Bourke, Richard Southwell (1822–72), chief secretary for Ireland and 6th earl of Mayo, was born 21 February 1822 in Dublin, eldest son among seven sons and a daughter of Robert Bourke (1797–1867), landed gentleman of Hayes, near Slane, Co. Meath, and Anne Charlotte Bourke (née Jocelyn; 1801–67), granddaughter of the 1st earl of Roden. After the death of his uncle, John Bourke (1766–1849), 4th earl of Mayo, Robert Bourke became 5th earl and (from 1852) a conservative representative peer for Ireland.
Tutored at home in Hayes, Richard showed no great academic aptitude, but displayed a passion for history and natural science. The family travelled to Paris (autumn 1838) and Switzerland (summer 1839), and after wintering in Italy returned home in May 1840. In December 1840 Richard was commissioned captain in the Kildare militia and he entered TCD in 1841, graduating BA (1844), MA (1851), and LLD (1852). He was gentleman of the bedchamber (1844–6) to Viceroy Heytesbury (qv). In 1845 he toured Russia and published an account of his travels, St Petersburg and Moscow: a visit to the court of the czar (1846), which sold well. On his return he farmed progressively in Co. Kildare and in 1847 learned his first lessons in public administration in famine relief in the county. Partly because of his relief work he was elected tory MP for Co. Kildare (1847–52); he later sat for Coleraine (1852–7) and, through marriage to a Wyndham, for Cockermouth in Cumberland (1857–68). His residences were the family seat at Palmerston, Straffan, Co. Kildare, and a town house at 3 Stratford Place, Westminster. A genial and popular man, he was tall and powerfully built, keenly interested in sports, a fine rider, a good shot, and a strong swimmer; he was particularly successful as master of the Kildare foxhounds (1857–62).
Known by the courtesy title of Lord Naas (1849–67), he established a reputation in parliament as a sensible country gentleman, speaking occasionally, almost always on Irish affairs. His steadiness attracted the attention of his party leaders and he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland on three occasions (1 March 1852–6 January 1853, 4 March 1858–24 June 1859, 10 July 1866–29 September 1868). He was appointed a privy councillor of Ireland (10 March 1852) and of Great Britain (15 May 1852). A proponent of constructive unionism long before the term gained currency, he firmly believed that improving tenants deserved some reward, and in his first spell as chief secretary he introduced tenant right and tenants' compensation bills, neither of which passed. While in opposition he spoke regularly on Irish matters and acted as parliamentary leader of the tory party in Ireland. His knowledge of the Irish electoral system was recognized as unrivalled among Irish tories. When Derby (qv) returned to power in 1858, Bourke again briefly became chief secretary, and helped carry an act to facilitate the sale and transfer of land. Moderate in his political and religious views, he was more acceptable to Irish catholics than most tories, and played an important part in winning significant catholic support for the party in the 1859 election, when the liberals' support for Italian unification alienated many catholics. Unlike some chief secretaries, he was well acquainted with his brief and comfortable in the Irish office. Proud of his Hiberno-Norman ancestry, he pointedly remarked that he was more Irish than many American Fenians. His third spell in office coincided with the threat of a Fenian rising, and in late 1866 he proclaimed disturbed counties and pressed for more troops to be sent to Ireland. When insurrection broke out in March 1867 he behaved calmly and adopted a firm but measured response that contributed to the rising's collapse. On 3 November 1867 a Fenian assassin was intercepted waiting for him at Dublin castle gate.
Believing a royal visit to Ireland would provide an outlet for Irish loyalty, he helped organise the visit of the prince and princess of Wales in April 1868, and afterwards pressed for a royal residence in Ireland. Convinced of the need for tangible reform in Ireland to conciliate moderate catholic opinion and undermine Fenianism, at one stage he had thirty-five bills in preparation. However, in a conservative minority government, he faced an uphill struggle and his actual legislative achievements were slight. In 1867 his tenants' compensation bill was again voted down. Among the legislation he carried was the Lunatic Asylums Act (1867), providing for the establishment of district asylums, and an Irish reform act (March 1868), slightly broadening the franchise in Irish boroughs. In January 1868 he set up a royal commission to consider primary education and in March 1868 he declared his support for a catholic university. Although opposed to church disestablishment, he advocated a policy of ‘levelling up’ – granting public money to all charitable institutions regardless of religious affiliation. His opinions were often too advanced for his party colleagues and were shared only by Disraeli. By the autumn of 1868, disillusioned by Irish factiousness, the lack of support from fellow conservatives, and his failure to effect genuine reform, he concluded that ‘Ireland is the grave of every reputation’ (Ó Broin, 246), and asked to be sent to India.
Disraeli preferred him to better-connected English candidates and appointed him viceroy of India; he was also appointed knight of St Patrick (1869) for his services in Ireland. Sworn in as governor-general at Calcutta 12 January 1869, he travelled throughout the subcontinent over the next three years and proved himself an able and industrious administrator: he decentralised government; restored its shaky finances; promoted industrial development, railway building, the extension of the telegraph system, and irrigation; founded a department of agriculture and encouraged primary education; strove to improve relations with India's neighbours, particularly Afghanistan, as a bulwark against Russian expansionism; and allowed considerable autonomy to Indian states ruled by native princes. While inspecting a penal settlement at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands he was stabbed to death (8 February 1872) by a convict, Shere Ali, who claimed he acted ‘by order of God’. In accordance with his will, Bourke's remains were brought back to Ireland and buried 26 April 1872 in the family mausoleum at Johnstown church, Co. Kildare. A large collection of Mayo papers is in the NLI.
He married (31 October 1848) Blanche Julia Wyndham (1826–1918), lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria, and daughter of George, 1st Baron Leconfield; they had four sons and three daughters. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Dermot Robert Wyndham Bourke (qv). Several of Richard's brothers had notable careers: John Jocelyn Bourke (1823–1904), CB, JP and DL of Co. Meath, fought in the Crimea and India, and retired as lieutenant-general; Robert Bourke (1827–1902), 1st Baron Connemara (cr. 1887), was conservative MP for King's Lynn (1868–86), under-secretary of foreign affairs (1874–80, 1885–6), and governor of Madras (1886–90); Charles Fowler Bourke (1832–99) of Roseborough, Straffan, Co. Kildare, was captain of the Meath militia (1855–68), Richard's private secretary (1866–8), inspector general of prisons in Ireland (1868–78), and chairman of the general prison board in Ireland (1878–95); and Edward Roden Bourke (1835–1907) was Richard's military secretary in India (1869–72).