Burke, James Michael (1873–1936), barrister, newspaper editor, and politician, was born 4 November 1873 at 31 Bridge St., Skibbereen, Co. Cork, seventh among twelve children (seven sons and three daughters survived to adulthood) of Patrick Burke, grocer and farmer, and Mary Burke (née Gallagher). Mary Burke's brother was a prominent local Land League activist and she was related to Ellen Buckley, second wife of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv), of Kilcoe, Aughadown, Co. Cork; Rossa is said to have admired James Michael Burke's historical writings. Educated at Hogan's University School, Skibbereen, Burke entered QCC (1892) and graduated BA from the RUI with an exhibition in classics after a distinguished undergraduate career. He is alleged to have taken delight in reading Homer and Horace for pleasure, and throughout his life was reputed in some quarters to be ‘the best classical scholar in Ireland’ (it is not clear on what grounds). He was called to the bar in Michaelmas term 1900 and joined the southern circuit. Burke quickly gained a reputation as a skilled advocate with a deep knowledge of the law; according to oral tradition in the Skibbereen area, however, his professional success was limited by a squeaky voice.
For most of Burke's adult life his family struggled for local supremacy against the Sheehy family. Even as an undergraduate Burke was actively involved in struggles to secure such posts as dispensary doctorships for his numerous siblings, and after the death of his brother Dr Daniel Burke (1908) he became the faction's principal spokesman and political champion. These contests pitted the Burkes against other local rivals such as the celebrated Land League activist Fr John O'Leary and his ally Dr William Jennings, medical officer for Skibbereen (whom Burke claimed had secured his post by bribery; on Jennings's death he was succeeded by Burke's brother Michael). A diary kept by Burke in the mid 1890s has survived in private ownership; this includes a scathing account of the election of the Union Hall dispensary doctor in July 1894, in which (Burke alleges) bribery was extensively used. Burke admits that he and his family paid bribes in support of Dr Patrick Burke, another brother; after a series of scandals several Skibbereen poor law guardians were convicted of bribery in 1896. Burke's brother Michael later held the position. Published diary extracts display Joyce-like anger and disgust at the frustrations, snobberies, and corruptions of local society. Burke declares Skibbereen ‘a hotbed of corruption, toadyism, hypocrisy . . . Here the shrine of Mammon has its throng of votaries and Self is a god worshipped by all . . . It would require an abler pen than mine to depict in their true colours all the abominable evils and wretched prejudices which have plunged Skibbereen down into the depths of degradation’ (O'Regan, ‘Corruption’, 29).
Burke greeted the prospect that O'Leary might become bishop of Ross in 1896–7 with utter horror; in an unpublished diatribe he claimed that O'Leary routinely bribed local officials and took bribes himself, that his quest for local power through land agitation ‘introduced a reign of terror and never before was there such anarchy’ (ibid., 25). Bishop William Fitzgerald (d. 1896) had been a ‘bit of clay in his hands’; if O'Leary were to attain the see, ‘nobody could imagine the calamities that would ensue’ (O'Regan, ‘Imperialistic bishop of Ross’, 47). In 1932 Burke described Mgr O'Leary as one of the ‘brilliant and distinguished citizens’ who had founded the Southern Star newspaper (centenary edition, 3). The younger Burke privately descried the Star as run for the benefit of the clergy and a small clique of O'Leary allies. Although Burke was to align himself with O'Leary's successful rival for the mitre, Denis Kelly (qv), and two of his brothers were priests, his diary comments savagely and snobbishly on the eccentricities and hypocrisies of local priests ‘reared on buttermilk and potatoes . . . [but to hear them talk] one would imagine that they drank Vin de Chartreuse from their mother's breasts and . . . champagne in their sucking bottles’ (O'Regan, ‘Corruption’, 21).
Between April 1903 and September 1905 Burke edited the Cork Sun, a weekly paper (usually containing twelve pages) published from the Grand Parade, Cork. Here, and later in the Southern Star (of which he was first appointed editor in 1915) Burke published many articles on Cork local history, some based on research undertaken in the state paper office and elsewhere while reading for the bar. The most celebrated were those forming a serial ‘History of the Carberies’ – widely praised but never collected in book form. His articles were often published under the initials ‘KNC’ or ‘ILA’ (i.e. ‘JMB’ moved forwards or backwards one letter). In addition to these newspaper articles Burke wrote about twenty articles on the history of west Cork parishes for the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society; his Southern Star obituary claims he contributed to other ‘journals in Ireland and Great Britain’.
