“Burke's Dream”


[Thomas] Burke, the singer, dreams he has rejoined his comrades to fight the British. They win a great victory, and he returns home. The scream his mother makes when he returns to her wakens him, and he finds he is still in his cell


Zimmermann p. 263 makes this song about Richard O'Sullivan Burke who "had become a colonel in the Federal Army during the American Civil War. He was sent back to Ireland by the Fenian Brotherhood, organized the 'Manchester Rescue', was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude in 1867, but returned to America in 1874."

See what seems to be a broadside on the same subject, Bodleian, Harding B 26(663), "A New Song Call'd the Vision in Col Burke's Cell" ("Come all you Irish patriot's"), P. Brereton (Dublin), c.1867 - BS

There is definite uncertainty about the person involved here. Robert Kee's history, _The Bold Fenian Men_ (being Volume II of _The Green Flag_) mentions two Burke/Bourkes of significance. Page 41, refers to "an Irish-American 'general' with a shrunken leg, T[homas] F. Bourke." He commanded at the Battle of Ballyhurst (March 7, 1867), in which the Fenian forces fled at the first government volley. Condemned to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered, he managed a fine speech which put him into Irish folklore (Kee, p. 42). The government finally spared him on the grounds that his execution would have no deterrent effect (Kee, p. 49).

Richard O'Sullivan Burke was in 1867 a captain of engineers in the U. S. Army (Kee, p. 32), who travelled Europe to gather arms for the Fenians. Zimmermann is wrong; he was not a colonel (at least not at regular rank; he may have been breveted). According to the _State of New York Adjutant General's Report_, volume 2, p. 236, he was only made captain of the 15th New York Engineers on May 17, 1865, to date from April 29 of that year, and was mustered out as a captain on July 2.

His closest thing to a big moment apparently came when he told the crew of the arms runner _Erin's Hope_ that there was no point in landing weapons in Sligo (Kee, p. 43; see the notes to "The Cork Men and New York Men").

In typical Fenian fashion, an attempt was made to rescue him after the British arrested him; in typical Fenian fashion, it was bungled -- and produced a heavy loss of civilian lives (Kee, pp. 49-50).

Neither B(o)urke seems to have had much real effect on Irish events; Kee's is the only one of six histories I checked to mention either.

I do not think it possible to tell from the song which one is meant. Both of course ended up in prison. The song makes one mention of the singer being in battle leading Irish forces, which sounds like T. F. Burke at Ballyhurst, but it also describes his hard work in prison, which sounds like R. O. Burke. - RBW

Historical references

  • May 1, 1867 - "General" Thomas F. Burke is convicted of high treason for his leading part in the Fenian insurrection of 1867. He is condemned to die, but the sentence is commuted


  1. Laws J16, "Burke's Dream"
  2. Greenleaf/Mansfield 71, "Burke's Dream" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. O'Conor, p. 70, "Burke's Dream" (1 text)
  4. Zimmermann 71, "Burke's Dream" (1 text)
  5. Healy-OISBv2, pp. 46-48, "A Dream of General T. F. Burke" (1 text)
  6. DT 813, BURKDREM
  7. Roud #1893
  8. BI, LJ16


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1901 (O'Conor); c.1867 (Zimmermann)
Found in: Canada(Newf) Ireland