O'Sullivan Burke (1838 - 1922)
Ricard O'Sullivan Burke was the youngest of twelve children born to
Denis and Margaret Burke (nee O'Sullivan) on January 24,
1838 at Clounyreague near the village
Co. Cork, Ireland.
The Burke family
lived on a 66-acre farm leased from Lord Bandon a local
landlord and a product of the Ascendency.
The Burke's, by local standards, were well off and
could afford private tutoring for their children. That all
ended in 1842 when Denis, who was active in local politics, supported Feargus O'Connor, a Chartist agitator, for a seat
in the British parliament against the known wishes of his
landlord a staunch conservative. As a consequence,
the Burke's were evicted from their home resulting in the
relocation and breakup of the family. The four oldest
children went to England, the remainder of the family relocated to Dunmanway, a nearby town.
Although still a
child, Ricard was, at some level, aware of what
happened and from that time on harbored a disdain for the Ascendency and what it represented. That disdain
though remained dormant for a period of time, surfaced some twenty
plus years later resulting in a fateful departure from
what, otherwise, would have been an adventurous but a less
After relocating to Dunmanway he attended the local National
School. In 1849 he continued his studied at the Dunmanway
Model School. He was an excellent student who
demonstrated a talent for painting. He was also an avid
reader and was fluent in both Irish and English.
Later on, during his extensive travels, he mastered French
and Spanish and Italian
In 1853, Ricard became a paid monitor at the Dunmanway Model
responsible for, in addition to furthering his own
education, helping to teach and examine lower grade students.
Later that same
year he made a hasty decision that
he later describes as his greatest mistake and regret:. He
succumbed to cajoling by a friend to join the Cork
Militia. For the next three year he endured the tiresome
routine of garrison life; the only relief been the periodic
deployment to other garrisons in Kinsale, Limerick and
Dublin. After three years he could no longer endure life as
a soldier in the service of the Crown. The final humiliation
that made up his mind to desert was when he was hit by an
officer for not addressing an envelope "correctly'.
the only viable option was to leave the country.
As members of his family were living in London he decided to
join them there. He found it difficult to find work, but
took advantage of his spare time to visit
museums, the House of Parliament, Temple Bar and other
historic sites. However, after a unsuccessful month of
job hunting and the possibility of being arrested for
desertion he opted to leave England for the United States.
After arriving in
New York he found employment in a portrait painting
establishment in Harlem. The quality of his work was such
that he was commissioned by a sea captain, whose mother was
Irish, to paint a life-size portrait of a woman from a
picture. The finished portrait, which Ricard personally
delivered, was well received and after an ensuing conversation
with the sea captain Ricard was offered a job as a deckhand on his
Richard spent the
next two years and a half at sea traversing the trade routes as far
afield as Central and South America, Africa, Japan, China
and the South Pacific Islands.
Although he grew
tired of life at sea, he was by no means finished with his
nomadic lifestyle. The next phase started in Cape St. Lucas
in the lower California Peninsula when Ricard and a number
of the shipmates abandoned ship to seek their fortune in the
Senora goldmines in northern California. However, instead of turning north
towards the gold fields, Ricard
found himself travelling south with an Englishman of like
mind and independent means. By the time he returned to New
York on January 1st. 1861 he had traversed most if not
all of the countries of Central and south America. One of
the last stops on his journey was at a settlers colony in
Chile that included amongst its inhabitants fellow country
men and women. The settlement was protected from hostile
"Indians" attacks by a Militia made up mostly of Irishmen. During the time he spent there he served
in the Militia. It was during
that time that he first heard of the Fenians who were
purported to be organizing in Ireland..
On his return to
New York he lectured at the Cooper Institute until the onset
of the Civil War in April of 1861. He may also have joined
the Fenian Brotherhood at that time. He joined the 5th
New York Infantry and after it was disbanded some months
later joined the 15th New York Regiment of Engineers. One of
the reasons he gave for siding with the Union was that the
United States was a Federal Republic and that he was a
Federalist and a Republican.
His first saw action at the first battle of bull run as
color bearer for his regiment. After the defeat of the
Union army at that battle his regiment returned to
Washington where it underwent training as an engineer unit.
As was typical of Ricard he excelled at engineering and was
made Quarter Master Sergeant in August of 1861. He
participated in many of the major battles of the war
including the siege of Yorktown, the Battle of Gloucester and
the Peninsula Campaign and the second Battle of Bull Run.
In January of 1863 he was appointed first lieutenant and
participated in the battle of Chancellorsville and the battle of Franklin's Crossing.
