Burke, Thomas Henry (1829–82), under-secretary for Ireland, was born 29 May 1829, second among seven sons of William Burke (1794?–1877), a catholic landed gentleman of Knocknagur, Co. Galway, and Fanny Xaviera Burke (née Tucker) of Brook Lodge, Sussex, England. He was a grand-nephew of Cardinal Wiseman. He was educated at Oscott College, near Birmingham, and also in Belgium and Germany. In May 1847 he was appointed supernumerary clerk to the office of the chief secretary, Dublin Castle. His part in the arrest of William Smith O'Brien (qv) in 1848 and the searching of O'Brien's private papers earned him severe criticism from some nationalists. He became private secretary to under-secretary Sir Thomas Redington (qv) in April 1851 (to March 1852), and later to the chief secretaries Edward Cardwell (qv) (1859–61), Sir Robert Peel (qv) (1861–5), and Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue (qv) (1865–6). A bachelor, he lived quietly with his sister, and was generally regarded as a conscientious and hard-working official. In May 1869 he was appointed under-secretary, effectively permanent head of the Irish executive. During the land war (1879–82), in the absence of the chief secretary W. E. Forster (qv) most government business was carried on by Burke, who worked seven-day weeks, never taking holidays. Forster regarded him as ‘the most efficient permanent official I ever came across, and my only fear about him is that he will literally work himself to death’ (quoted in Moody and Hawkins, 46n). Although Burke was closely involved in implementing the government's coercion policy, the nationalist Thomas Sexton (qv) believed that he was ‘rather averse’ to coercion but also that ‘he has a for a long time been the real ruler of the country’ (United Ireland, 8 May 1882). Although a member of the liberal party, it was generally acknowledged that Burke carried out his duties with complete political impartiality. Some colleagues, however, thought him excessively rigid and exacting: after his assassination a senior clerk remarked ‘we were all d––d glad’ (Flanagan, 209).
In spring 1882 the Invincibles, a secret society linked to extreme Land League elements, had been attempting to assassinate Forster. Burke read a report of their plans, but believed they did not have the courage to carry out their threats. On 7 February he received a letter-bomb intended for Forster, but it did not explode. Forster eluded their attempts and after his resignation (2 May) they decided to kill Burke, the government official next most identified with coercion: according to the informer James Carey (qv), Burke ‘was considered as bad as Mr Forster, who got all his information from him’ (Reports, 317). On 5 May the Invincibles waited for him in the Phoenix Park, but missed him, and decided to return the next day. On the evening of 6 May Burke and the newly arrived chief-secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv), who had just had an enthusiastic welcome in Dublin, were walking home in the Phoenix Park when they were attacked and stabbed to death by the Invincibles Joe Brady (qv) and Tim Kelly (qv), wielding long surgical knives. The killings greatly shocked public opinion in Britain and Ireland. Although nationalist leaders were quick to denounce what had happened, some of their statements avoided mentioning Burke or did not condemn his killing in quite the same unequivocal terms as that of Cavendish, whose appointment had generally been welcomed in Ireland. Richard Pigott (qv) later sought to capitalise on the apparently ambiguous feelings of some nationalists when he forged in the name of C. S. Parnell (qv) a letter noting his regret at the ‘accident’ of Cavendish's death, but expressing the opinion that ‘Burke got no more than his deserts’ (Corfe, 212). Five Invincibles were convicted of Burke's murder and hanged and, from the evidence given at their trials, it appears that Burke was indeed their main target and that Cavendish (whose identity was not known) was killed only after he tried to defend his colleague.
Generous tributes were paid to Burke by Gladstone, Forster, and Earl Spencer (qv). He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery and Spencer erected a memorial window to him in the Dominican church, Dublin. His services as an official were publicly commended by parliament, and the government granted a pension of £900 a year to his sister, Marianne Aline Alice Burke, who in later years was a stern critic of Gladstone. His brother, the painter Augustus Burke (qv), left Ireland after the assassination. Another brother, Theobald Hubert Burke (1833–1909), succeeded in 1884 as 13th (and last) baronet of Glinsk, Co. Galway; Thomas had been heir to the baronetcy at the time of his death.