Ireland and the Bourke’s parrot

Danny Quain, Bourke’s breeder from Ireland told me an amazing story:

Sir Richard Bourke and the Bourke’s Parakeet

by Danny Quain

With my interest in Australian Parakeets I was most curious to know how the Bourke’s Parakeet` got its name. Having posed the question to a like-minded group on the `net` and with a suspicion that there may well be an Irish connection, perhaps a transported convict? Back came one reply to my query, - “there was a Bourke, a governor of New South Wales”.

One can imagine my surprise when only one week later, and quite by chance, I tuned in to a history programme on local (Limerick) radio, to find been interviewed, Gerard Bourke, the great, great, grandson of Sir Richard Bourke. I was amazed to discover that he was 82 year old, the last male in the line, and living in the same house that Sir Richard purchased all them years ago. I resolved that if at all possible I should meet with him.

It was a most pleasant late afternoon on Thursday 14th June 2004 that saw me make my way up the winding drive to “Thornfields` Lisnagry”, Co Limerick, having been invited by its illustrious occupant Gerard Bourke, the great, great, grandson of General Sir Richard Bourke K.C.B. As we drove along the winding avenue to the great house one could not help but notice a most magnificent clump of Gunnera manicata positioned as it was in the middle of the lawn and now with the setting sun: in deep shade. A plant normally associated with water, - because of its enormous spread on what appeared to be dry lawn it somehow looked out of place.

The great house suddenly appears, and here at the rear section of the house, which is now self contained, that my host Gerard Bourke, on the steps leading to the front door, greeted me warmly and ushered me inside. I was immediately struck by the spacious drawing room. Three large windows reached for the ceiling, which must be all of eleven feet from the floor. By the wall nearest the door stands a magnificent desk and accompanying cabinets. A “cabinetmaker come undertaker” of Thomas Street, Limerick, made them for Sir Richard in 1817. Emblazoned on the plates is Sir Richards crest and various species of exotic butterfly.

Sir Gerard Bourke and Daniel Quain

Who was Sir Richard Bourke? The Bourkes from whom Sir Richard descends came to Ireland with the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169/70, -then known as deBurgo, and to be more specific, - in a genealogical tree by John Sheehan of Castleconnell, for Gerard Bourke (of which more later) William Fitzadelm de Burgo, married Isabel daughter of Richard Coeur de Lion, and settled in Castleconnell Co. Limerick in 1199, having been viceroy of Ireland in AD. 1177.

Richard Bourke opted for a career in the army. He joined the Grenadier Guards and when only a young ensign he was wounded in the battle of Den Helder in Holland in 1801. He was involved in three campaigns in the River Plate, Argentina, in 1806-1807.
He was superintendent of the military academy at High Wycombe where in addition to military matters, he taught Spanish, classics and law, and it was while in this post in 1811 he bought the house and estate of 180 acres then called `Shanavoy` (later renamed `Thornfields` by Richard) situated just six miles east of Limerick city.

It would appear that he enjoyed farming his small estate and had a keen interest in botany. Hundreds of trees are testimony to this, none more so than two magnificent `Cedar of Lebanon` that are today, standing sentinel over all beside the lawn.

Later on Richard took up an appointment as Governor of New South Wales on the 3rd December 1831 He arrived at a settlement on the 4th March 1837 for the purpose of laying out a town. It is quite apparent that Bourke took an active part in the planning of this town. Governor Bourke wrote to the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, requesting permission to have the settlement named in his honour. In giving his permission, it is said that the Prime Minister added the remark, - “Nobody will ever hear anything of it”.
Bourke also named `Williamstown`; in honour of King William IV, - it is the oldest suburb of Melbourne, and now a city in its own right.

General Sir Richard Bourke died at home at Thornfields in 1855, and is buried just two miles distant in the lovely village of Castleconnell on the banks of the Shannon.

Grave of Sir Richard Bourke

When I informed Gerard that it was my intention to visit the grave of Sir Richard, he told me that just a few years ago, he was rummaging about in a drawer full of keys’ to find but one with a label that read `vault`. Whether it was curiosity or for some other reason, (it hadn’t been opened in the twentieth century) - Gerard himself says he was persuaded; in any event, he had a local man oil the lock and hinges.
“Inside; his coffin draped in purple, bordered with silver, looking completely undecayed. Six other family members keep him company in death. We laid flowers, prayed, and closed the vault.”

In a fine article on Bourke’s Parakeets written by Graeme Hyde in “Cage and Aviary Birds” dated 24th February 2005, the following is stated: “ Major Sir Thomas L. Mitchell, the Scottish surveyor and explorer first sighted the beautiful Australian Bourke’s Parakeet in 1835, along the banks of the Bogan River in New South Wales, south-east of the present-day town of Bourke. He named it after Sir Richard Bourke, who was at that time governor of New South Wales (1831 – 1837).”

I asked Gerard if he were aware that there was a grass parakeet named after his great ancestor. He told me that a London ornithologist had informed him of such on hearing that he was Australia bound. He told me of his disappointment at viewing a glass case full of stuffed birds in one of the corridors of Old Government House and not a Bourke’s parrot among them.
He visited Sydney Zoo and asked at reception, - is there really a Bourke parrot? Yes, there is, sir, she said, - cage 13. She sent an attendant along with him to see how he would greet the Bourke emblem. What greeted him was a forlorn parrot, standing, as he was in a bunch of feathers, obviously in the severest throes of the moult, and looking all of what gives rise to the expression, -“as sick as a parrot!” Gerard was fortunate however, to receive a T-shirt showing two beautiful Bourke’s parakeets, a gift from a Limerick friend, bought in Bahrain and made in Thailand, - “it was the last one in the shop too!”

Danny Quain © Cóis Má. 2004

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Copyright 2005 by Bob Fregeres