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Unsung Hero

top of British Army discharge form for John Burke

The earliest soldier in our family history is John Burke, born in 1795 in the parish of Kilcolman, county Mayo. Just four records survive for this earliest known ancestor of our Burke line: his British Army service record, a separate regimental register of service, the baptism of his daughter, and the English civil registration of his death—rendering the composition of a biographical sketch for him a great challenge.

In cases like this, I undertake a particularly careful study of the contemporary literature, including newspaper accounts—to learn the socio-economic, political, and geographical context in which an ancestor lived, thrived, or struggled to survive. While this might seem a pale imitation of a person's real life, in fact this study has filled in many of the blanks, and also proven very satisfying.

... and at once, humbling. In modern Western culture, we have no concept of the trials suffered by our ancestors and especially, I submit, the Irish of the so-called "lower order." Imagine, if you will, the early years of the nineteenth century, being confronted with the perils of eking out a living on land that you can never call your own, subject to the whims of a landlord who can evict you on a moment's notice, your priests not only villified but legislated outlaws, and no charitable institutions to provide relief to the poor.

In the course of this study, the most striking word I've encountered is expatriation—the institutionalized practice of the British government of plundering the young male population of Ireland to wage its wars. As a cruel twist of that particular fate, in 1815, when "the Peace" reigned over the land, young Irishmen found employment, even as day labourers, increasingly scarce.

How ironic it is, then, that John Burke found employment in 1817, by attesting to, first, the 96th (Queen's Own) Regiment, and subsequently, the 39th Regiment of Foot. I hope that the biographical sketch, local history notes, and military service transcripts, included on this web site, provide sufficient information to provide background and perspective where records otherwise do not survive for this man.

Ultimately, I wonder whether John Burke, in pursuit of a more comfortable existence, merely traded the hardships of life in the parish of Kilcolman for the trials and tribulations suffered on His Majesty's service. (So often, this was the case for immigrant ancestors.) John died in middle age—not too uncommon an outcome in the nineteenth century,—not only from a weakened constitution, but probably from the effects of his trade, having laboured from daylight to eight in the evening, year in and year out, in cramped and poorly ventilated quarters. And for these troubles, soldiers like John Burke were derided as "feather-bed soldiers," in other words, for not having seen hard service.

Yes, the irony is too rich, and enough to make one weep.

In honour and remembrance, then, of John Burke, and the legions of Irishmen sent off to fight H.M.'s wars, this rendition of the Patrick's Day march, so often played as new recruits were embarked at Chatham for assignments overseas.


description of John Burke in British Army discharge form

(penned 11th November 2015.)

:—: Please note that this is an archived version of the original post. Eventually, as other parts of Arborealis are republished to this reconstructed site, we hope to restore the links included in the original blog article. — A. Kilpatrick (18th Jan. 2020)

Source citation: Kilpatrick, Alison. "Unsung Hero: John Burke (1795–1839) of Claremorris, county Mayo, Private, 39th Regiment of Foot." Blog article published to Arborealis, 11th November 2015; online at www.arborealis.ca/blog/2015-11-11.html; accessed [insert date of access].

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