After these battles he assigned to the staff of the Chief
Engineer at General Grant's headquarters at Petersburg in
Virginia. Here he was put in charge of a section of
the earthworks during the siege of the city. In May
of 1865 he was
promoted to the rank of Captain and
placed in charge of a company at
Burke's Station in Virginia. He was promoted to the
rank of brevet Colonel before he was mustered out of service at
Fort Barry in Virginia in June of 1865.
After been mustered out he returned to New York
contacted John O'Mahony head of the Fenian Brotherhood to
offer his services for the planned Fenian Rising in Ireland.
In December of 1865 he was dispatched to Ireland with orders
to reported to
Colonel Thomas J. Kelly. Colonel Kelly sent him to England to procure
arms and have them shipped to Ireland for the Rising. He established a subterfuge business in Birmingham and
proceeded to buy a substantial quantity of arms which he
stored in Liverpool. Despite his hard work the arms was
seized by the police on arrived in
happened in Ireland regarding a Rising in 1866. It seems
that Ricard traveled back and forth between England, Ireland
and the United States a number of times on Fenian business
in 1866 meeting with leaders on both sided of the Atlantic.
In January of 1867 he was back in London preparing for the
Rising originally scheduled for February,
but later changed to March.
Ricard was sent
to Waterford to take charge there. What he found was a disorganized group poorly armed with little prospect of
succeeding against well armed British soldiers and police. Instead of
engaging the British there he took his small contingent to
Tipperary hoping to join up with a larger Fenian contingent.
On finding that the Tipperary contingent was no better off
he sent his men home. The outcome in the other areas
of activity including Dublin, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick
ended in much the same way.
From the onset
the chances of a Fenian successful Rising was doomed by the
prior arrest of the leaders and the well planted core of
British traitors that permeated the Fenian ranks.
In late July to
early August of 1867 Ricard attended a General Convention of
the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Manchester where Thomas J. Kelly was appointed
Chief Executive. The IRB was the official name of the
Fenians in Ireland. Amongst other appointments
Ricard was given responsibility for activities in England.
A month later in September Kelly and his aide Timothy Deasy
were arrested. On the morning of September when they were
being transported from the court to the prison a contingent
of Fenians, on orders from Ricard, attacked the van and
rescued them. A prison guard was inadvertently killed during
the rescue. Three of five Fenian arrested for taking part (
The Manchester Martyrs) were hanged the following November.
On November 20,
1867 Ricard was arrested in London. He was placed in
the Clerkenwell House of Detention awaiting trial. In an
attempt to secure his escape the Fenians placed a
wheelbarrow laden with explosives against the prison wall
adjacent to the exercise yard to blow a hole and that would
allow Ricard to escape through. The first attempt on
December 12 failed due to a faulty fuse. A second
attempt the following day succeeded, but wit unintended
consequences. As well as blowing a hole in the wall the
explosion demolished a row of slum dwellings across the
street resulting in the death of six people. To make
matters worse Ricard did not escape as he was in his cell
when the explosion occurred. Michael Barrett, one of the
five people charged for the explosion and deaths was found
guilty and publicly hanged in May of 1868.
charged with "treason- felony" and tried at the Old Bailey
in London on April 28 through 30, 1868. He was found guilty
and sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. He spent
time in a number of prisons including Newgate, Millbank,
Chatham and Woking before been sent to Broadmoor in August
of 1870. During his time in prison he was very ill suffering
from symptoms of mercury poisoning; possibly
administered by an assistant doctor at Woking prison..
He was released,
on license, (parole) on July 6, 1871 and allowed to return
to Ireland due his poor health. He lived with his brother in
Cork for the next two years until his health sufficiently
improved to return to the United States, which he did in
to the States he secured a
in the War
Department in Washington through the influence of a friend
from the Civil War era, Adjutant General Drum.
He also joined Clan na Gael in Washington the offspring
to the Fenian Brotherhood. Although he
remained a loyal member for the rest of his life he refrained from
taking any leadership role in the organization. He was
involved with Parnell and John Dillon when they came to the
United Stated in 1880 to collect money for the Land League.
As a committed Republican he canvassed for Garfield in the
presidential election of 1880. It was
campaign he met his future wife, Nora Sheehy,
Fort Wayne, Indiana. He returned to
Washington with Nora where they were married.
After the Garfield campaign ended Ricard went to Mexico
where he was employed as an engineer on the construction of
the railroad from Laredo to Mexico
On his return to
he worked in Omaha, Nebraska, as Assistant City Engineer.
After that he relocated to Chicago he held a number of
appointments with the City the last been that of
Superintendent of Sewers.
Ireland for the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in 1915 where he
met Padraic Pearse.
He suffered a
stroke in 1917 and died in Chicago 1922.
HERE to view a
monument erected to his honor in Kinneigh
Contributed by: Tomas Ó Coisdealbha
Olivet Catholic Cemetery
2755 West 111th St. Chicago, IL 60655