In 2001, Toghermore House, about two miles outside Tuam was known as a Western Health Board Training Centre but 50 years before, it was known as the site of of one of the most radical social experiments of the century in this country.
Home of Robert Henry
Although the house approached by a beautiful tree lined avenue is imposing, it is not a landlord’s mansion but a solid agent’s house of 14 rooms which was built in the 1830s by Robert Henry, grandson of one Hugh Henry who was married in 1717 to Lady Anne Leeson, sister of the Earl of Milltown, Co. Dublin. Robert Henry’s elder brother also Hugh, lived on the family Estate in Co. Kildare and Robert came West to act as agent on the huge Toghermore Estate which was bought for £14,000 in 1790 from Deane of Castlemoyle and Balrobuck, whose ancestor, a Galway merchant, was granted it in 1661 by Charles 11. Robert Henry’s daughter Ethel Maud married Michael Burke of Ballydugan, Loughrea, who counted among his ancestors, the Dominican Rev. Thomas Burke, who around 1650 wrote Hibernica Dominicana, a history of the Dominican Order in Ireland. After conforming to the Protestant religion, the Burke family became allied with many leading church families in Ireland and England. But nothing in this background of landed gentry and established church men pointed to the extraordinary gesture, the son of Ethel Maud Henry and Michael Burke was to make when the Estate fell into his hands.
In Tuam, Robert M. Burke was never known as anything but Bobby Burke. Up untilthen, his name meant very little to the younger generation born since the last war but there is a steadily growing revival of interest in what he believed , what he preached and what he did – which without doubt was decades ahead of its time.
Bobby Burke is now 81 years of age. He was at school in England during the Irish Civil War when he decided that the trappings of the Irish gentry were not for him and that instead of hunting foxes over his land, he would give it to the tenants who worked it. It was to be another ten years before he could bring his dreams to fruition and during that time he was to face the total rejection by his mother who was outraged by his views. Happily they were reconciled before she died but he had been cut out of her Will. Providence came to his aid and the uncle to whom the Estate was left died leaving it to Bobby. He insisted that the Land Commission divide 500 of 700 acres that then comprised the holding and set up a co-operative to farm the other 200 collectively.
Co-operative house building and ownership scheme
He also pioneered a co-operative house building and ownership scheme in Tuam, using his own inherited money as seed capital. Tuam Public Utility Society was responsible for the building of houses all over the town including for example St. Patrick’s Terrace on the Cloonthue Road and St. Francis’ Terrace, houses that are happy homes for over fifty years. He was actively involved in many local committees, including the Parish Fuel Fund and the Tree Planting Scheme committee.
But his unique ventures were the farm run on a completely co-operative and profit-sharing basis and later the handing over of Toghermore House, virtually free of charge, as a Re-ablement and Training Centre for young men who were recovering from Tuberculosis. He started the farm co-op in 1930, living with his wife Ann in a small five room cottage on the estate. He built houses for all his workmen on the farm and all decisions were taken by them on a majority vote with Bobby Burke acting as chairman and secretary, with no right of veto. He gave lectures on his system all over the country and when he was asked in an interview in 1949 “how this unique experiment in Christian Socialism worked out in practice” he replied “nothing in this life is perfect. Of course it has its snags, due mainly to the weaknesses of human nature, but on the whole it works out perfectly satisfactorily. I even think that it is the most satisfactory system that can be adapted on a farm of this kind under present conditions.”
Senator R.M. Burke
Bobby Burke’s title when he left Tuam in 1949 was Senator R.M.Burke. In the previous decade he decided that the Labour party was a promoter of the same principles as himself and joined the Tuam Branch. He contested three general elections with the help of men like Jack Coughlan and the late Paddy “Scotch” Brennan and although he gained 5,000 votes at the last of these he was not elected. The late Mick Donnellan of Dunmore was the Clan na Talmhan T.D. at the time and would not easily be dislodged. Finally, in 1942, he was elected to the County Council and was elected in the Senate on the Agricultural Panel in April 1948.
There are many who say he would have been a Dáil Deputy were it not for the prejudice engendered by his Protestant faith, his Ascendancy accent and the inability of many people to see the genuine Christian principles that motivated his radical innovations. There is no doubt that a whispering campaign labelled him a Communist – a charge that now seems laughable, but was all too real, too believable and too potent in the 1940s. In any event, Bobby Burke, his wife and daughter Patricia, who was born around the outbreak of the second world war packed their bags to work as lay missionaries in Africa in late 1950 when Bobby resigned his Senate seat.
Working as a lay missionary
Six days a week in Nigeria, the Burkes worked to improve the material well-being of the local people. On Sundays Bobby travelled the country as a lay preacher. He was principal of a joint mission government assisted training centre for agriculturalists and eventually succeeded in getting Africans appointed to the Board. He helped to start co-operative farms and promoted a home ownership scheme. He helped build a model village while Ann helped with home economics, childcare and dressmaking. The couple worked right through the war with Biafra until in 1970, the church missionary society moved them to Kenya where they put their experience of famine relief into practice in that country when tribal wars had produced the usual consequences of starvation compounded by drought. In 1974, they returned to Ann’s mother’s house in Belfast, ready to retire. But they were asked to go overseas to Yemen by Concern and they could not ignore the call. After three years of setting up medical centres and agricultural projects, travelling around the country by donkey, they came home for good.
Living by his christian principles
In an interview in The Belfast Telegraph a few years ago Bob Burke said “I abhor violence. I favour Catholic and Protestants working together and feel we in Ireland should set the world an example. Practical christianity is the way forward, the way to bring about social justice and peace”.
There are few who are more qualified to express such an opinion than Bobby Burke, the man who lived his christian principles to such an extreme that his neighbours in. Co. Galway could not see the simple truth.
But attitudes have changed and as this article goes to press, it has just been announced that Tuam Town Commissioners are to honour Bobby Burke with a plaque on the Town Hall. The prophet is no longer a stranger in his own land.
(This article was given to Out and About Magazine by Helen Treacy and was first printed in the supplement with the Tuam Herald in 1987 commemorating the Tuam Herald’s 150th year in business. David Burke gave permission for the article to be reprinted in Out and About in Killererin in 2001). For further information see: Killererin – A Parish History or follow the link below for information on Henrys of Toghermore
The following information was received from Peter Wynne 2/2/2020 who saw this article on our website about Toghermore House. We are indebted to Peter for writing to us.
My great-great Grandfather, John Cunningham, is shown in the picture. accompanying this article. John’s eldest son Michael married Margaret Mitchell (from Gurranecoyle). Michael and Margaret emigrated to New York City shortly after being married but not before my Grandmother, Mary Cunningham, was born. Unfortunately Mary fell ill and was left behind with her grand-parents, Patrick and Mary (née Farrell) Mitchell, for the first 7 years of her life.
Mary was finally able to sail to NYC with a neighbour friend to watch over her. When Mary was reunited with her family in NYC she was introduced to 5 new siblings born in the USA in her absence.
Grandmother Mary married at 17 to Patrick Wynne (related to the family of Herdsmen from Tubbercurry, County Sligo). Mary was the Matriarch of her siblings and watched over them, including her sister, a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, and her older brother, who was actively involved in the Prohibition era. Other children of Michael and Margaret Cunningham were successful in NYC and left a living legacy of family as well as several NYC buildings and bridges they helped build.
I was happy to have visited my Tuam/Togher relatives in 2015 to refresh the family connections.