Robert O'Hara Burke 18211821

Robert O'Hara Burke 1821

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Robert O'Hara Burke was born in his grand family home St Clerans, near Craughwell Co. Galway in 1821, though he does not appear to have spent much of his life in Ireland, in fact he would go on to have an extremely international life. His working life began as a cadet in Woolwich. He carried out his studies in Belgium, eventually entering the Austrian service. In 1848 he returned to Ireland and began working with the Irish Constabulary, but his time back in Ireland was to be short lived.

In 1853, O'Hara Burke emigrated to Australia where his constabulary experience landed him a high ranking post in the Melbourne police force. At the time, little was known about the central part of the vast country of Australia. As a result, an expedition was launched in 1858 to cross the country from north to south. O'Hara Burke was to become the commander of this ill-fated expedition. The expedition left Melbourne on the 20th of August 1860 and headed north into the desert. The men were travelling by camel, and they were equipped with every anticipated necessity. By the 5th of December they had travelled 800 miles to Cooper's Creek. Without waiting for adequate supplies to arrive, O'Hara Burke insisted on pushing further north. Leaving with a smaller party of 3 men, 1 horse, and 6 camels, O'Hara Burke achieved his goal and, on the 10th of February 1861, reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, another 750 miles north of Cooper's Creek. 

The return journey would be less successful. The team spent 3 days at the Gulf of Carpentaria before setting off on the journey back south. They soon began to run low on supplies. They were tired, hungry, and were now entering into the rainy season. A member of the small team died of exhaustion. O'Hara Burke was unable to reconcile himself with leaving the man's body exposed to the elements and so he insisted on giving the man a proper, albeit shallow, burial. The delay which this caused would prove to be fatal. 

The team arrived back at Cooper's Creek on the 21st of April 1861, and with great dismay, discovered that the supply party had left that very morning. When they left Cooper's Creek, O'Hara Burke has said that they would be back in 3 months. Having gone past the estimated timeframe, the supply party left, believing the expedition to have failed. The next two months were spent wandering the area desperately searching for signs of western settlement. Supply teams did return to Cooper's Creek, but by a cruel twist of fate, these consistently coincided with O'Hara Burke and his team's absence from the camp. They were aided by the native Aborigines who supplied them with food, but it was not a diet to which the western men were accustomed and they slowly died of starvation. 

Robert O'Hara Burke died on July 1st 1861. There was 1 man left alive who was rescued by an exploratory mission that September. At this time the deceased were buried where they lay, but their bodies were later retrieved and interred in Melbourne. A monument now stands to their memory in the city of Melbourne. 


Additional Information
Date of Birth 1st Jan 1821 (circa)
Date of Death 1st Jul 1861 VIEW SOURCE
Associated Building (s) Saint Clerans (Issercleran)  


Biography Ireland VIEW SOURCE


  • Robert O'Hara Burke was a hero of his time, however in hindsight he was a foolish and proud man, as highlight in some aspect sof your article. Most of the men in his expedition ended up leaving as they could not work with him. He was supplied with food by the local First Nation people but this food needed to be specifically treated before eating to remove toxins. he thought he knew better and ignored the local people and ate the "Nadoo" without proper treatment. A hero yes but with hindsight a poorly informed and equipped European not acording the proper respect to a landscape that can be extremely beautiful but also deadly. 


    Saturday 24th August 2019 10:50AM
  • Not sure if my original message went through (log-in problems)/ R O Burke came out to Melbourne on the same ship as my husband's ancestor and they both (probably as cabin pasengers) signed a testimonial to the Captain. Presumable each signatory was given a copy of the address, which I hold. Would you like a image for your records?

    Linley Hooper, Melbourne, Australia


    Sunday 22nd August 2021 11:23PM
  • Hi Linley - that would be great to have a copy of the testimonial -  I could add it to the article (with proper credit as you wish). Please send on to

    Thank you


    IrelandXO Moderator LC

    Monday 23rd August 2021 03:29PM

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