Bourke, Ulick Joseph (1829–87), catholic priest, Irish-language revivalist, teacher, and antiquarian, was born 29 December 1829 at Laherdane, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, son of Ulick Bourke and his wife Cecilia Sheridan. He was educated at Errew Monastery, Castlebar, and studied Irish under James Hardiman (qv), where he was inspired with a love of Gaelic culture and developed ‘that desire which became the ruling passion of his mind, to do something to revive the ancient language of Ireland’ (Legg, 96). He continued his studies at St Jarlath's College, Tuam, Co. Galway (1846-9), before entering (1849) St Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, where he was ordained (1858).
Returning to St Jarlath's, he was appointed professor of Irish and the humanities (1858–78), professor of logic (1863–78), and president (1865–78). He extended the buildings (which included a library and a chapel); revitalised the college, encouraging many extracurricular activities; and presided over increasing numbers of students, advertising widely and encouraging sons of emigrants to return and study in the college. Despite energetic fund-raising to finance these improvements, he left the college in considerable debt. As it was the only college during the 1860s where the Irish language and Irish history was taught, Bourke became one of the most influential of the early Irish-language revivalists and helped to make Tuam a centre of Irish studies. Believing that the neglect of the language was deeply harmful to Ireland, he sought to revive it as the national language, preserve its purity by studying its grammar, restore it as a literary medium, and inspire pride in it, regarding it as an indispensable element in the development of Ireland as a European nation.
As a student at Maynooth, disappointed by the inferior place of Irish in the curriculum, he compiled his College Irish grammar (1856) for the benefit of fellow students, and contributed a series of ‘Easy lessons: or, self-instruction in Irish’ to the Nation (1858): published as a textbook (1867, 7th ed. 1877; printed in New York, 1873), it presented the language in a simple form for the first time. An early proponent of teaching Irish in schools, he also urged priests to hear confessions in Irish from Irish-speaking people, and argued that magistrates in Munster and Connacht should know Irish. He founded the short-lived Keltic Journal and Educator (Manchester, 1869), designing a font for his Irish contributions, and submitted articles to An Gaodhal (established 1881 in Brooklyn, USA) for the emigrant community.
Active in the formation of learned societies, he was a founding council member (1854), and vice-president (1855) of the Ossianic Society, which was established for the publication of Irish manuscripts and Fenian poems and tales in Irish with literal translations; he was also a member of the Society for the Promotion and Cultivation of the Irish Language (founded 1858), and the founding chairman of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (1876), which procured the acceptance of Irish as a subject in the intermediate school curriculum (1878); Bourke helped in the publication of three text books issued by the society. Owing to policy differences, he left the society to become a founder and council member (1880–87) of the Gaelic Union (Aontacht na Gaeilge), which launched the Gaelic Journal (Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge) (1882), the first bilingual periodical to be devoted to the contemporary Irish language and its literature. Bourke contributed to it, in Irish, extracts from his The life and times of the Most Rev. Dr. MacHale (1882; 4th ed. 1902). Private secretary to Archbishop John MacHale (qv), his mother's cousin, he edited all MacHale's Irish works, which included translations into Irish of Homer's Iliad (1844–71) and the Pentateuch (1861). In 1864 he produced for the abbé of St Sulpice an Irish manuscript translation of the bull Ineffabilis Deus on the Immaculate Conception, illuminated by the Sisters of Mercy of Tuam and Dublin, which was shown at the Paris Exhibition (1878); he subsequently published The bull ‘Ineffabilis’ in four languages (1868) with a dissertation on the art of illuminating in the past and present. Other publications include his edition of James Gallagher's Sermons in Irish-Gaelic . . . with . . . English translation (1877), with a memoir of the bishop and a history of his times; The Aryan origin of the Gaelic race and language (1875), considered his greatest work; and Pre-christian Ireland (1887). Elected MRIA (1871), he was appointed examiner in Celtic philology and Irish history and antiquities for the Royal University of Ireland (1880–87).
Realising the need for a catholic newspaper and ‘a popular exponent of national and local opinion’ (Legg, 96), Bourke founded the Tuam News and Western Advertiser (1870–1904), an independent paper ‘owning no party but country’ (Legg, 80). He contributed articles in Irish and on Irish history – a pioneering development for a provincial paper – which contributed to its popularity. According to its obituary of Bourke, ‘he was to the Tuam News, which he founded, and established, and supported, its really affectionate and loving father’ (Tuam News and Western Advertiser, 25 November 1887).
Though he supported home rule, Bourke had Fenian sympathies; he was one of the few priests to defy Paul, Cardinal Cullen (qv), when in 1861 he contributed funds for the Fenian funeral of Terence Bellew McManus (qv). He is considered one of the most influential figures in the intellectual development of Fenianism, since a distinguished nucleus of the society were his students at St Jarlath's; they included Mark Ryan (qv), John O'Connor Power (qv), the sons of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv), John O'Donovan (qv), and Michael Larkin (qv). As canon from 1872 of St Jarlath's cathedral, Tuam, and parish priest from 1878 of Claremorris, Co. Mayo, Bourke was actively concerned in the land question; he wrote in 1872 a letter to Gladstone, published as A plea for the evicted tenants of Mayo (1873), which according to Griffith was influential in modifying government policy. He was the first clergyman during what became the Land War to call for and preside over a land meeting, which was held 13 July 1879 in Claremorris. No extremist, he reminded his audience that social order rests on law, and argued that granting fair rents and fixity of tenure was the most reasonable solution to the land problem, for ‘there is a certain mutual attachment between the kind landlord and his tenantry’ (‘The Claremorris tenant-right meeting’, Connaught Telegraph, 19 July 1879). He subsequently advocated peasant ownership, accepted an invitation from C. S. Parnell (qv) to join the committee of the Irish National Land League (1879), and sent a letter of support to its founding conference. He died 22 November 1887 in Castlebar; on his burial in Claremorris, Eoghan Ó Gramhna (Eugene O'Growney (qv)) composed a lament, ‘Marbhna ar bas U. I. de Burc’.