Burke displayed considerable administrative ability when serving on public boards. He was a JP, chairman of Skibbereen poor law guardians (in which capacity he carried out many public works), and a member of Skibbereen UDC (1906–21) and of Skibbereen rural district council. As chairman of the latter (1906–20) he was an ex-officio member of Cork county council. His rival Timothy Sheehy (1855–1938) was the directly elected representative of Skibbereen electoral area. During the factional disputes of the decade before 1914 the Burkes were consistent Redmondites; the Sheehys were initially O'Brienites but switched sides shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. Burke served on the county council's committees for finance and for the provision of asylums for the mentally ill, as well as on Cork county agricultural committee, Skibbereen technical instruction committee, and the Skibbereen joint hospital board. He was a founding member of the Skibbereen Catholic Young Men's Society and president of the local branch of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Burke was also active in the Gaelic League, president of the Carbery agricultural show, a member of the governing body of UCC, and a director of the Schull and Skibbereen tramway and light railway. During a 1916 dispute over the allegedly excessive remuneration awarded to themselves by the tramway directors – including both Burke and Sheehy – the Skibbereen Eagle commented: ‘Mr Burke . . . with his sesquipedalian words and old rusty quotations . . . reminds one of the old eighteenth-century hedge schoolmaster . . . amazing the unlettered rustics’ (Star centenary edition, 128).
After the Easter rising Burke raised £300 locally to relieve the victims, but remained an outspoken Redmondite. In 1917 he was dismissed as Star editor by a consortium which had taken over the paper; these new owners were generally pro-Sinn Féin and objected to an editorial in which he denounced the Easter rising. In 1920 Tom Barry (qv) forced Burke to stand on top of a porter barrel in Ilen St., Skibbereen, and sing ‘The soldier's song’ to an amused crowd (O'Regan, ‘Imperialistic bishop’, 47); Barry mentions this incident in Guerrilla days in Ireland without naming the ‘local politician’.
In 1921 Burke was reinstated as editor of the Star on a ‘temporary’ basis, though he retained the editorship for the remainder of his life; he was assisted in this by the fact that his brother William was secretary of the Star board from 1917 until his death in 1943. In addition to his historical articles, Burke produced a popular column in which ‘Finnerty’ (a character vaguely derived from Finley Peter Dunne's ‘Mr Dooley’) commented semi-humorously on the week's news; Burke himself became known as ‘Finnerty’ and sometimes used the pseudonym on other work. As in other towns, the previously antagonistic Burkes and Sheehys united in support of Cumann na nGaedheal (Timothy Sheehy was Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Cork West June 1927–32); however, the Star ownership syndicate included both supporters and opponents of the treaty, and some of the latter criticised Burke for giving too much coverage to ex-unionist notabilities and not enough space to the Irish language.
Burke was chosen as a Cumann na nGaedheal candidate for Cork West in the 1933 general election and elected at the head of the poll. After Burke published an editorial attacking the 1933 dismissal of Eoin O'Duffy (qv) as garda commissioner, the managing director of the Southern Star, Thomas J. Healy, resigned in protest at what he considered ‘the undue aggrandisement of the Cumann na nGaedheal party’. As a TD Burke became well liked on all sides of the chamber for his wit and geniality; he was known for his assiduous dealings with constituency correspondence and his advocacy of the interests of Co. Cork in general and fisheries in particular.
Burke married (1934) Kathleen Scully, B.Sc. (NUI (UCD)), daughter of Michael and Ellen (née Crowley) McCarthy-Scully of Dunowne, Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. They resided at 78 Merrion St., Dublin. After his election to the dáil Burke was an absentee editor, sending down editorials and articles to Skibbereen but leaving most of the hard work to the sub-editor, J. T. Grimes (d. 1936). Burke died 10 September 1936 (ten days after his brother Dr Michael Burke, MB) at St Philomena's nursing home, Clonakilty, Co. Cork, after a short illness. His estate was worth £573. Commentators of all political persuasions paid tribute to his genial wit and public service. ‘His native town, Skibbereen, always held foremost place in his affections’, proclaimed his Southern Star obituarist. ‘As he often declared in our columns, he loved every stone of it.’ Perhaps he mellowed in later life. His career reflects the grubby factional rivalries of small-town Edwardian politics and the bitterness and frustrations of small-town intellectuals, and serves as a reminder that the criticisms of the rising catholic bourgeoisie by Somerville and Ross (qv) cannot be completely dismissed as the product of snobbery and sour grapes.