Strolling recently through Gerrard Street, London, now the centre of London’s Chinese community, I came across a blue wall plaque which read ‘Edmund Burke, author and statesman lived here’. He is just one of many Irish men and women who have been remembered with plaques placed on public and private buildings in London.
Burke, who was born in Dublin, attended the Ballitore Quaker School before graduating from Trinity College Dublin. He is recognised as having had more influence on the world of political thought than any other man of his time. Burke was a lifelong friend of Richard Shackleton, with whom he attended the Quaker school in Ballitore which was operated by Shackleton’s father. He corresponded with Shackleton throughout his lifetime and following Shackleton’s death with Shackleton’s daughter Mary Leadbetter.
Burke arrived in London in 1750 having enrolled in the Middle Temple as a law student some years previously. He subsequently gave up his legal studies and in 1756 he published his first book, ‘A Vindication of Natural Society’. That same year he married Jane Nugent and became a Member of Parliament. Two years later he bought an estate in the Buckingham village as it then was of Beaconsfield.
Beaconsfield lies about 25 miles from London and it is here that Burke, who died a year before the 1798 rebellion, is buried. He lies within the little parish church of Beaconsfield with his wife, his only son and his brother. Burke, anticipating that attempts would be made to have him buried in Westminster Abbey, stipulated in his Will that he was to be buried with his son Richard who died aged 34 years in 1794. The English House of Commons did indeed agree that the honour of internment in Westminster Abbey be afforded to Burke’s remains but the explicit instructions in Burke’s Will overruled this.
In the Beaconsfield Church between the pews there was once a large brass plate in the form of a Celtic cross set into the flags with the following inscription. ‘In the vault beneath in a wooden coffin lie the remains of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke’. The inscription continued with the explanation that it was place there in 1862 by a number of Burke’s friends including Lord Downes ‘their object being to mark the grave of the greatest of their name’. The plaque was subsequently removed and replaced with a simple plaque with the name ‘Edmund Burke’.
Lord Downes lived in Bert House, Athy. As the former Sir Ulysses de Burgh he succeeded his uncle, the first Lord Downes, who died unmarried in 1826. The first Lord Downes who had also lived in Bert House was the Chief Justice of Ireland, having been appointed in place of Lord Kilwarden who was assassinated in Thomas Street, Dublin during the Emmet Rebellion of 1803. The former Chief Justice was the son of Robert Downes, one time Sovereign of Athy Town Council. It was his successor, the second Lord Downes, who donated the clock which now adorns Athy Town Hall. He did so in 1846 soon after the Borough Council of which he was a member was abolished. The Borough Council in turn purchased a bell from the first Anglican church which was located in Emily Square and hung it on the Town Hall.
There are also two memorials on the interior church wall to Burke. The higher of the two wall plaques reads ‘near this place lies interred all that was mortal of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke who died on 9th July 1797 aged 68 years. In the same grave are deposited the remains of his only son Richard Burke Esquire representative in parliament for the Borough of Malton who died on the 2nd of August 1794, aged 35 and of his brother Richard Burke Esquire, Barrister at Law and Recorder of the city of Bristol who died on the 4th of February 1794 and of his widow Jane Mary Burke who died on the 2nd of April 1812, aged 78.
The lower of the two wall plaques is in two parts. The upper part consists of a bust of Burke and the lower of the Burke coat of arms with the inscription ‘Edmund Burke patriot, orator, statesman lived at Butler’s Court, formerly Gregonies in this parish from 1769 to 1797. This memorial placed here by public inscription records the undying honour in which his name is held, July 9th 1898.
Beaconsfield is also the last resting place of G.K. Chesterton who died in 1936. His burial took place in the Catholic cemetery in the town and his grave is marked with a tombstone sculpted by Eric Gill.