Burke, Ricard O'Sullivan (1838–1922), Fenian, was born 24 January 1838 in Kenneigh, near Dunmanway, Co. Cork, youngest son among eight sons and four daughters of Denis Burke, substantial tenant farmer, and Margaret Burke (née O'Sullivan). Educated at Dunmanway model national school, he read widely in Irish history and folklore and briefly worked as a monitor at Castletown school in 1853, earning £4 a year. That year he was persuaded by some friends to join the Cork militia and spent the next three years on garrison duty, mostly in Dublin, before deserting and emigrating to New York in about 1856. He went to sea, saw much of the world, and afterwards travelled through Central and South America. He had numerous adventures, mined gold in California, and served in an irregular Chilean cavalry unit; he also claimed to have spent a year in Paris, studying art and writing verse.
Returning to New York in January 1861, as a strong supporter of the union and an opponent of slavery, he joined the 15th New York Engineers (9 May 1861) on the outbreak of the civil war. He was his regiment's colour-bearer at the first battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861), was promoted sergeant (August 1861), and fought at Yorktown (4 May 1862), the Seven Days battles (June–July 1862), and Fredricksburg (13 December 1862). Commissioned first lieutenant (1863), he was assigned to the chief engineer's staff at Gen. Grant's headquarters, fought in the spring campaign in Virginia in 1864, and commanded a fifteen-mile (24 km) stretch of trenches during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865). In May 1865 he was commissioned captain and was promoted brevet-colonel before being discharged 13 June 1865, having gone through the war without a scratch. In 1862 he had joined the Fenian Brotherhood and became a divisional centre and one of the chief organisers in the Army of the Potomac.
After the war the IRB sent him to England to buy arms and he set up an office in Birmingham as a ‘merchant and commission agent’, which he used as cover to procure 2,000 rifles. He returned to New York and attended the Fenian conference in autumn 1866 at which it was decided to rise in Ireland the following year. When T. J. Kelly (qv) replaced James Stephens (qv) as head centre in December 1866, he chose Burke as his deputy and sent him to take charge of operations in England, and Burke and Kelly planned the abortive arms raid on Chester Castle (11 February 1867). Burke travelled to Ireland to take charge of Fenian forces around Waterford for the rising of 5–6 March 1867, but only fifty men turned out, and he advised them to return home. Some weeks later he learned that the Erin's hope had sailed from New York to land 8,000 rifles for Irish Fenians at Sligo. He travelled to Sligo posing as ‘Mr Walters’, an English artist on holiday, and befriended many of the local gentry, including the local RM and sub-inspector of constabulary. He also hired a small hooker, ostensibly for sailing and fishing excursions, but used it to keep a watch for the Erin's hope. On 20 May 1867 he met the ship at sea and informed its captain that the rising had been suppressed, and it returned to America without unloading its cargo. Burke then returned to England, taking charge of Fenian operations there, and organised the rescue of Kelly and Deasy (qv) in Manchester on 18 September 1867, which led to the execution of the ‘Manchester martyrs’. Burke returned to Birmingham but his arms buying had aroused suspicion and he moved to London, where he was arrested 27 November 1867 and detained at Clerkenwell. London Fenians attempted to rescue him by blowing a hole in the prison wall on 13 December 1867, but Burke was not in the prison yard and failed to escape. The explosion destroyed some nearby tenement houses, killing twelve people and injuring over a hundred. Jeremiah O'Sullivan (1845?–1922), who lit the fuse, claimed that Burke had directed the operation and overestimated the quantity of gunpowder required, but Burke denied any responsibility. In April 1868 he was convicted on charges of illegal arms procurement and sentenced to fourteen years penal servitude.
Imprisoned in Chatham jail from 18 May 1868, he was held responsible for the Clerkenwell explosion, and treated with considerable harshness. His physical and mental condition deteriorated greatly and he believed that the prison doctor was trying to poison him. On 10 December 1869 he was moved to the infirmary ward at Woking prison (until 30 August 1870), where his fellow prisoner T. F. Bourke (qv) was astounded at his deterioration: Bourke remembered him as a strongly built and handsome man, with a playful and jovial character, but now found him emaciated and demented. Moved to Broadmoor convict asylum for the mentally ill (30 August 1870), Burke later claimed that he merely feigned insanity, but most prison officials and fellow prisoners believed that he had genuinely lost his reason. Released from Broadmoor (6 July 1871) because of his poor health, he convalesced at his brother Richard's home in Coachford, Co. Cork, recovered well, and returned to the USA in 1874.
He joined Clan na Gael and continued his efforts in the Fenian cause, including writing patriotic verse for Irish and American papers, and earned his living as a clerk in the war department. His attractive personality, colourful past, and undoubted sufferings made him one of the most popular Fenians and, as a fine public speaker, he was often in demand by Irish-American organisations. He offered his services for various operations to the Clan, but William Carroll (qv) thought him ‘better fitted for special services than for superintending and organising’ (O'Brien, 213). Regarded as Clan na Gael's engineering expert, he approved the plans of John P. Holland (qv) for a submarine and advised the Clan to finance the project. On 2 February 1880 he introduced Parnell (qv) to the American house of representatives. He spoke for James Garfield during his campaign for the presidency in 1880 and in 1884 supported James G. Blaine's unsuccessful attempt to gain the Republican presidential nomination. In 1883 he went to Mexico and supervised the building of the Laredo–Mexico City railway, returning in 1884 to be appointed assistant city engineer in Omaha, and later working as assistant city engineer and assistant harbour engineer. In 1915 he returned to Ireland to attend the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa (qv). Afflicted by a paralytic stroke in 1917, he died 11 May 1922 in Chicago, and was buried in Mount Olivet cemetery, Chicago. John Devoy (qv) described him as ‘by long odds the most remarkable man the Fenian movement produced, and also one of the ablest’ (Devoy, 347).
In 1881, aged 43, he eloped with and married Nora Sheehy (d. 1939), a 20-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana; they had two children, a daughter, Nellie, and a son, Ricard, who died in 1915 aged 26.