During my dissertation research, I became very well acquainted with North Carolina Governor Thomas Burke, a fascinating man who tied all too early in his life, at the end of the Revolution (1783). Given my connections with Ireland, I was particularly interested in Burke, as he was born in Co. Galway. As I began to get deeper into the sources, I started to come across some stray references to Burke as a Catholic. That is very striking, in that during the colonial and revolutionary period, Catholics were barred from high office (among other disabilities.) How could Burke be a Congressman and a governor if he had been a practicing Catholic? Where would he have worshipped in NC, given the paucity of parishes or priests there at the time?
After 3 years and more of research into NC during this period, I came across no primary source references to Burke being a Catholic at all. Not a single one! Just because one comes from Galway, does not mean one is a Roman Catholic, but for some reason, writers and a few historians have stated in print that Burke was a Catholic. The on-line Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for North Carolina states: “Though there are few Catholics in the state, an unusual proportion have [sic] occupied prominent official positions. Thomas Burke was governor.”
Wikipedia, not a reliable source, states that “Burke was unusual for being a practicing Roman Catholic who succeeded politically in an era when Catholics held little political power and were often discriminated against.” The source? The on-line Catholic Encyclopedia, which gives no specific citation, and Stephen Beauregard Weeks’ Church and State in North Carolina (1893), which doesn’t name Burke at all.
There are plenty of 19th century and early 20th century histories of North Carolina, all of which tend to be loosely cited, to say the least. One of the most prominent is Samuel A. Ashe’s Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present (1905). This book notes Burke’s Irish roots, stating as well that Burke “was Roman Catholic in religion,” but frustratingly does not give a source for it.
Interestingly, there’s a Thomas Burke chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Raleigh. This is a VERY Catholic organization, so they must be convinced that Burke was Catholic himself. Can you imagine the furor if they found out he was a Orange!! I could find nothing on their website regarding foundation for Burke’s alleged Catholic faith.
If anyone can provide some hard proof of the link between Burke and Catholicism, I would love to have it. Perhaps if I am in Galway again, I can look for some baptismal records……..