Burke, James (Jacques) (1739–1821), priest, was born in St Conald's parish (an area later known as Dromcliffe), near Ennis, Co. Clare, son of James Burke and Mary Burke (née Callery). Aged 17 he entered the Irish College, Bordeaux, where he was later joined by his brother, Thomas. In 1772 James was named canon of Saint-Astier in the diocese of Périgueux by Louis XV and in 1774 he became curé of Saint-Jacques de Bec d'Ambès, a lucrative parish near Bordeaux. He welcomed the outbreak of revolution in July 1789 and on 6 February 1791 became one of the first priests in Bordeaux to take the oath of the civil constitution; his brother Thomas, the parish priest of Lussac, refused to take the oath. James's revolutionary ardour was such that he demolished his parish church and the nearby Ursuline convent (earning a tidy profit by selling the building materials), sold the sacred vessels, and speculated in confiscated church property. With the proceeds he bought a farm near Bordeaux and gave up his clerical duties. In 1793 he became a close associate of Claude Alexandre Ysabeau (1754–1831), a former Oratorian priest and the local representative of the committee of public safety. Burke proved of considerable assistance to him, particularly in the difficult task of provisioning Bordeaux during the food shortages of 1793. He was however horrified by some of the excesses of de-Christianisation during the Terror. As the Terror took hold in Bordeaux he was imprisoned (19 October 1793) as a British subject. On 31 October 1793 he petitioned for release on the grounds that he was a hard-working farmer and a loyal republican. He set out his record of public service, and was released after some weeks through the intervention of Ysabeau. He also used his influence with Ysabeau to have fifty students from the Irish College who had been arrested in December 1793 (including his brother Thomas and Michael Murphy (qv), later leader of the Wexford rebels) released and repatriated. His closeness to Ysabeau, however, led him to be briefly imprisoned in August 1794 as a result of a local power struggle.
His activities made him many enemies and he was again imprisoned under the directory as a priest and an aristocratic agent. While he was in custody, in February 1796 the Irish College in the rue Hâ, Bordeaux, was officially confiscated, and was about to be sold and converted into a tobacco factory. But after some months Burke managed to secure his release from prison and take possession of the college, with himself as caretaker.
After the concordat of 1802 he was reconciled to the church and resumed his pastoral duties. In 1803 Bordeaux's Irish College was restored to the church by consular decree. By this time the college was occupied by a colony of black refugees. Having failed to have them removed by legal means, Burke forced them out by stripping the roof with his own hands. He spent the remaining years of his life in unceasing attempts to reestablish the college as a seminary for Irish students; between 1807 and 1819 he bought up surrounding houses until he owned a suitable quadrangle of buildings. Several prominent Franco-Irish figures lent their support, including the minister of state the comte de Lally-Tollendal, the duc de Fitzjames, Marshal MacDonald, and the comte de Marcellus. Lally-Tollendal managed to secure him an annual pension of 1,000 francs and official possession of the college in 1815. In 1817 Burke presented a petition, signed by several British MPs and by leading Irish catholics, seeking the college's reestablishment to the duchesse d'Angoulême, daughter of the executed Louis XVI and protector of ecclesiastical establishments in France, which was favourably received. But since the foundation of Maynooth (1795) there was less need for continental seminaries to educate Irish students, and the Bordeaux college never again functioned as an Irish seminary.
Burke described his experiences in the pamphlet Burke a sauvé la mission de Bordeaux (1811). He died 13 April 1821 in Bordeaux and was buried with solemn honours in the local cathedral. In his will he bequeathed all his possessions to the college and stipulated that a daily mass should perpetually be said for his soul in its chapel.