Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A fenian colonel, a hapless explorer, a bonesetting politician and a pair of serial killers

Ricard (no 'h') O'Sullivan Burke was about 18 when he deserted from the Cork militia - whose name I can never hear without thinking of Percy French's comic song Slattery's Mounted Fut, now somewhat disfavored for its paddywhackery - went to New York, then Central and South America, then California (gold mining), then Chile (joined the cavalry), then back to New York just in time for the civil war. He enlisted in the union army and fought at Bull Run, Yorktown, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg, among other places, and was eventually discharged in 1865 with the rank of brevet colonel, "having gone through the war without a scratch". In his spare time, he organized the Fenian Brotherhood in the Army of the Potomac, preparing himself for peacetime, when he was sent to England to buy guns for the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Like his probably distant relative Thomas Francis Bourke, who fought on the conferederate side, Burke was dispatched to Ireland to provide military experience in the 1867 Fenian uprising. The revolt was something of a fiasco: in Waterford, where Bourke was placed in charge of the Fenian rebels, only around 50 turned out and Bourke sent them home.  He went back to England to buy more arms, was arrested and sentenced to 14 years penal servitude. Broken physically and mentally by harsh treatment while incarcerated, he was ultimately released from a prison for the criminally insane in 1871.

Back in the United States, he perked up, wrote patriotic verse, became a well-regarded public speaker, and advised the Fenians on engineering matters, including the extraordinary attempt to finance the building of the submarine designed by John P Holland (more on that when we get to the Hs). He built a railway in Mexico and became assistant city engineer in Omaha, all the while engaged in republican politics - introducing Charles Stewart Parnell to the house of representative and campaigning for James Garfield. What else? When he was 43 he eloped with a 20 year old: he lived to 84.

Many years ago, back in my journalist days, I wrote a magazine feature about a British television series, The Last Place on Earth, written by Trevor Griffiths, about the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, based on a book by Roland Huntford. The series caused no end of trouble, principally because it took the view that if everybody on an expedition dies, its leader may be incompetent, not heroic. This seemed to be demonstrably the case given the successes of contemporary polar venturers such as Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton in returning to Europe with their expedition parties largely intact (in Shackleton's case, after masterminding some quite extraordinary rescue and escape plans). All those years later, people seemed to prefer the myth of Scott the doomed hero to Griffiths' depiction of a useless upper class twit (I exaggerate: although that was the gravamen of the case, the portrait was much more nuanced and Scott was finely played by the actor Martin Shaw). All of this came back to me when I was reminded of the Australian equivalent of Scott's expedition: the cross-continental trek of the explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (pictured) and William Wills.

Burke was the Irishman, born in Co. Galway, educated in Belgium and London. He was a Hungarian army officer and an Irish policeman before emigrating to Australia, where he became a well-regarded recruit to the Victoria constabulary. Perhaps because he was liked or politically connected - certainly not for any ability to do the job - he was placed at the head of a trans-continental expedition in 1860. (There were two other Irishmen on the trek, John King and Charles Gray.) Burke made a series of eccentric decisions - dumping some supplies, leaving others behind, walking instead of riding the 25 camels they had brought with them - and fought with other expendition members. After one tiff, Wills was promoted to number two. Nearly six months after setting out from Melbourne, the three Irishmen and Wills reached the northern coast in February 1861. They they tried to go back, with insufficient food. Gray died first, in April. The three others reached their supply post to discover it had been abandoned by other expedition members who had fallen ill and had not received promised resupply. They spent two months reeling around the bush, cadging occasional food from aborigines, who Burke attempted to encourage by firing off gun rounds in their vicinity. He died in June, a day or so after Wills. King, perhaps more prudently, joined an aboriginal group and survived.

Naturally, Burke was proclaimed a hero and given a state funeral and a fine statue in Melbourne. (Irrelevantly, a parliamentary inquiry found that he had acted recklessly.) The DIB places him nicely in two contexts: "his trek forged a myth of heroic failure that has helped shape Australian culture" and "also revealed to more perceptive contemporaries the great skills of aboriginal tribesmen, able to fend for themselves in a landscape that defeated white colonists with every material asset."

As I've mentioned before, I'm skipping interminable Burkes who were earls, lords and baronets, all of whom were unquestionably weighty in their own way, but whose lives somehow merge together in my own insensitive mind. For instance, there was major Burke activity during the Confederation of Kilkenny from 1641-1649, a brief period during which Ireland, or significant parts thereof, freed itself from English rule, before being utterly crushed by Oliver Cromwell. It's an extremely important period of Irish history, characterized by the most byzantine political machinations and of course ending in abject defeat, although not without its moments of glory. I just can't engage with it: I think it's because I made the mistake of flipping the pages to the end of the story, so I know how it turns out. After that, wading through the machinations that lead to the inevitable denouement is just too hard for me. Sorry Burkes, Ormonds, Rinuccinis and others.

Now here's a Burke I can do business with: Thomas Burke, "politician, farmer and bonesetter". He was from Co. Clare, and built his popularity as a setter of broken bones, although the local establishment was less keen on his avocation: one judge chewed out the people of Clare for being too mean to pay for doctors. His paramedical skills propelled him into politics, first as a local councillor, then in the Dáil, where he sat for 14 years. He was dropped from the farmers' party, the Clann na Talmhan, because he refused to pay a levy on his parliamentary salary: in danger of losing his seat, he told Clare voters that he deplored "people so ungrateful as to forget what I have done for them when they were ... only a mere bundle of shattered bones." To send the message home, in the box for party affiliation on the ballot, he inserted the word "Bonesetter". He was re-elected comfortably.

And who wouldn't want to read of William Burke the murderer? Maybe the Burkes work best in pairs, for after Burke and Wills, we have Burke and Hare, the cadaverists. Both were Irish - Burke from Co. Tyrone and William Hare from Newry or Derry - and both ended up in Scotland. The two men and their consorts found themselves in the same boarding house in Edinburgh, run by Mrs. Hare, also from Ulster. Their new business started innocently enough. A lodger died, owing money, and they sold his body to an anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox, for  £7 10s. - a lot of money and nearly twice what they were owed. They decided to go into the corpse business, but also to skip the awkward time waiting for people to die, preferring sedation with liquor followed by manual suffocation. In all, they killed 17 people, all of which were sold for good money to a grateful Dr. Knox. Eventually, they were arrested and charged with murder. Hare gave evidence against Burke and managed to escape with the Scottish verdict of "not proven" - not an acquittal but sufficient to secure his release. Burke was hanged in public before a jeering crowd of 20,000. Hare, Mrs. Hare and Burke's lover Helen McDougal all slipped away. When he wasn't practicing mass murder, Burke was apparently "rather jocose and quizzical", "enjoyed music" and "was friendly and affectionate towards local children". That wouldn't include the 12 year old boy he killed for money.

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