Burke, Thomas Nicholas (‘Tom’) (1830–83), Dominican preacher and historian, was born Nicholas Anthony Burke on 8 September 1830 in Kirwan's Lane, off Cross St., Galway, fourth surviving child and only son of Walter Burke, baker, and Margaret Burke (née MacDonough). He was educated in Galway by the Brothers of St Patrick and later at Michael Winter's Academy. A mischievous child, he was indulged by his elderly father, but not by his strict and highly devout mother, who regularly flogged him. In December 1847 he joined the Dominicans, travelling to Rome and then Perugia, where he received the habit 29 December 1847 and took the name St Thomas Aquinas; he made his solemn profession 5 January 1849. On 3 January 1850 he went to Rome to study theology at the Minerva and Santa Sabina, and marked himself out as an exceptional student. Appointed master of novices to a friary in Woodchester, Gloucester, England, he arrived 4 October 1851. A strict disciplinarian, he kept his charges in line with a mixture of severity and humour. He was ordained at Woodchester 26 March 1853 and won his lectorship in theology 3 August 1854.
In 1855 he was sent to Ireland to found a Dominican novitiate at Tallaght, Co. Dublin, which he headed till 1864. He soon became one of the order's most famous and popular preachers, much in demand in Ireland and Britain as a retreat master and a preacher of missions and charity sermons. His sermons exhibited a wonderful command of language, mingled wit and wisdom, and were delivered in dramatic style in his rich Galway accent. In September 1864 he was appointed prior of the Irish Dominican college at San Clemente, Rome. When Henry Manning was appointed archbishop of Westminster in 1865 Burke was chosen to replace him as preacher of Lenten sermons in English at Santa Maria del Popolo. Manning was a great admirer of Burke's preaching, particularly his gift for popularising theology. His preaching in Rome was also much admired by Longfellow and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), who became a close friend. Burke never lost his boyish mischievousness and was a wonderful anecdotist and a superb mimic; his humility and ready wit made him a popular figure. Many observers believed that his levity was the only reason he was never appointed a bishop. On hearing Pope Leo XIII express his surprise that a rather large aristocratic English lady had come all the way to Rome to receive a papal blessing, Burke replied: ‘Does not your holiness know that faith moves mountains?’ (Gaffney, 433). He returned to Ireland in August 1867 to St Saviour's friary, Dominick St., Dublin. When the remains of Daniel O'Connell (qv) were reinterred under the tower in Glasnevin cemetery on 14 May 1869, Burke preached a eulogy to an estimated 50,000 crowd. Well versed in theology, particularly the Summa theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas, he was advisor to John Pius Leahy (1802–90), bishop of Dromore, during the 1st Vatican council (December 1869–October 1870) which decreed papal infallibility. Burke opposed the decree, fearing that it would undermine catholic unity.
He left for the USA 11 October 1871 as visitor to the American Dominican communities, expecting to remain a few weeks, but his preaching was so popular he stayed till 1873. He addressed huge crowds at New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and St Louis, on secular as well as spiritual subjects, notably on Irish history; many of these lectures were published in his Ireland and the Irish (New York, 1873). His other published works include Lectures and sermons (New York, 1873), Lectures on faith and fatherland (Glasgow, 1874), and St Ignatius and the Jesuits (London, 1880). In his historical works he strongly identified Irishness with catholicism. His lectures in reply to the historian J. A. Froude (qv) on Anglo–Irish relations proved particularly popular in America, and were published as English misrule in Ireland (New York, 1873) and Ireland's case stated, in reply to Mr Froude (New York, 1873). A strong nationalist, Burke had been strongly influenced in his youth by the horrors of the famine in Galway and by reading the speeches of Daniel O'Connell and the Young Irelanders' writings. He maintained that Froude had seriously misrepresented Ireland's grievances and that England's conduct towards Ireland had usually been marked by injustice and heartlessness. His American tour was interrupted when he was forced to rest after the strain of lecturing three times daily caused his lungs to collapse. On leaving America in March 1873, he had delivered some 700 sermons and lectures, and raised £80,000 for charity.
From this time onwards he also suffered from severe stomach ulcers, which caused him great pain, but he still continued to preach regularly. He preached the panegyric at the funeral of Cardinal Paul Cullen (qv) on 27 November 1878 (published 1879), an oration which he believed was his best. He would also have preached the panegyric for his friend Archbishop John MacHale (qv) in 1881, but ill-health prevented him. Most observers regarded him as the finest Irish catholic preacher of his day. During these years he strove hard to raise funds for a new Dominican church in Tallaght, and its corner stone was laid 1 October 1882. Only days before his death he rose from his sick bed to preach at St Francis Xavier church in aid of poor children in Donegal. He died 2 July 1883 at the novitiate at Tallaght, and was buried there. At his funeral a message of sympathy was read from Pope Leo XIII: it concluded ‘the death of this great orator and excellent religious had placed in mourning not only his order and all Ireland – but the universal church’ (Cassidy, 94). His portrait is held in St Mary's Dominican priory, Tallaght.