Burke’s parents, though in moderate circumstances, gave him a good education. He studies at first under the care of the Patrician Brothers, and is afterwards sent to a private school. An attack of typhoid fever when he is fourteen years old and the famine year of 1847 have a sobering effect. Toward the end of that year he asks to be received into the Order of Preachers, and is sent to Perugia in Italy to make his novitiate. On December 29, he is clothed there in the habit of St. Dominic and receives the name of Thomas.
Shortly afterward Burke is sent to Rome to begin his studies at the College of St. Thomas, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, where he is a student of philosophy and theology. He passes thence to the Roman convent of Santa Sabina. His superiors send him, while yet a student, as novice-master to Woodchester, the novitiate of the resuscitated English Province. He is ordained into the priesthood on March 26, 1853. On August 3, 1854, he defends publicly the theses in universâ theologiâ. He is made lector at the College of St. Thomas in 1854.
Early in the following year Burke is recalled to Ireland to found the novitiate of the Irish Province at Tallaght, near Dublin. In 1859 he preaches his first notable sermon on “Church Music.” It immediately lifts him into fame.
Elected Prior of Tallaght in 1863, Burke goes to Rome the following year as Rector of the Dominican Convent of San Clemente and attracts great attention by his preaching. He returns to Ireland in 1867 and delivers his oration on Daniel O’Connell at Glasnevin before fifty thousand people.
Bishop Leahy takes him as his theologian to the First Vatican Council in 1870, and the following year he is sent as Visitor to the Dominican convents in America. He is besieged with invitations to preach and lecture. The seats are filled hours before he appears and his audiences overflow the churches and halls in which he lectures. In New York City he delivers the discourses in refutation of the English historian James Anthony Froude.
In an eighteen month period Burke gives four hundred lectures, exclusive of sermons, with the proceeds amounting to nearly $400,000. His mission is a triumph, but the triumph is dearly won. When he arrives in Ireland on March 7, 1873, he is spent and broken.
During the next decade Burke preaches in Ireland, England, and Scotland. He begins the erection of the church in Tallaght in 1883, and the following May preaches a series of sermons in the new Dominican church, London. In June he returns to Tallaght in a dying condition and preaches his last sermon in the Jesuit church, Dublin, in aid of the starving children of Donegal. A few days afterwards, on July 2, 1882, he dies. He is buried in the church of Tallaght, now a memorial to him.
(Pictured: Statue of Thomas Nicholas Burke by John Francis Kavanagh by Nimmo’s Pier in Galway)