendantwordpress.wordpress.com/2018/06/22/a-death-in-athlone-the-controversial-case-of-george-adamson-april-1922/

Tom Nolan. The War of Independence in Offaly in Journal of the Old Athlone Society volume 9. (Athlone) 2015, available online at https://www.midlandshistory.com/uploads/4/0/4/1/40413751/4_-_the_war_of_independence_in_offaly.pdf

Connacht Tribune. 15 October 1955.

Dublin Daily Express 15 October 1909.

Irish Press 20 September 1933.

Leinster Reporter 4 February 1922.

Nenagh Guardian 15 October 1955.

Offaly Independent. 15 October 1955. 

Westmeath Independent. 11 February 1922.

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