My Father - A Man of Mystery

My mother was an unusual woman. She was much younger than my father, very much in love with him but she would not have been easily deceived. I am sure she knew the true story of my father’s past but had the self-restraint to keep it to herself. The trouble was that we three children did not know there was a mystery till long after my mother and father were dead.

It always seemed strange to me when I was a child that we had no relatives on my father’s side, while we were positively swamped with aunts, cousins and family stories from my mother’s side. If asked questions my mother was always evasive and I was always put off enough not to bother to pursue it.

The story of my father’s origins that I had always believed was this. My grandparents, who were butchers in Ireland, decided to emigrate to America. They crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool on the first stage of the journey and my grandmother, Sarah, was very sea-sick and could not face continuing the voyage to America. The older members of the family went on, my grand-parents intending to follow. While they rested in Liverpool, my grandmother discovered she was pregnant. She had thought she was past child-bearing age. They decided to stay in Liverpool and the baby who was born was my father. They named him James.

My grandfather, Thomas Burke, opened two butcher’s shops in Liverpool and eventually died after an accident. He was supposed to have gone to the races, come back probably the worse for drink, put his feet up on the hob and knocked a pan of boiling water over his feet. He died of gangrene. My grandmother was kept going for a long time by people coming with their bad debts.

My father, meanwhile, grew up in Liverpool, went to school and left when quite young to go to sea. there is also a story of his spending devoted hours tending his dying sister, Catherine. It was never explained where she had been all this time and it never occurred to me to ask.

The rest of the story I can more or less vouch for. Jimmy Burke, my father, was on the Australian run and was away for many months at a time. When he was at home he stayed with his mother in a house not far from where my mother lived. My mother’s mother, Mary Josephine, was rather severe and strait-laced. Her parents had kept a boarding house and she had fallen for a charming Irish man named Jimmy Walsh. They married and had seven children - six girls and one boy. My mother, Marian, was the eldest. I don’t think it was a very happy marriage. They were too different. When Jimmy Burke was home he would go to the pub to play billiards. He was, apparently very good. He would watch Jimmy Walsh, who was not that different in age from him, drinking too much and knowing he had a large family would steer him home before too much damage was done. Naturally, Mary Josephine, who would be sitting at home with a face like thunder, developed a soft spot for the chap who was so good to her.

While Jimmy Burke was at sea, his mother, a good Catholic, went regularly to church and was well known to the Walsh family. One Saturday night she went to Confession as usual and was knocked over and killed by a bread van while on her way home. Why would a bread van be out in the evening? There must have been very few at the time. It would surely have been quite an item of news.

As Jimmy was away and out of touch, there being no radio at that time, the Parish Priest took responsibility for buying a grave and seeing to the funeral. The house was rented and so was disposed of so there would be nothing for Jimmy to come home to. Mary Josephine decided that Jimmy would come back to them and from then on he spent his times ashore in the Walsh household. My mother’s youngest sister tells how they always looked forward to Jimmy’s home-comings because he always had exciting presents for them, but he always had a special one for Marie because she was oldest.

Eventually Marie, unusually for her time, went to university, got a degree in Latin and maths and began to teach in a girls school in Liverpool. A romance must have blossomed between her and Jimmy, although he was about twenty years older than she was. There was great opposition to the match, not surprisingly. I had always assumed it was because of the age difference but of course Marie would have been bringing in good money and there were still many mouths to feed.

Jimmy and Marie were married and my grandmother is on the photograph looking as if she is at a funeral. These were good times and there was no shortage of money while there were ships at sea. Soon, however, came the depression and no ships sailed out of Liverpool. Hard times fell on everyone. During the good days Marie first had twin girls born prematurely. They died soon after birth. My two older brothers were born while times were still good but I came along while my father was out of work. My mother had to go to the hospital for my birth, no fancy nursing home now. No visitors were allowed and she told me how my father got a message to her to look out of the window. He had written on a large piece of card: - ‘START ON MONDAY’. I don’t know how long that job lasted. It was not easy to get a job in Liverpool at that time if you had an Irish name.

My father died from a heart attack in December 1941 having spent nights salvaging mail in the General Post Office after it had been bombed. He had been invalided out of the army in the first World War with a heart condition. He had been injured, had had a finger amputated in a field hospital and had nearly lost his life on the operating table.

We would all have been quite content with this part of family history if my brother had not wanted to live in Ireland and have an Irish passport.

My brother, Vincent, had an insurance business with an office in Dublin. for reasons I am not too clear about, probably something to do with tax, he wanted to move to Ireland and take out Irish citizenship. If you have a parent or grandparent who was born in Ireland you can be granted citizenship as a right. Well that seemed no problem because we had three grandparents born in Ireland. Vincent chose to find our grandfather Thomas Burke’s certificate. He decided first to look for his death certificate and work back from there. We knew that he had died in Liverpool. But there is no record of a Thomas Burke dying in Liverpool at any time remotely round the relevant time. There is no grave in his name in Liverpool. when Sarah Burke died the Parish Priest bought a new grave instead of burying her with her husband which you would think more usual. Curiosity now roused, Vincent began to go through the trade records for some reference to the butcher’s shops. No records of any sort of shops in the name of Burke exist at the relevant time at the address we knew or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, there is nothing to prove that Thomas Burke ever lived in England and he certainly did not die here.

Next, Vincent began to investigate my father’s birth. We knew he had been born in Liverpool in about 1881/2. There is no record of his birth in Liverpool within ten years either side of those dates. We knew the school he went to, so he looked up the school registers - again no record of James Burke ever having attended a school in Liverpool.

We knew my father went to sea, that was certain, so Vincent looked up the crew lists of the ships in the White Star Line which we knew had employed him. He found records of his signing on and being paid off but there are long gaps between voyages. He seems to have spent long periods in America. Every time James had put down his date of birth it was different.

Eventually, exasperated, he had almost given up the search. By now Vincent was living in Ireland and my older brother, Leo, who was something of a student, went to stay with Vincent in Ireland. He offered to help find my grandmother’s birth certificate because we knew that it should be registered in Dublin. He began to trawl through the records and by chance found my father’s birth registered in Ireland. So why pretend to be born in Liverpool? Leo then went on to find the marriage certificate of Thomas and Sarah Burke, so the idea that he might have been illegitimate and ashamed of it does not hold water.

Having found our father’s birth was in Ireland Vincent could now apply for Irish citizenship without any more searching. But the explanation for all the lies is no nearer being solved.

When my mother was very ill and was staying with Leo, she said to him that she had a secret that she was going to take with her to the grave - rather dramatic language for my mother who was not given to histrionics. Of course Leo did not give this much thought at the time. By the time we knew there was a secret it was too late to find out….

M.M.Carroll - June 1995