If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough

My great great grandfather, John Francis Burke. Born 27 Feb 1847 in Dublin, Ireland.


Family stories say he stowed away alone on an America-bound ship when he was 15 years old. The captain found him en route and told him he could not be taken back. He told the captain, “If I wanted to go back, I wouldn’t have stowed away.” So, they dropped him off in Miami in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War.

There are a few John Burkes in Confederate military records and census records from 1862 to 1870, but I don’t know which one, if any, is him. There is one in particular in the 1870 census listed as a farmhand in Alabama that I am leaning toward, but I’m not sure.

The next record of him was his marriage in 1879 to Nancy Didama Spencer of Mississippi. He is shown living with her family in the 1880 census and is listed as a “ditcher.”

He and “Grandma Damie” had six children between 1880 to 1894. There are no other records of him. Strangely, Damie is listed as a widow in the 1900 census, though John Francis did not die until 1909. Family members tell me Damie did not believe in divorce, and Damie and John spent the last ten years of their marriage under the same roof, but not speaking. When Damie spoke to the census-taker, she said she was a widow. I don’t know what he did to make her so angry, but it must have been a doozey. This explains why they are not buried next to each other at the cemetery. I always wondered why they are in different rows.

burke JP Burke Sr headstone 2

On a side note: Grandma Damie was a doctor and rode around the community side-saddle taking care of the sick. My mother told me a story about a grandmother who was a “medicine woman” who knew every plant and tree and how it could be used to heal people. She told me it was my other grandmother who was a Choctaw Indian, but I believe she got the women confused, and she was speaking of Grandma Damie.

Family members told me John Francis left home because he was angry with his father. I don’t know who his parents were, but if I ever venture into Dublin, Ireland records, I should be able to find him because his children were named after his siblings. His children were John Patrick “Pat”, Robert Emmett “Bob”, George Washington (probably won’t find a sibling with that name, that was his father-in-law’s name), Nina Virginia, Kathlene L, and David Edmund.

I don’t know what kind of childhood my great grandfather, John Patrick “Pat” Burke, had as he died four years before I was born, but I do know he played fiddle every Saturday night at the community barn dances. A cousin has his fiddle and the family pump organ stored away. Being a professional musician, I would give anything to get my hands on those. I wonder where my great grandfather learned to play fiddle. It’s such an Irish thing to do, don’t you think? Perhaps his father taught him. Perhaps his father learned from his grandfather. Hmmm.

I’m not sure I will ever find my Irish ancestors, and I feel sorry for his mother, never knowing what happened to her rebellious fifteen-year-old son. John Francis Burke could have pulled that name out of the sky or it could have been Bourke or O’Byrne or something. Either way, here’s a toast to my grandfather, John Francis Burke. For without his braveness at the tender age of fifteen, I would not be here.

shamrocksHere’s to the land of the shamrock so green,

Here’s to each lad and his darling colleen,

Here’s to the ones we love dearest and most.

May God bless old Ireland, that’s this Irishman’s toast!

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