Burgh, Thomas (1670–1730), architect and military engineer, was born in Drumkeen, Co. Limerick, third son of Ulysses Burgh, dean of Emly and later bishop of Ardagh, and Mary de Burgh, daughter of William Kingmill of Ballibeg, Co. Cork. Educated at Delany's school, Co. Dublin, he entered TCD on 22 November 1685. It is believed that he served in the army of King William (qv), probably as the Lt Thomas Bourk (sic) in the forces under the duke of Schomberg (qv) in 1689. Appointed to the Irish engineers on 27 February 1691, he was commissioned captain a year later, fighting on the Continent at Steinkirk (1692), Landen (1693), and the siege of Namur (1695). Between 1697 and 1700 he returned to Ireland as third engineer on the Irish establishment, succeeding William Molyneux (qv) and William Robinson (qv) on 10 July 1700 as surveyor-general. He became (12 February 1701) barracks overseer in Ireland, an appointment that was regularly renewed throughout his lifetime. Highly regarded for his architectural work, he was admitted as a freeman to the city of Dublin in 1704. Burgh also held the important office of lieutenant of the ordnance in Ireland (1706–14), with the military rank of lieutenant-colonel after 1706. In recognition of his work he was awarded a number of honorary positions, becoming a governor of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (1707), and a trustee of Dr Steevens’ Hospital (1717).
His first recorded building was the Royal (later Collins) Barracks (1701–7), a large project on a twenty-acre site north of the River Liffey (used from 1997 as part of the NMI). There may have been some structural problems in the design, however, for extensive work was required on two later occasions, and little of his work remains. In 1707 he designed the custom house, the predecessor of that built by James Gandon (qv), at Wellington Quay. The rebuilding of Dublin castle, started by Robinson, advanced considerably under Burgh, but his undisputed masterpiece was to be TCD library. His work designing and building the lower part of the library began in 1712 and continued into the next decade. It was finally opened in 1732. Edward McParland has regarded his architectural work as defined by a commitment to grandeur and size, rather than subtle detail, reflecting perhaps his early work as a military engineer/architect.
Burgh was highly respected, not just for his sober architectural style but also for his versatile talents. Deeply interested in navigation, he made a report on lighthouses in Ireland (1704) and three years later presented a paper to the Dublin Philosophical Society on possible improvements to Dublin harbour. In 1724 he published a book on the measurement of rectangular areas, entitled A method to determine the areas of right-lined figures universally, for which parliament had granted him the sum of £1,000 the previous year. Fascinated by coal-mining, he purchased a share in a mine, and a year before his death was working on a scheme to supply Dublin with coal from Tyrone.
A Co. Kildare landowner, Burgh became high sheriff of the county in 1712 and was MP for Naas 1713–30. It is, however, for his non-political work that he is chiefly remembered, and rightly regarded as the first unmistakably Irish architect. Perhaps the greatest disappointment in his life was having his design for the new parliament house rejected (1728) and the job given instead to the much younger and less experienced Edward Lovett Pearce (qv). Burgh, however, still served on the building committee of the project umtil his death, when Pearce succeeded him as surveyor-general. He died 10 December 1730.
He married (10 July 1700) Mary, daughter of William Smyth, bishop of Kilmore; they had five sons and four daughters. His townhouse was at 37 Dawson St. and his estate was at Oldtown, Co. Kildare, where he built his own house.