Burke, John (1786–1848), genealogist, was born 12 November 1786 (Landed gentry (6th ed., 1882), 227), probably at Elm Hall, Parsonstown (Birr), King's Co. (Offaly), elder son of Peter Burke (1756–1836), landowner and JP, and Anne Burke (née Dowdall). His younger brother Joseph succeeded to the estate by a family arrangement, and John settled in London (1811). He contributed articles to various journals before founding Burke's celebrated genealogical series, publishing A general and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom (1826). The first such work to be arranged alphabetically and to treat peers and baronets together, it was an immediate success, and from its ninth edition (1847) it was edited annually and became known as Burke's peerage. He published a companion volume, A genealogical and heraldic history of the commoners of Great Britain and Ireland (1833–8), which was reissued successively as A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the landed gentry of Great Britain and Ireland and Burke's landed gentry. In 1831 he published A general and heraldic dictionary of the peerages of England, Ireland, and Scotland, extinct, dormant, and in abeyance. From c.1840 he was assisted by his son, John Bernard Burke, in the publication of new editions of these works. Jointly they published several books, including The knightage of Great Britain and Ireland (1841), A general armoury of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1842) (later retitled Encylopaedia of heraldry), and Heraldic illustrations, comprising the armorial bearings of the principal families of the empire, with pedigrees and annotations (1845). Other works by John Burke include The official kalendar (1831) and The portrait gallery of distinguished females, including beauties of the courts of George IV and William IV (1833). He edited The Patrician (1846-8). After the death of his wife (1846–8), he retired to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), where he died 27 March 1848. He married (1807) his cousin Mary O'Reilly ; they had four sons and two daughters. Their eldest son, Peter Burke (1811–81), was serjeant-at-law and author of legal and other works, including The wisdom and genius of Edmund Burke (1845).
Their second son, Sir John Bernard Burke (1814–92), archivist, genealogist, and Ulster king of arms, was born 5 January 1814 in London. Educated in Robert Archibald Armstrong's school in Chelsea, London, and at Caen college, Normandy, France, he entered the Middle Temple (1835), was called to the bar (1839), and practised in genealogical and peerage cases. Appointed Ulster king of arms and knight attendant of the order of St Patrick (1853–92), he restored the splendour of court ceremonials, notably in the installation of the prince of Wales as knight of the order of St Patrick in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin (1868). A keeper of the records in Dublin Castle (1853) and acting keeper of the state papers in Ireland from 1855 (he was officially appointed in 1867, and held the post until his death), he rescued them from their neglected state, cleaned, classified, and made them immediately accessible. After studying the French system of preserving records, he wrote a report that resulted in the Public Records (Ireland) Act, 1867, which led to improved methods of preservation.
After his father's death he compiled, edited, and revised the Burke publications and is best known for his annual editions of the Peerage and the several editions (from the 3rd in 1843 to the 7th in 1886) of the Landed gentry, which became standard works. A romantic rather than a scholar, he made no distinction between tradition and historical evidence and was castigated by his contemporaries, particularly by the historian J. H. Round (1854–1928), for his uncritical acceptance of doubtful pedigrees, repeated inaccuracies, and absurdities, which were rendered the more serious because of his official position. He published numerous works, including Anecdotes of the aristocracy (1849), Family romance (1853), The book of orders of knighthood (1858), and Vicissitudes of families and other essays (three series and several editions, 1859–83), claiming that he had ‘endeavoured to avoid the introduction of a single narrative or the expression of a single word which might possibly be painful to anyone's feelings’ (Dublin University Magazine, 21). The sovereigns of England from the Norman conquest (1876), with a preface addressed to his children, was written in verse. He edited St James's Magazine (1850), and wrote obituaries for the Illustrated London News.
Burke was genial, courtly, and unaffected, and his energy and ambitions were rewarded: knighted (1854) and elected MRIA (1854), he was awarded an hon. LLD (1862) from TCD, created CB (1868), and appointed governor of the NGI (1874). He died 12 December 1892 at his home, Tullamaine Villa, Upper Leeson St., Dublin, and is buried in the family vault in St Andrew's church, Westland Row, Dublin. He married (8 Jan. 1856) Barbara Frances MacEvoy; they had one daughter and seven sons. The eldest son, Henry Farnham Burke (1859–1930), Rouge Croix pursuivant in the English College of Arms (1880), deputy Ulster king of arms (1889–1902), and Garter king of arms (1919), was knighted (1919), edited Burke's peerage after his father's death, and remedied some of its shortcomings – unverified arms and fictitious pedigrees. The fourth son, Ashworth Peter Burke (1864–1919), edited Burke's landed gentry and subsequently Burke's peerage.