Burk, John Daly (1772?–1808), author and radical, was possibly the son of James Burk, a protestant schoolmaster from Co. Cork, who may have been related to Edmund Burke (qv) (Augusta Chronicle, 11 Nov. 1809). In 1790 John was appointed usher at a private school in Cork, where he became friendly with Denis Driscol (qv). He entered TCD as a sizar (5 June 1792), and claimed to have won several literary prizes there. At Trinity he read Hume, Gibbon, Price, and Priestley, and became a deist and a democrat. He wrote regularly for the anti-government Dublin Evening Post, including some deistical articles in 1794 which led the college authorities to expel him for blasphemy. He responded by writing The trial of John Burk (1794) which defended his right to religious speculation, accused the college authorities of instituting a new inquisition, and compared his persecution to that of Priestley, Galileo, and Socrates.
After his expulsion he became increasingly active in Dublin radical circles, particularly with Driscol and James Reynolds (qv), and claimed to have founded the Athenian, Telegraph, and Philanthrophic societies to promote republican debate, and to have formed a new revolutionary society (possibly the reconstituted United Irishmen), with a largely artisan membership organised in cells. He also belonged to the Strugglers' Club (named after the tavern where they met), along with Henry (qv) and John Sheares (qv) and Oliver Bond (qv). The Strugglers' had links with the Defenders and plotted various schemes, including the rescue of imprisoned radicals, the assassination of government agents, and an attack on Dublin castle. Described as ‘high and lofty in his carriage, haughty in his manners, and imperious and impulsive in his disposition’ (cited in Durey, 114), Burk engaged in military preparations and was a prominent leader of plebeian radicals in Dublin. Wanted by the authorities, he fled to America in autumn 1796. Apparently he had been surrounded by soldiers in a Dublin bookshop but escaped by disguising himself in the clothes of a Miss Daly, whose name he adopted in gratitude.
He arrived in Boston and on 6 October 1796 started a newspaper, the Polar Star and Boston Daily Advertiser, characterised by its democratic and anti-British politics, which failed after five months. His radicalism also had a social dimension, and he criticised the accumulation of property and unrestricted operation of the market: just as the Dublin Evening Post had advocated regulating the bread trade in the mid 1790s, so the Polar Star violently attacked profiteering corn merchants. He moved to New York early in 1797, where he edited the radical Jeffersonian paper, the Time Piece (June–August 1798), and engaged in street fights against Federalist opponents. Associating with exiled friends such as Reynolds and Driscol, he became involved in the American Society of United Irishmen in New York, a secret society that combined Irish and American concerns, chairing a meeting 4 July 1798. He idealised America as the fulfilment of his republican dream and excoriated anyone who attempted to threaten this ideal. His paper attacked the alien and sedition bills as a violation of the bill of rights, accused President John Adams of attempting to subvert the American revolution, and demanded that all traitors to the republic should be tarred and feathered. Denounced by Federalists as an Irish rabble-rouser, he was prosecuted for seditious libel in July 1798. Through the influence of Aaron Burr, the New York republican leader whom Burk had befriended, the charges were dropped on condition he left the US. Instead, in early summer 1799 he slipped away quietly to the Jeffersonian stronghold of Amelia county, Virginia, where he took an assumed name. He was appointed principal of the newly established Jefferson College, but was accused of adultery and forced to resign. Elated by Jefferson's victory in 1801, he wrote to him detailing his sufferings and services to the republican cause since his arrival in America, and sought a government clerkship, but was refused. He settled in Petersburg, Virginia, and became a US citizen on 14 April 1802. He began to practise law (although he had no formal qualifications) and married a local woman, Christianna Curtis; they had one son, John Junius, who became a judge.
On his fifty-day voyage to America he had written the play ‘Bunker Hill, or the death of General Warren’, first performed in Boston 17 February 1797. Dismissed by critics for its sensationalism and overblown rhetoric – one remarked that its only merit was its brevity – it none the less played to packed houses and earned $2,000 for Burk. Staged with an elaborately constructed set, novel special effects, and dramatic battle scenes, it remained a popular 4 July entertainment for over fifty years. His other plays – none of which had the popular success of ‘Bunker Hill’ – include the critically acclaimed ‘Female patriotism, or the death of Joan D'Arc’ (1798), which transformed Joan into a modern revolutionary heroine; ‘Oberon, or the siege of Mexico’ (1802), and ‘Bethlem Gabor’ (1807), a Gothic drama set in Transylvania, based on William Godwin's novel St Leon (1799); Burk directed and played the lead in the latter. Other plays attributed to him are ‘The death of General Montgomery’ (1797), ‘The innkeeper of Abbeville’, and ‘Which do you like best, the poor man or the lord?’ He believed that theatre had a moral purpose to instil a sense of patriotism and republican virtue, and he is an important figure in the development of a distinctively American style of theatre.
In 1797 he began his epic blank verse poem on the American revolution, ‘The Columbiad’; bombastic and poorly-written, it remained unpublished. Turning to history, he wrote A history of the late war in Ireland (Philadelphia, 1799), which portrayed pre-conquest Ireland as a land of justice and learning until subjected to 600 years of English tyranny. It detailed the savage brutality of crown forces in 1798 against an innocent people goaded into rebellion, and linked together the American, French, and Irish causes in a common international struggle for liberty. His History of Virginia (3 vols, 1804–5; a fourth volume, completed by others, was published in 1816), portrayed Virginia as an idyll of democracy and religious tolerance. It condemned slavery, extolled the nobility of Native Americans, and claimed that both natives and slaves had been humanely treated by white Virginians. Generally well-regarded, it remained a standard and influential work until the late nineteenth century. Interested in the Ossian cult (which he sought to claim for Ireland) and in the interaction of Irish and American music styles, Burk also wrote some popular songs and a ‘Historical essay on the character and antiquity of Irish songs’ (Richmond Enquirer, 27 May 1808).
Renowned for his fiery temper, he insulted the French nation in a tavern argument with a Frenchman, Felix Conquebert, and was challenged to a duel. He was shot though the heart and died in Petersburg 11 April 1808.