Monthly Archives: August 2015


Fr William John Burke was a Catholic priest for thirteen years. In 1844 he left the church for good or was invited to leave, it is not clear which. Previous to his exit, he was growing increasingly disenchanted with the church, in fact this seed was sewn back in during his training at Maynooth. In lectures years later he spoke out against the college, particularly about what he perceived to be their disloyalty to the system in place at the time. In his own words: “I entered the college a loyal subject [to the king], but quitted it the vilest rebel”.

In his early career as a priest an incident occurred that had him calling his faith into question.  The year was 1832, and he was assisting the Parish Priest of in a nearby parish. While doing the rounds the topic of Confession came up. The older priest told him that he had a murder/robber for confession early that morning and that he absolved the criminal of those sins. Fr Burke did not take the matter up at the time but on his way home the same evening he was met by a parishioner who told him that parish priest refused him absolution of his sins because he attended the baptism of a Protestant child. The Parish Priest told if he wanted his sins absolved that he would have to go to the bishop, to obtain forgiveness of such a damning sin, as he had not the power.

Fr Burke could not begin to understand that cold blooded murder was a lesser sin than being present at a Protestant ceremony. “The Romish priest whom I assisted had the power, and willingly absolved the murderer and robber of Mr. Blood, and the same priest could not nay, peremptorily refused, granting absolution tone of his own parishioners for being present a the baptism of the child of his Protestant friend…”

He remained a Catholic Priest for another twelve years…


Kilmacdugh, William John Burke's Diocese

Kilmacdugh, William John Burke’s Diocese

Larry O’Neil Photographer
The Belfast Protestant Journal, Saturday March 7 1846



Yorkshire Gazette, June 2 1855. P3




In 1844 he




Home Again

In the foliage is the remains of a tiny church. It is completely enclosed and can only be accessed from through the houses. It may have been the church that William John Burke was Baptised in...

In the foliage is the remains of a tiny church. It is completely enclosed and can only be accessed from through the houses. It may have been the church that William John Burke was Baptised in…

After ordination in 1831, Fr William John Burke was sent to Peterswell, in Co Galway. Later on that year he was transferred again back home to Kinvara. He was made administrator of the newly built, St Colman’s Church . Incidentally, his father had contributed to the building of the same church  a few years earlier. His arrival marked the beginning of record keeping in the church. The cover page of the registrar contains the following inscription:

A Register of the Baptisims, Marriages and Certificates of the United Parish of Kinvarra, Duras and Killina, by Rev Wm J Burke

June 26th 1831

Fr William John Burke’s first ceremony performed in the parish was the baptism of John Fahy on 28th June 1831. His record keeping seemed meticulous and was the first priest to document the religious events of his parishioners. He remained there as parish Priest of Kinvara until 1834. His time there initially was quite and unremarkable, however, when he returned their again a decade later under very different circumstance it was far from peaceful…

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.


William John Burke was ordained a deacon at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 1830. He was a step away from being fully ordained a priest, but ill health forced his to leave short of that. He recovered and wanted to finish his training abroad, like some of his contemporaries. He asked for permission to follow their example but it was not granted to him, instead he finished his training at St. John’s College, Waterford where he was ordained in 1831.

His first parish after ordination was Peter’s Well in County Galway. This probably did not satisfy the ambitious William John Burke, but he complied with the authorities on this occasion…

Ní Dheirg, Íosold. Emily M. Weddall: Bunaitheoir Scoil Acla. Baile Atha Cliath: Coisceim, 1995.


All in all William John Burke spent five years at Maynooth, from his entry in 1825 to his ordination as a deacon in 1830. He was a studious pupil and did well in his exams. On the surface it appear that his time there was given to study and the spiritual journey towards priesthood. That was the case but there was other undercurrents beneath the surface too.

Maynooth College

Maynooth College

In the five years William John Burke spent at St Patrick’s Maynooth there was a lot of political change, and social unrest in Ireland. The campaign for Catholic Emancipation took place between 1823 till 1829, when it was finally achieved.

St Patrick's

St Patrick’s today



When William John Burke entered the seminary at Maynooth in 1825 he was dedicated to his vocation. He studied hard and subsequently did well in his exams. He had no ambitions other than that of becoming a priest. He may have given main priorities to his studies, but he could not ignore the political events that were unfolding in the world outside, events that would have an impact on him directly.

While William John Burke was attending St Patrick’s of Maynooth from 1825-30 the one of the biggest political issues of the first thirty years of the nineteenth century –  ‘The Catholic question’, was drawing to a conclusion.  At the time Catholics were excluded from high ranking positions, in government.

Catholic Emancipation was finally granted by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 13 April 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 7). It provided a new oath of allegiance, enabling Catholics to enter Parliament. Catholics were allowed to belong to any corporation and to hold certain positions that they were previously barred from, namely, many high-ranking Governmental, administrative and judicial offices. The Act applied to the whole of the United Kingdom.

This new act should have pleased him, but it only served to divide his loyalties. Like his father he was a loyal subject to the King, but his peers and the college authorities were not. He fell under their influence. In his own words:

“I say I left it a rebel of the first water, thirsting, desiring, and praying for the destruction of the British empire, and solely because it was Protestant. Those I say were my own feelings and sentiments.”

But his feeling would change…

rebel at maynoothHe remained at Maynooth until 1830, when he was made a deacon. But illness forced him to deffer his ordination until a later date. When he recovered he did not return but did his final year in St John’s of Waterford where he was ordained in 1831.

Yorkshire Gazette June 2 1855. P 3
The Cambridge Chronicle and University Jornal, Isle of Ely Herald, and Huntingdonshire Gazette. May 12 1855


Ní Dheirg, Íosold. Emily M. Weddall: Bunaitheoir Scoil Acla. Baile Atha Cliath: Coisceim, 1995.