Thomas Francis Bourke (1840-1889)

Thomas Francis Bourke was born in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, Ireland on December 10, 1840, the second of six children born to Edmond Bourke and Mary Bourke (nee) Dwyer.  Both parents were well educated having come from middle class families.  Edmond Bourke owned a successful painting and decorating business and as a result of family connections, garnered a large share of the contracts in his county. Nonetheless, the devastation caused by the famine years ruined his business causing the Bourke's, like so many other families, to leave Ireland or, possibly starve to death

In 1850, the Bourke's arrived in New York were Edmond was able to start a new painting and decorating business.  After a few years in New York his wife's health began to fail and, in order to help her cope with her illness, the family  relocated to St. John's  Newfoundland where the climate was more suitable to her state of health. Being a good businessman, Edmond Bourke succeeded in setting up a thriving business in St. Johns.  In all,  Edmond Bourke had managed to establish three businesses in three different countries; a testament to his tenacity and endurance.
In the meantime Thomas had acquired a certain competency in his father's business. When his father's health failed, possibly due to lead poisoning, the family relocated to Toronto. At this juncture Thomas became the sole breadwinner for the family. He relocated to Boston where work was plentiful in the large Irish community. When the  financial panic hit in 1857 he was forced to travel around the country finding work where and when he could.

After his father died in 1859  the family relocated to New York. Thomas continued to support them until the early 1860's when other members of the family came of age and found employment.

Bourke was working in New Orleans, the centre of a large Irish population when the Civil War began and like most Irishmen fought with the state in which they lived. In the latter half of 1861, Bourke joined the 7th Louisiana Infantry  regiment. It is not known exactly if Bourke enlisted or was conscripted. Either way he took part in the fighting around New Orleans in April of 1862. By May of 1862 the 7th Louisiana Infantry Regiment was in the Shenandoah Valley under the command of General “Stonewall” Jackson. The regiment engaged in a number of successful battles during the Valley Campaign which ended in June of 1862.

At the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September of 1862, the 7th Louisiana took part in the some of the fiercest fighting during the deadliest one-day battle of the Civil War.  The regiment was decimated suffering losses as high as 50%. Bourke was one of the lucky survivors.

During General Robert E. Lee's second march north the 7th Louisiana fought a number of skirmishes and battles including Marye's Heights in Virginia in early May of 1863.  By the end of June 1862, Lee's army had bypassed Harrisburg, Pennsylvania his original target, and were dispersed north and west of Gettysburg. The ensuing Battle of Gettysburg which was fought on July 1st to 3rd was Bourke's last battle. On July 3rd, possibly during the early morning assault on Culps Hill  two bullets passed through his upper thigh. Although he received the best care possible in a Union army hospital he never fully recovered the full use of his limb ending up with a limp. For the duration of the war he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp at Fort Delaware on the Delaware River near Wilmington.

On his return to New York in 1865 he set about finding work in the painting trade. Once established he joined the Wolfe Tone Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood and was made organizer for district of Manhattan shortly afterwards. His pleasant demeanor and easy going manner earned him the respect of his fellow Irishmen resulting in a huge increase in membership and a substantial boost to the Fenian treasury.

At the Fenian Convention in Philadelphia in 1865 a split occurred within the organization that pitted John O'Mahony of New York, who wanted to support an uprising in Ireland, against Colonel W. R. Roberts, who wanted to invade Canada. Bourke sided with O'Mahony arguing that an invasion of Canada was doomed to fail resulting in a terrible waste of lives and money.

In May of 1866, James Stephens, the leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland arrived in New York after his escape from Dublin's notorious Richmond Prison. Shortly after arriving he took over control of the Fenian Brotherhood from O’Mahony and appointed Colonel Thomas J. Kelly as his deputy. Immediately after taking control he started to campaign for a rising in Ireland.  However, by December of the same year  Stephens was calling for a delay as he felt that Ireland was not ready.  As a result of his vacillation, Stephens was replaced by Colonel Kelly and a date was set for an American supported rising in Ireland.

Bourke together with other Irish American leaders set sail for Ireland in January of 1867.  Although prepared to help in the planned Irish rising, Bourke, like the other Irish Americans who joined him, saw no great hope of success. All felt in honor bound to carry out the pledges they had given to help to free Ireland

The rising, which was originally scheduled to start on February 11, was postponed because the British were aware of the plans. As always they were well served by informers and traitors amongst them Massey and Corydon who had infiltrated the Fenians ranks.  The rescheduled rising for March 5 was a failure for a number of reasons including poor planning, a breakdown in communications and wholesale infiltration by British agents.

On March 6, Bourke led a column of poorly armed men who were involved in a skirmish with soldiers of the 31st (Huntingdonshire) Regiment. at Ballyhurst, Co.Tipperary.  Bourke was captured together with forty of his men and taken to Clonmel.  He was later transferred to Kilmainham Jail in Dublin to await trial. 

His trial was held in late April 1867. He was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

The following is an excerpt from his "Speech from the Dock" considered by many historians to rank amongst the greatest:

I have ties to bind me to life and society, as strong as any man in this court. I have a family I love as much as any man in this court does his. But I can remember the blessing received from an aged mother's lips, as I left her the last time. She spoke as the Spartan mother did—" Go, my boy. Return either with your shield or upon it." This reconciles me. This gives me heart. I submit to my doom, and I hope that God will forgive me my past sins. I hope, too, that inasmuch as He has for seven hundred years, preserved Ireland, notwithstanding all the tyranny to which she has been subjected, as a separate and distinct nationality, He will also retrieve her fallen fortunes—to rise in her beauty and her majesty, the sister of Columbia, the peer of any nation in the world

On pronouncing sentence the Chief justice summed up as follows:

As for You Thomas Bourke, you appear ... to have been one of the ringleaders of this treasonable design ... You brought your knowledge and your skill as a soldier to the furtherance of this conspiracy, in which ... you seem to glory. You have exhibited no hesitation and no remorse. You have been the Fenian head-centre for the district of Manhattan; your name is on the list of officers who were to carry out this conspiracy, and the district of Tipperary was assigned to your command ... The sentence of the Court is [the Chief Justice at this point donned the black cap] that you, Thomas Bourke . . . shall be taken from the place where you now stand, to the place from whence you came; and that on Wednesday, the 29th day of this month of May, you be taken on a hurdle, from that place to the place of execution, and that there you ... be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards the head ... shall be severed from its body, and the body ... divided into four quarters

On Monday May 27, 1867 two days before his scheduled execution his sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.

After a short stay in Mountjoy Jail, he was transferred to Millbank Prison near London with other Fenian activists. At the end of January 1871 following an amnesty campaign he was released and returned to America.  On arrival Bourke and his comrades received a heroes welcome. He was chosen for the Council of the Fenians in New York, on the 27th January 1876. In 1872 he was a candidate for the office of Sheriff of Brooklyn. He was defeated but shortly after became Deputy Sheriff. A few years later he became Clerk of Supply and Repairs in New York Department of Public Works. In early November 1889, Bourke became ill with acute inflammation of the kidneys. He died on the 10th November 1889 aged 49 at his home at 209 Thirty-sixth St., New York City.


Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

 CEMETERY and grave location

Name:      Calvary Cemetery                                                                   PHONE NO.   (718) 786-8002

ADDRESS:     4902 Laurel Hill Blvd,  Flushing,  NY 11377






click on the headstone inscription to enlarge

Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                            Posted 10/ 19/2011