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From Limerick to Australia: The story of Richard Bourke

Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855) was a colonel, philanthropist and colonial governor. As a young man, Richard was an accomplished army officer who served across the globe. However, it was the Limerick man’s reformative work on education in Ireland and progressive governorship of the Cape of Good Hope and New South Wales in later life that cemented his place in Irish, South African and Australian history.(1) Curated by Seamus Flynn, Bourke’s life and legacy is explored in a new exhibition at The People’s Museum of Limerick.

Born to Limerick parents in 1777, Bourke belonged to Ireland’s landowning class. Related to Dublin-born statesman and renowned parliamentary orator Edmund Bourke, Richard grew to be a bright gentleman who studied law at Westminster School and Oxford. He campaigned as ensign with the Grenadier Guards in the Netherlands, Spain and Uruguay following his esteemed education.

Whilst Bourke battled across the globe as promoted colonel, Roman Catholics in Ireland fought intolerance from Irish parliament. (2) After the Napoleonic Wars, Richard retired from military service and joined the progressive Whig party. In 1811, Richard and his wife Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Bourke of Carshalton (1774-1832) moved to Thornfield House in Castleconnell. The Bourke’s shared their landed class, Christian faith, reforming spirit and love for Limerick. (3)

Thornfield House, Limerick, circa 1910. Image received from Dr Matthew Potter, Limerick Museum.

Against the backdrop of Britain’s industrial revolution, wealthy evangelicals, such as the Bourke’s, dominated improvement schemes for the physical and spiritual welfare of working class labourers.(4) On the move to Limerick, Betsy was appointed secretary to the Limerick branch of the British and Irish Ladies Society for Relief of Irish Peasantry. (5) In his retirement Richard was High Sherriff of Limerick and chairman of the Limerick branch of the London Committee for Irish Relief; Britain’s first extensive response to famine conditions in Ireland.

Though freedom to worship and political rights were granted to Irish Roman Catholics in the 1790s, the Bourke’s arrival to Castleconnell started significant improvements for Limerick’s predominantly Catholic working class. (6) Funded by the Bourke’s, Ahane National School was built in Castleconnell in 1823. Here, children of all Christian denominations were taught. (7) Bourke later transferred Ahane School to the Irish National School Board; a trust that educated Ireland’s working class and reduced sectarian conflict on a larger scale. In his retirement, Bourke helped establish a model agricultural school in Limerick. This school later became Mungret College.

Richard and Betsy Bourke were parents to eight children. By 1825, Betsy’s health was failing. After fourteen years in Limerick, the family decided a change of scenery would be best for Betsy. (8) Richard’s appointment as governor of the Cape of Good Hope swapped Ireland’s cold and wet weather for the Mediterranean-type climate of South Africa. Unbeknownst to the Bourke family, Betsy would never return to Limerick.

As governor, Bourke had full authority over the Cape of Good Hope’s colonial society from 1826 to 1828. The public had no presence or say at Cape council meetings in the 1820s and all civil and judicial establishments were modelled on Great Britain. Bourke applied Ahane School’s philosophy of equal opportunity to an ethnically and religiously diverse British colony. He ensured the oppressed indigenous people’s of the Cape, many of whom were unpaid labourers, acquired equal status to South African’s of European origin by law.(9)

Though governor Bourke was progressive in his pursuit for equal education and opportunities for colonists, he nor his family were immune to a common colonial elite attitude in the 1800s that indigenous people’s were inferior.(10) In 1835, governor Bourke issued discriminatory legislation that dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land. On the family’s six-month long journey from Portsmouth dock to Sydney Cove in 1831, intolerant language toward the nomadic people of South Africa and Aboriginals featured in the diary of Richard’s middledaughter, Anne. (11)

Statue of Governor Bourke, State Library of New South Wales. Image received from Dr Matthew Potter, Limerick Museum.

In his six-year tenure in Australia, governor Bourke successfully reformed policy on religion, education and emancipists. By his administration, the economic growth and prosperity of New South Wales’ colony accelerated. Tragically, Betsy died just six months after the Bourke’s arrival to Sydney. Despite facing personal loss and opposing Torie factions in New South Wales’ councils, Bourke persisted with his liberal plans and was also instrumental in laying out the city of Melbourne.(12) In 1836 the Limerick man penned to Ireland that immigrating to Australia would ensure a life of religious and social freedoms for all. (13)

From Sydney’s First Government House, Bourke supported emancipists rights and ensured all religious denominations were equal in New South Wales’ European population by abolishing the status of a state church. (14) Following the core principle of Ahane School in Limerick, governor Bourke earnestly appealed that New South Wales’ children from all religious denominations be educated together. Forced to abandon his cause due to opposition from the Anglican church, Bourke ensured equal subsidy for all Christian schools before returning to Ireland in 1837. (15)

Sir Richard Bourke was memorialized in history as a promoter of national education in Ireland and Australia, a liberal lawmaker, and convict emancipator.(16) At New South Wales’ public library in 1842, he was commemorated in bronze and stone in Australia’s first public monument. Today, Limerick is celebrated as the burial place and ancestral home of the revered colonel, philanthropist and governor Bourke.(17)

Inscription on the tomb of General Sir Richard Bourke in Stradbally graveyard, circa 1985. Image received from Dr Matthew Potter, Limerick Museum.

