Burke (Bourke), John (d. 1607), of Brittas, Co. Limerick, landowner and Roman catholic martyr, was eldest son of Richard Burke of Brittas (younger brother of Sir William Burke, Lord Castleconnell) and his wife Honora, daughter of Conor O'Mulrian, chief of Owny. In the late 1590s Burke, a devout Roman catholic, decided to move to Spain in order that he might worship without fear of persecution from the protestant authorities in Ireland. Although he made his preparations in secret, rumours of his impending departure reached his father-in-law, Sir George Thornton, who at that time was a commissioner for the government of Munster. Thornton used his position to stop Burke's plans, whether by persuasion or coercion, and Burke remained in Limerick. This did not stop his desire to practise his religion, however, and he began to attend mass openly with like-minded neighbours. Eventually he devoted himself to charitable and religious activity, accompanying clerics around his locality, and left his wife to manage his estate. He does not appear to have played a leading part in the Nine Years’ War in Munster, and in May 1600 he submitted to Sir George Carew (qv), lord president of Munster 1600–03.
On the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the catholic community in Limerick, along with those of other urban centres in Ireland, tried to restore the open practice of their faith, hoping for toleration under the new king, James I. In response, the lord deputy, Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy, visited these towns and cities in April–May 1603 and reasserted royal authority. In Limerick the protestant community identified Burke as one of the leaders of the Roman catholic community there. Mountjoy had Burke arrested and he was imprisoned in Dublin castle. While incarcerated he professed to have been comforted by a white light while praying, and on his release his piety was undiminished. He met the Dominican friar, Edmund O'Hallaghan (qv), who enrolled him in the Confraternity of the Rosary, and had an altar constructed at his house for the members of the confraternity to hear mass. When Sir Henry Brouncker (qv), lord president of Munster 1604–7, heard of this he ordered Burke's arrest, and dispatched a Capt. Miller with a contingent of troops to surround Burke's house at Brittas when the monthly mass was to be offered by the confraternity. The main targets of the raid were to be Burke himself and his chaplain, John Clancy. On the approach of the troops the congregation fled, while Burke and Fr Clancy, with five other people, barricaded themselves in a tower, taking the sacred vessels with them. When asked to come out, they responded by offering to hear Capt. Miller's confession and those of his troops. Burke's wife and mother then urged him to surrender, given the hopelessness of the situation, but he refused this entreaty as well. Reinforcements were called and the houses of the locality were burned, as was the roof of his house. Eventually, after a few days, Burke and three of his servants armed themselves and broke out of the tower. They crossed the Mulkear river by a weir, whereupon the soldiers gave chase. Burke hid the vessels in shrubs, evaded the soldiers, and made his way to a seaport, apparently Waterford. Unable to find a ship, he went to Carrick-on-Suir, where he was betrayed and arrested. When his wife visited him he gave her a letter for Fr O'Hallaghan, whom she located in Kilkenny, to instruct her in the faith. He was transferred to Limerick for his trial, being charged with having killed a soldier during the siege, among other charges. The judge, Dominick Sarsfield (qv), chief justice of Munster 1604–8, subsequently chief justice of the common pleas and Viscount Sarsfield of Kilmallock, asked him to obey the king and conform, but Burke refused to deny Christ, Christ's mother, or the catholic church. Sarsfield found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. He was ordered to be hanged, then to be beheaded, and finally to be quartered.
John Burke was executed c.20 December 1607. At the place of execution outside the city he was offered pardon, restitution of his lands, and preferment if he would take the oath of supremacy and attend the Church of Ireland. He refused, and reiterated his adherence to the catholic church. He was then hanged, but the president relented on the rest of the punishment, after being lobbied by locals such as Sir Thomas Browne. His body was taken down from the gallows and carried intact to the city, where he was buried in St John's church. His wife was Grace Thornton, with whom he had a number of children. One daughter, born after his death, became a nun in the Irish Dominican convent at Lisbon. She died there in 1648.