On May 11 1844 the midwife, Mrs Healy was called to Castlelodge House near Kinvara, Co. Galway to aid in the delivery of the child of Rev William John Burke and his wife Catherine. There was complications so the local doctor was called out who attended to Mrs Burke. The baby, was not delivered then and there but he helped to ease her discomfort and left before the birth.
The Burke’s who wanted to keep the birth of their child a secret as there was a great amount of animosity against them, since Rev Burke renounced his faith a few weeks previously. Fearing for their own safety and that of the child’s they kept a low profile and did not want the public to know about their child. As they were only married a month before in the Protestant Church it looked like it was a shotgun wedding. There were married the previous year in the Catholic Church, but that was not recognised by their ‘enemies’, and it was a good excuse to rally against the couple.
Rev William John Burke did not want to public to know about the child and asked the doctor, midwife and apothecary to take an oath (swear on the bible) to keep the birth a secret. Naturally the doctor would not disclose any information about his patients, but both the midwife and apothecary were sworn to secrecy. They kept their word but the news got out anyway.
Administering oaths was a serious act, which few people had the power to do, such as a the judge in a court of law. The authorities heard of the situation and Rev William John Burke was summoned to court.
Sadly the baby did not survive.
The old courthouse in Galway 1820
Freeman’s Journal 03 August 1844. p3
Hardiman, James, et al. The History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway From the Earliest Period …: To Which Is Added, a Copious Appendix, Containing the Principal Charters and … Documents. Dublin: Printed by W. Folds and sons, 1820.
Emily Arabella Maynard Burke was born on 18 September 1867 to Rev William John Burke and his second wife Emily nee McArthur. Emily was the third child of born to the Rev and second Mrs Burke. She was born at Windsor Terrace in Edenderry Co. Offaly. The terrace of three houses still stands, however it is next to impossible to tell exactly which one she lived in.
Emily’s Birth Announcement
Windsor Terrace, Edenderry. The birthplace of Emily Weddall
Belfast News-Letter 24 September 1867 P 2
The secret so heavily guarded by Rev William John Burke, was that Mrs Burke was pregnant. It would have appeared that in May 1844 she gave birth shortly after their marriage. This was true however, the couple were married for the first time the previous year, in another church.
He and his wife kept the pregnancy a secret especially after the violent suffered by Rev Burke when he renounced his faith a few weeks previously. It is impossible to keep a secret in a small town and word go out about the condition of Mrs Burke. When his wife took ill in the late stages of pregnancy Rev Burke sent for medical help. He tried to swear the doctor, apothecary and midwife, all of who attended his wife to secrecy. Of course the word got out..Very soon Rev Burke found himself in the dock at the Galway Assizes.
Limerick Reporter 11 June 1844. P 3
Sometime between August 1843 and April 1844 Fr William John Burke converted from a Catholic to the Protestant faith. It was not uncommon at the time. There were quite a few church missions across the country such as those set up by Alexander Dallas and Edward Nagle.
Many organisations were established in the early nineteenth century to convert Irish Catholics to Scriptural Protestantism. some, such as the Irish Society (1818) and the Achill Mission (1834) were run by members of the Church of Ireland while others were undertaken by Protestant mission of other denominations… The Irish Society was also active in north Mayo…
The Mission spread to some areas in Co. Galway and this is possibly where William John Burke converted. Whether he sought them out or it was the other way round in April 1844 he was back in his home parish of Kinvara renouncing Catholicism from the altar.
…On 22 April 1844 he renounced the Catholic Church and became a minister of the Church of Ireland. The scene of this extraordinary occurrence was the little Protestant Church that once stood across the street from the present Community Centre…
The street in Kinvara where the church that William John Burke renounced his former faith. (Photo by Ciaran Parkes)
The paper carried the following report of the incidence.
We learn that the Rev. William John Burke, who for the last thirteen years has been a Romish priest, publicly red his recantation, and conformed to the united Church of England and Ireland, in St. John’s Church, Kinvarra, in the county Clare, on Sunday last. During the return of the Rev. Mr Burke, from Church, in the carriage with the two clergymen, the Rev. Mr. Moran and the Rev. Mr. Nason, who had been present at the ceremony, a mob of nearly two thousand persons, we are informed, assembled with shouting as the party passed, and threw several stones at the carriage. One of them struck the carriage, but the party being well armed, and defended by a body of police, escaped serious consequences. Such is the genius of Popery. – Dublin Statesman
The churchyard, now a green area where the church once stood. (Photo by Ciaran Parkes)
This incident alone was enough to discredit the William John Burke in the eyes of his enemies but, another event was about to unfold. Although he did his best to keep it quiet his secret got out and his enemies found out. It did not take long for William John Burke to be arrested and tried at the Galway Assizes accused of a felony, which carried the sentence of transportation to Australia.
Ciaran Parkes for photographs
Moffitt, Miriam. Soupers & Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara, 1848-1937. Dublin: Nonsuch, 2008. P 10
O’Connell, J. W., Thomas Quinn, and Gerardine Quinn. St. Colman’s Church: Its Place in the History of the Parish of Kinvara. [Kinvara]: O’Connell-Quinn, 1988. P 54
Kentish Gazette Tuesday 07 May 1844
When William John Burke married the Widow Kennedy in August 1843, he was still a Catholic Priest. The scandal created by the marriage forced the couple to leave the church. Sometime between that date and April 1844 he and his bride converted to Protestantism. It is unclear if he left the church of his own validation or he was invited to leave. When he changed religion he was married in his new faith on 13 April 1844 at Kilfenora Church Co. Clare. Unlike his first this wedding was not kept secret and was announced in the papers, customary at the time.
After the marriage the couple retreated to Castlelodge House, William John Burke’s original home near Kinvara, Co Galway. But what came after their marriage the couple did their best to keep as secret.
Lancaster Gazette February 21, 1846. Page 2
Hereford Journal April 17, 1844. P2.