Australian ambassador traces living link to his nation’s past

Donal O’Regan


Donal O’Regan

THE AUSTRALIAN ambassador described a visit to County Limerick to see the ancestral home and burial place of a man revered in his home country as “inspiring”.

THE AUSTRALIAN ambassador described a visit to County Limerick to see the ancestral home and burial place of a man revered in his home country as “inspiring”.

Sir Richard Bourke was born in Dublin in 1777 to Limerick parents - John and Anne Bourke, Drodorsally, Cappamore. In 1831 he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia and his contribution to the early decades of the country is taught to every child in school.

Governor Bourke is credited with improving the lot of former convicts and approving a new settlement which he called Melbourne.

In later life Governor Bourke returned to Limerick and lived in Thornfield House, Lisnagry where his last remaining male blood relative – Gerard Bourke, 90, still resides.

Australian Ambassador Bruce Davis visited Thornfield and All Saints Church in Castleconnell before his term ends shortly.

“Governor Bourke is one of the great governors of the early part of the 19th century. He was very involved in the movement away from a military to more of a civil establishment and giving broader roles to former convicts.

“He was particularly interested that those who had been sent out previously could join society – serve on juries and own property in a way that up until his time hadn’t been possible. He is one of the reforming governors of that period.

“He was the first person to go down and start a new town which ended up being the city of Melbourne. One of the big streets to this day is Bourke Street,” said Mr Davis, who was speaking in the splendour of Thornfield House last Thursday.

After a lunch in the Bourke ancestral home for the ambassador and All Saints vestry hosted by Patricia Haselbeck Flynn, Mr Davis visited with Seamus Flynn and Gerard Bourke

As luck would have it this was the first winter in 25 years the great, great grandson of Sir Richard Bourke wasn’t wintering in Thailand.

“It is a great pleasure to have him here,” said Mr Bourke, who signed a copy of his autobiography for the ambassador.

“It is a fantastic story that there is member of the family right through to this day with the Bourke name. It’s a pleasure to meet him. It is a great opportunity to meet someone who in that sense represents a lot of continuity in the Irish Australian relationship,” said Mr Davis.

And while Mr Bourke may be missing the warmer climes of Asia he was delighted he didn’t miss the ambassador.

After leaving Thornfield House, Mr Davis was given a guided tour of All Saints Church in Castleconnell and the cemetery where Governor Bourke was laid to rest.

Governor Bourke actually died during a service in the church in 1855 said church warden, Edward Richardson and curate assistant, Lucy Green. A large plaque in the church commemorates him to this day.

Governor Bourke’s legacy in Australia is better known but he also made a big contribution to life in Limerick. Unlike some other landlords, Governor Bourke was very well liked.

“He built a school in Ahane for all the children. The British Government built a barracks for him to protect him from the Fenian element and he told them that he ‘needed no protection from his own people’ so he turned it in to a dispensary for his own people,” said Mr Richardson.

After visiting the Bourke mausoleum, Mr Davis said the trip for he and his wife, Meg Johnson, had been inspiring: “We will remember it fondly. Being able to draw those links between the residence and coming here and the whole history associated with his family is just fascinating.”

A Barbara Hartigan painting of Sir Richard Bourke presented to Mr Davis will be a constant reminder when they return Down Under.