One evil consequence of the penal laws was, that the Irish being denied the exercise of the honourable profession of arms at home, (as alluded to in the introduction to this section,) the high-mettled youth of the land were driven to take service under foreign banners; and England had often to regret the valour of such soldiers as their foes in defeat (as at Fontenoy, for instance), instead of rejoicing in it, as their friends in victory, which they have since done on many a well-fought field in the last half century. … † Here, I think, my friend Mr. Dalton [sic] does not justice to himself and his brother poets of Ireland; for, however hard was the lot of the expatriated Irish soldier, his story has not been “neglected,” nor his valour unsung by the bard.Poet: John D’Alton (1792–1867), born at Bessville in county Westmeat; lawyer, historian, biographer, and genealogist. Footnotes prepared by Samuel Lover, editor, in 1857.1
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 website, 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 emigrant ancestors.) John died in middle age—a not too uncommon outcome in the nineteenth century,—not only from a weakened constitution, but probably from the effects of his trade. As regimental tailor, he had 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 embarked at Chatham for assignments overseas.2
Source citation for this page: — Kilpatrick, Alison. Unsung Hero: John Burke of Claremorris, regimental tailor. Blog article published to Arborealis: arborealis.ca/blog/john-burke-unsung-hero/, 11 November 2015; edited 15th January 2021; accessed [insert date of access].
- Lover, Samuel, ed. The Lyrics of Ireland, edited and annotated. London: Houlston and Wright, 1857.
- St. Patrick’s Day is a tune recognized around the world, with roots well before it was first transcribed in 1792. Liam O’Connor’s fine article about the tune, St Patrick’s Day, including a 1929 recording played in the old ways of Irish musick making. Hosted online by The Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éirann.