How the Irish came to East Anglia - and the Kilfinane Connection

This is the text of an address written by Peter Crooks to mark the 125th anniversary of the Irish Society of East Anglia, in March 2016:

“What a fantastic cause for celebration – 125 years of our Society, founded in 1891!

You only really begin to understand just how remarkable it is when you think about what else was going on in that year.

Because 17 March 1891 is nearly two-and-a-half years earlierĀ  than the first meeting of another society – a society that was to change the course of Irish history. I’m talking about the Gaelic League, which held its first meeting in Dublin in July 1893. It was the Gaelic League – founded by Douglas Hyde (later Ireland’s first President) and other luminaries of the Gaelic revival – that inspired a generation of Irishmen and Irishwomen to celebrate the Irish language and Gaelic culture. Many of those men and women went on to be the leaders of the 1916 Rising in Dublin whose centenary falls in just a few days’ time.

So this is a remarkable fact – the first of three remarkable facts of the evening. Before the Gaelic League ever held its first meeting in July 1893, the Irish Society of East Anglia had already celebrated three St Patrick’s Days (on the 17th of March in the years 1891, 1892 and 1893).

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Why should East Anglia, of all places, have the oldest Irish society in England? And when did the Irish first come to East Anglia?

Amazingly, we actually know the answer. The story of the Irish in East Anglia goes right back to our earliest recorded history, one thousand five hundred years ago. This was when East Anglia was a kingdom with a Saxon warlord as king. It was also the era of the Dark Ages in Europe, when Ireland’s intrepid monks were setting out to save civilization. Two most famous of those wandering monks were St Columbanus and St Brendan the Navigator. And it was a grand-nephew of St Brendan the Navigator, a visionary and a monk called Saint Fursa who was the first recorded Irishman in East Anglia.

Saint Fursa grew up on Lough Corrib in Connacht on the far side of the island of Ireland. Around 630 AD he set out for the very far side of the island of Britain, and arrived in the kingdom of East Anglia with his two brothers where he set about converting the Saxons to Christianity. He even founded a monastery in Norfolk on the site of a Roman fort at Burgh Castle on the River Yare, a few miles upstream from Yarmouth.

So this is the second remarkable fact of the evening. The Irish were putting manners and civilization on the East Anglians for well over a thousand years by the time the Irish East Anglia Society was founded in 1891!

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How did the East Anglians become Irish? To answer this, we need to play a game of ‘who do you think you are’. Let’s begin at another Norfolk town. By coincidence it is also called ‘Burgh’ – not Burgh Castle but the tiny little village of Burgh-next-Aylsham, hidden away on the river Bure about twenty minutes north of Norwich. From the church at Burgh-next-Aylsham you can hear the whistle of the Bure Valley Railway as it chugs along the track from Aylsham to Wroxham.

Now, the people of Burgh-next-Aylsham seem to have forgotten this, but their most famous son was a man called Hubert, who became one of the most powerful men in England. Hubert took his family name from Burgh-next-Aylsham. He was known as ‘Hubert de Burgh’. And he was a close ally of wicked King John in the rebellion that gave rise to Magna Carta in 1215, eight hundred years ago last summer (2015).

Now as you will all know, something else was going on 800 years ago: the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland.

Hubert de Burgh’s older brother was one of the Anglo-Norman conquerors. He was a man called William de Burgh – so he also took his name from Burgh-next-Aylsham in Norfolk. King John granted William de Burgh massive lands in Ireland in 1185, especially in county Limerick. In fact, in 1199, William de Burgh received a grant of a little place in Limerick called Kilfinane. From their base in Limerick, the Burgh family went on to become the conquerors of Connacht and earls of Ulster.

After a few centuries in Ireland, the Burgh family became more and more like the Irish in culture and language. The head of the family was even inaugurated like a traditional Gaelic king. And, by this time, their family name had become Burke.

Now the Burkes are still found all over Ireland, especially in the west, and the family gave Irish history many of its most famous characters including Edmund Burke (the Irish statesman who died in 1797) and former President Mary Robinson (whose maiden name is Bourke).

But one of these Burkes has also now come home to East Anglia. You know him well as the President of the Society, Maurice Connery. Maurice’s late mother (RIP) was another of the formidable Burkes.

And so here is the third remarkable fact of the evening. By amazing coincidence, Maurice grew up on that farm at Kilfinane, County Limerick – the very plot of land granted to the first of the Burkes to leave Norfolk and move to Ireland 800 years ago. And that is the story of how the East Anglians became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Maurice is an Anglo-Norman aristocrat with a Limerick accent!”

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