MARCUS BOURKE 1927-2010
BY WILLIAM NOLAN
Marcus Bourke (Marcus de Búrca) will be best remembered by the members of the Tipperary Historical Society as one of its founding members on 15 August 1987, the faithful editor of its Journal from the first issue in 1988 until he vacated the editorial chair in 2001 and its president until his death at the age of 83 on 2 March 2010. He lived his life between Dublin, the city of his birth, and Tipperary, the town of his paternal forbears –the Bourkes. His Dublin was that of the educated Catholic middle-class who came to prominence after the long struggle for political independence from Britain. Education was the fulcrum which shaped him and many other children of the revolutionary people. Belonging to a determinedly Irish Ireland family he was educated in the primary school attached to St.Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra, where one of his teachers was the noted Meath footballer Frankie Byrne. His secondary school days were spent with the Jesuits in Belvedere College in Dublin’s north inner city. That schools most famous past pupil is James Joyce and Marcus had a bronze bust of the writer on the mantlepice of his sitting-room in Clontarf. At his father’s prompting, he enrolled for a degree in legal and political science including economics in UCD. After graduating he completed an MA in economics under the supervision of Paddy Lynch. He then, like his father before him, qualified for the bar in 1949. Charles Haughey was one of his classmates.
Marcus Bourke practised as a barrister for eleven years. During this period he also began working as a sport’s reporter with the Irish Press, specialising in Gaelic football and he remembered fondly the great contests between Meath and Cavan in the early 1950s. He subsequently transferred to the Irish Independent and the position of news sub-editor and leader writer. But as a young married man with a family he found that combining the Law Library with an evening stint in the newspaper office was becoming impossible and he changed course and applied for a position in the civil service. His legal background and editing experience led him to a position as a parliamentary draftsman in the Attorney-General’s Office, and he was to remain there until his early retirement in 1987. He was involved in the preparation of road traffic and labour legislation.
It was a fortuitous move as his office was located in Leinster House, happily for Marcus next door to the National Library and within walking distance of the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle. Although he had not taken history as a degree subject in UCD Marcus was by inclination and family background essentially a historian. He had imbibed much on the War of Independence and the Civil War from his activist father, and vacations spent in Tipperary town had filled in details both of the Land War and the fight for freedom. Soon he built up a network of similarly circumstanced researchers such as Thomas P. O’ Neill, de Valera’s biographer, who was then employed in the National Library, Seán O Lúing, employed in the translation service in Leinster House, and author of biographies of O’Donovan Rossa and Arthur Griffith, among others. This circle of friends and scholars were enormously productive and Marcus published two books in 1967- The O’Rahilly and John O’Leary: a study in Irish separatism. Many critics regard O’Leary’s biography as Marcus’s best book and it has become an indispensable source for researchers of the late nineteenth century in Ireland. O’Leary’s long life, his ambiguous relationship with his native town, his unswerving fidelity to Ireland, despite imprisonment and exile, his adoption by W.B.Yeats as the embodiment of a fading Romantic Ireland in his great poem Easter 1916, made him an appropriate subject.
If Marcus Bourke was well-equiped to write on John O’Leary, he was an even more appropriate choice to write the first detailed history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, published under the title The GAA: a history in 1980. Seamus King discussed in detail the protracted negotiations leading to Marcus’s appointment and it is certain that he was directed, as he wrote in the introduction, to treat ‘particularly of its role in the the national movement of the pre-1922 era’. There is no whiff of winter green in the book and when Marcus refers to Croke Park it is not the green sward that he had in focus but the Ard –Comhairle. The strength of the work is that he was writing from the inside out rather than from the outside in and it is his knowledge of the internal dynamics of the association that gives the book great authority. He had a sense that he should do justice to the quiet men who had revolutionised the organisational structures of the GAA, in particular, Jim Nowlan, its Kilkenny president during the early twentieth century, and two great secretaries, Luke O’Toole and Pádraig Ó Caoimh, who between them held office for sixty-five years.
It was not his final excursion into GAA history. Gaelic games in Leinster (1984), One hundred years of Faugh’s hurling (1985), and Michael Cusack and the GAA (1989), followed. It is appropriate here to note that one of his assistants in researching the book on Faughs was Paddy Williams, a member of the great hurling family from Kilruane. It was another Tipperaryman, Con Ryan, who lobbied the Dublin County Board to write the history it had long planned to complete. Fortunately, we were able to avail of Marcus’s intimate knowledge of the early years of the GAA in Dublin and the three volume study, The Gaelic Athletic Association in Dublin, 1884-2000, was published 2005.
Perhaps his most controversial book was Murder at Marlhill. Was Harry Gleeson innocent? This book dealt in microscopic detail, the kind of forensic investigation which he excelled in, with the brutal murder of Mary McCarthy in November 1940. He trawled legal records and traced people who knew both the murdered woman and the man accused of her murder. He found disturbing evidence which convinced him that Harry Gleeson was executed for a crime he did not commit. Marcus Bourke never wavered from his deep conviction that society had failed through moral cowardice and allowed an innocent man to die. ‘The book,’ wrote Denis G. Marnane in this journal in 2002, ‘in fact is a powerful argument against capital punishment’.
It was fortuitous for the Tipperary Historical Society that its beginning and Marcus Bourke’s retirement from the civil service coincided. The society was founded in Thurles on 15 August 1987 and Marcus was asked, presumably as the only barrister in attendance, to draw up its constitution. Events transpired that the editorial committee appointed to prepare the Society’s first journal for publication had to resign and Marcus was approached and willingly accepted the role of sole editor. He remained in the editorial chair for thirteen fruitful years and under his direction the journal acquired a national reputation for the quality of its research, presentation and writing. He insisted on plain English and had a particular distaste for long paragraphs, something he inherited from his days as sub-editor and legal draftsman. He was tireless in seeking articles from at home and abroad, and he kept up incessant correspondence, both with likely contributors and errant ones, who had unwisely promised more than they could deliver. Marcus was unsparing of those who published material on County Tipperary in journals elsewhere regarding his journal as primus inter pares. This is not the time nor place to assess the role of an academic journal in the cultural life of a place, but it must be said that Marcus Bourke’s devotion to his task had within it an inherent civic republicanism and sense of duty, with no expectation of monetary reward.
Marcus was pleased that in his late seventies he was called in by the Law Reform Commission to assist in the monumental task of preparing and refining draft sections for what eventually became The Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009. It was a huge undertaking which involved the repeal of over 150 Acts on land and conveyancing law, some of which dated back to the thirteenth century.
He delighted in visiting Tipperary and apart from Tipperary town, he had a special liking for the Glen of Aherlow and Kickham’s Vale of Anner. He was a regular attender at the annual Kickham Country Weekend seminar held every August in Mullinahone. Indeed his last lecture in the county was on the occasion of the Thurles field trip organised in conjunction with the Mullinahone seminar on 9 August 2006. It was sadly appropriate that it was delivered in Hayes’ Hotel on the men, he knew so much about, who came together to found the Gaelic Athletic Association on 1 November 1884. His last public appearance in the county was on the occasion of the launch of the reprint of John O’Leary: a study in Irish separatism in the Excel Centre in Tipperary town on 26 march 2009. Perhaps his summation of John O’Leary, in an interview with Fintan Deere for the Clonmel Nationalist some years ago, can be also applied to Marcus Bourke: ‘He was a prominent Tipperary patriot. He was a literary, ideological type of person rather than a political one’.
Marcus Bourke was predeceased by his wife Phyllis and he is survived by three sons, Richard, Raymond and John, his sister Eileen and brother Seán.