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From FHM issue 140

What's in a name? Burke

This month we focus on a surname that travelled from Normandy to Ireland before finally arriving in England. People who carry the name are though to descend from the original ‘de Burgo’ or ‘de Burgh’ folk – the offspring of one William de Burgo – an immigrant to Ireland at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, who succeeded Strongbow as chief governor of the isle.

            William married Una O’Brien, the daughter of the king of Thomond, and in doing so he became the leader of Connacht. From there onwards William’s descendants in the 12th and 13th centuries settled in the province in counties like Mayo and Galway. The name was anglicised to Bourke and this, along with later mass immigration by the Irish to England, ensured its spread.

            The name’s meaning in French – ‘de Burgo’ or ‘de Burgh’, signifying “of the borough” – and in the Middle English translation – ‘burk’, meaning ‘fort’ – are locational/geographic in origin.

            There is no definite statistic on the number of Burkes living in England today, but we do know that the name continues to thrive. There has been a veritable boom in the last 100 years – in 1881 there were only 9,000 Burkes living in the UK, by 1998 there were over 21,000. The name is most commonly found in inner city urban areas of Manchester and Liverpool, where thousands of Irish people emigrated in search of a better life.

            A study carried out by the University of London suggests that nowadays the name Burke most often belongs to working and lower-middle class urbanites and can be linked to inner city and tower block living.

            There are a number of famous Burkes both past and present, including one of the most famous genealogists of the 19th century. Sir John Bernard Burke (1814–1892), was the creator of the prestigious Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom. This work, commonly known as Burke’s Peerage, has been issued every year since 1847 and continues to list the pedigrees of society’s upper ranks even today.

            Many other famous Burkes have been drawn to the arts. James Lee Burke (born 1936) is an American author best known for his mysteries, particular the Dave Robrncheuz series. He has twice received the Edgar Alan award for Best Novel, for Black Cherry Blues in 1990 and Cimarron Rose in 1998. Kathy Burke (born 1964), the actress and comedienne, is best known for her comedy roles alongside Harry Enfield and numerous film appearances. Also on the small screen is cable television presenter Brooke Burke (born 1971), a former Playboy Playmate.

            Musical Burkes include Solomon (born 1940) – a soul and country music singer and a member of the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of fame. He wrote and recorded the much-covered song ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ and had a hit with ‘Cry to Me’, which featured in the immensely popular film Dirty Dancing. Solomon has done his bit for the dissemination of the name, siring 21 children with a current tally of 84 offspring between them! Irish singer songwriter Chris de Burgh (born 1948), who had a worldwide hit with ‘Lady in Red’, retains the original ancestral name.

            The surname Burke has also inspired a sinister verb: ‘burking’. It comes from the Irish criminal William Burke (1792–1829) who migrated to Scotland and committed a gruesome series of murders in Edinburgh. With his partner, William Hare, Burke set up in business selling the bodies of people he had suffocated for medical experimentation. He killed his victims by getting them drunk, knocking them to the ground, and sitting on their chests while covering their mouths. ‘Burking’ is still used in murder cases to describe a method of killing that leaves few marks of violence.

Researching the Burkes

If you’re interested in learning more about the Burkes then your best bet is to follow your line back to your family’s, almost inevitable immigration to the UK from Ireland during the 19th or 20th centuries. Continue your search within Ireland where it is the 14th most common surname – it is estimated there are still 20,000 Irish Burkes.

            Your first stop should be buying the book A History of De Burgh, De Burca, Burke of Ireland by author Jim Burke, who has dedicated many years of research in national and local libraries in Ireland and Britain to locating parish records and grave sites. The book is available from his website:

            You may also like to contact the West and East Galway Family History Societies – email them at and A good website to check is; which has links to every county in Ireland as well as an active forum – you might even end up speaking to one of your distant cousins!

            Ancestry’s American site ( is also a vital resource in researching Burke history. It has information about the origins of the name, name distribution, meaning, newspaper headlines containing Burke and even life expectancy.

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