Thursday, June 7, 2012

William Burgh Citizen of Athy and York

Some weeks ago I travelled as part of a group organised by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland to York and the Bronte country.  I had previously visited both areas but on this occasion took care to search for references in York to William Burg, politician and religious polemicist.  Burgh, who was the eldest son of Thomas Burgh of Bert and Ann Downes, daughter of the Bishop of Cork and Ross, was elected Member of Parliament for Athy in 1768.  He was just 27 years of age and owed his position as Member of Parliament to his distant relation, the Duke of Leinster, James Fitzgerald.  This was at a time when the Borough of Athy returned two M.P.’s to the Irish House of Commons.  Elected with Burgh in 1768 was John St. Leger of Grangemellon.  St. Leger had previously sat as Member of Parliament for Doneraile in County Cork.  He represented Athy for less than a year, dying in his first year in office.  St. Leger by all accounts was a dissolute character who enjoyed membership of the Hell Fire Club.  It was always believed that the St. Leger’s residence at Grangemellon was the venue for several meetings of the Hell Fire Club and David Ryan in his recent book on the Irish Hell Fire Clubs gives an account of what he calls the Grangemellon Hell Fire Club.

William Burgh retired as Member of Parliament in 1776 and was replaced by his younger brother Thomas who was again returned as M.P. for Athy in 1783, together with Lord Edward Fitzgerald.  Burgh, who had married Mary Warburton of Clane in 1768, the year of his election as M.P. for Athy, then moved to York where he remained for the rest of his life.

While he was a member of the House of Commons, Burgh was described as ‘a pert peevish boy’ who was accustomed to saying ‘any ill-natured thing’.  However, he appears to have undergone a change in character while in York where he undertook a lifelong interest in theology.  He published, initially anonymously, a book refuting the Unitarian rejection of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity and followed it up with another publication which provoked further criticism by the Unitarians.  The University of York bestowed a D.C.L. on him in recognition of his theological work, especially his books on the defence of the Doctrine of Trinity. 

Burgh was well connected, his sister Margaret having married John Foster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, while his second sister Ann married Walter Hussey Burgh, Lord Chief Baron of the Irish Courts of Exchequer.  The controversy arising from his religious publications was added to by his support for William Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery and his support for the American Revolution.  Burgh, given his background, might have been expected to support the Act of Union but in fact he opposed the union of Great Britain and Ireland.  The two Members of Parliament representing the Borough of Athy when the Union was passed, Richard Hare and William Hare, both voted in favour of the Union.

William Burgh was a friend of William Mason, the Anglican Minister and poet, whose friendship with Thomas Gray led him to write ‘A Life of Gray’ following the eminent poet’s death.  Mason’s most important literary work was ‘The English Garden’, published in four volumes between 1772 and 1782.  Burgh edited an annotated edition of ‘The English Garden’ a year later which found favour with Mason who wanted his Irish friend to edit a complete edition of his works.  Burgh unfortunately did not rise to the challenge.  He died on St. Stephen’s Day 1808 aged 67 years and was buried in the Lady’s Chapel at York Minster on 3rd January 1809. 

There is a fine monument to Burgh in York Minster, the work of Richard Westmacott, the eminent British sculptor who has numerous examples of his work in St. Paul’s Cathedral and in Westminster Abbey.  The York monument consists of a podium supporting a symbolic figure of Faith, holding a cross and an altar with the symbol I.H.S. in bronze and Burgh’s surname.  The long poetical inscription on the pedestal reads:-

            ‘Lost in a jarring world’s tumultuous cries
            Unmarked around us sink the good and wise;
            Here Burgh is laid: a venerable name,
            To virtue sacred, not unknown to fame;
            Let those he loved, let those who lov’d him tell
            How dear he lived, and how lamented fell;
            Tell of the Void his social spirit left,
            Of comforts long enjoyed, for ever reft,
            Of wit that gilded many a sprightlier hour,
            Of kindness when this scene of joy was o’er,
            Of truth’s etherial beam, by learning given
            To guide his virtues to their native heav’n;
            Nor shall their sorrowing voice be heard unmov’d
            While gratitude is left, or goodness lov’d,
            But list’ning crowds this honour’d tomb attend,
            And children’s children bless their father’s friend.’

On the edge of the slab supporting the figure there is an inscription in Latin which translates as:-

‘To William Burgh Esq., born in Ireland 1741, died in York 1808 aged 67 years.’

Is Burgh, I wonder, the only Athy man to be commemorated in stone?

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