We look forward to finally being able to launch the Bourke exhibition, which has waited behind closed doors during the various lockdowns, once we are allowed to welcome back visitors to our museum.

Thank you to team member Aisling McNamara, for researching and putting this piece together.

Portrait of Richard Bourke currently hanging in the People’s Museum of Limerick.
  1. Max Waugh, Forgotten Hero: Richard Bourke, Irish-born governor of New South Wales, 1831-1837 (Victoria, 2005).
  2. Eamon O’Flaherty, ‘Ecclesiastical politics and the dismantling of the penal laws in Ireland, 1774-82’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxvi (Jan. 1988) pp.33, 50.
  3. St. Johns, ‘Elizabeth Bourke: a much lamented lady by Catie Gilchrist’ (https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/42973874.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3a6bc8770a0dc626336fc4e96aff27dd) (3 Mar. 2020).
  4. Douglas Holladay, ‘19th century Evangelical activism: from private charity to state intervention, 1830-1850’ in Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 51 (Mar.1982) pp.53-79.
  5. Letters to Thomas Spring Rice from Sir Richard Bourke, 1829-30 (N.L.I., Monteagle papers, Ms.13,370/3).
  6. William Edward Hartpole Lecky, A history of England in the eighteenth century (New York, 1890) p.283.
  7. Evidence to the select committee to the House of Lords to enquire into the nature and extent of the disturbances in Ireland, pp.183-184, H.L. 1825, ix.
  8. Hazel King, Richard Bourke (London, 1971) p.56.
  9. Jennifer Ridden, ‘Richard Bourke’s views on citizenship and education’ in Old Limerick Journal, 30 (Nov.1993) p.15; St. John’s, ‘The significance of St. John’s cemetery, Parramatta, by Judith Dunn’ (https://stjohnsonline.org/significance/) (2 Mar.2020); Britannica, ‘European and African interaction in the 19th century’ (https://www.britannica.com/place/Southern-Africa/European-and-African-interaction-in-the-19thcentury#ref479721) (17 Mar. 2021).
  10. Miléna Santoro and Erick Langer, Hemispheric indigeneities: native identity and agency in meso America, the Andes and Canada (Nebraska, 2018) p.165.
  11. Diary of Anne Bourke, 27 Dec. 1831 (N.L.A, papers of the Bourke family, (M1863).
  12. Arnall and Jackson, Victorian municipal directory with gazetteer (Melbourne, 1895) p.205.
  13. Leinster Journal, 23 Apr, 1836.
  14. Jack Gregory, ‘State aid to religion in the Australian colonies 1788-1895’ in Victorian Historical Journal, ii, 70 (Jan.1999) p.131.
  15. Max Waugh, ‘The efforts of Sir Richard Bourke in promoting national education in Ireland and New South Wales, 1828-1855’ in The Old Limerick Journal (May, 2001) p.48.
  16. The Dictionary of Sydney, ‘Bourke, Richard’ (https://dictionaryofsydney.org/person/bourke_richard) (26 Mar. 2021).
  17. Limerick Leader, 17 Nov., 2012.

7 replies on “From Limerick to Australia: The story of Richard Bourke”

Well done Aisling, what a beautifully woven lyrically written well told story , the Aussies will love it .

An outstanding summary of a great humanitarian, Richard Bourke, and his many achievements in Ireland, South Africa and Australia. I am particularly delighted that his passion for public education is highlighted – in Limerick through the Ahane National School and the Mungret Agricultural College – and in New South Wales through his agitation for National Education (modelled on the Irish system so prominent at the time), which was finally achieved here some 20 years later. I agree that like his British peers, Bourke took only a token interest in the indigenous people of Australia at the time, and therefore contributed to the ‘Terra Nullius’ view that the native Australians had no claim over their conquered territory. But despite this shortcoming Richard Bourke is revered in Australia today, not only for his contribution to state education, his championing of the ex-convict emancipist cause, freedom of the press, public law reform and assisted migration.
Finally, l wish the Limerick People’s Museum every success in staging this ‘From Limerick to Australia’ exhibition.
Dr Max Waugh
Retired Lecturer in the History of Education
Monash University
Melbourne
Victoria
Australia

As a great great great grandson of Richard Bourke I am very pleased to be informed about this exhibition. I learnt more about his contribution to Ireland from this excellent essay. My thanks to all involved. As a contemporary wrote to Lord Monteagle, Bourke “had that rare gift – beauty of manner: the proportions of his mind were right: his presence encouraged and assured one”. Anthony Bourke, Sydney NSW. Australia

Great read! As a Limerick man who worked for a year on Bourke Street in the heart of Melbourne City Centre, I was disappointed to have never heard about him at all until recently.
We need to have greater emphasis on Local History in our school curriculum.
I’m sure it would have been something Bourke would have included in his school curriculum. Although I will say I was disappointed to hear his family had an intolerant view toward indigenous peoples. All in all a very informative and engaging article with some photos I’ve never seen before.
Thanks for putting this together

We Bourke descendants in Australia are very appreciative about this article and the exhibition. It is very informative for us about Richard Bourke’s life in Ireland especially. On his death, Arthur Helps wrote to Lord Monteagle that Richard Bourke “had that rare gift – beauty of manner: the proportions of his mind were right: his presence encouraged and assured one”. Anthony Bourke

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