The Russian O’Rourke

By Garreth Byrne

The former principality of Breifne consists of modern Leitrim, a large part of West Cavan and a small slice of Longford. Before these counties were created, around 1580, the O’Rourke chieftains ruled Breifne. It was a long history of clan rivalry, internecine murder and intrigue. Detailed family trees listing numerous O’Rourkes have been constructed and posted up on the Internet.

The Elizabethan colonization project led to the undoing of the O’Rourkes and their lordship of Breifne. Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc (Tiernan O’Rourke, d. 1172) had previous to that confronted the King of Leinster, Diarmad MacMurrough, who subsequently made a political arrangement with King Henry II of England that led to the Norman invasion of Ireland. In 1591, Brian na Murtha O’Rourke was hanged, drawn and quartered in the Tower of London for ‘high treason’ – he had refused to submit to the authority of Queen Elizabeth I and gave succour to 80 survivors of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked off the Sligo coast in 1588. In 1583 Breifne was renamed Leitrim and was divided into Baronies.

After the Cromwellian wars the remaining O’Rourke lands came into the possession of English, Scottish and a smaller number of Welsh male landowners. Many O’Rourkes fled to continental Europe, joining the Wild Geese in military and other careers. They took their chances wherever they found them. Their descendants may be found today in several lands, speaking French, Italian, German and Spanish perhaps.

A couple of O’Rourkes moved towards Poland, Russia and Estonia.

Joseph Kornelivich O’Rourke achieved great fame in Imperial Russia.

O’Rourke the Russian – Иосиф Корнилович Орурк (О’Рурк)

Count Joseph Kornilovich O’Rourke (1772-1849) was a Russian nobleman. He was a military leader who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and achieved the rank of lieutenant general. The greatest moment of his career was in the small Serbian town of Varvarin, where in 1810 he led the combined Russian and Serbian forces to victory over Ottoman troops in the defining chapter of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812 for which he is remembered in present-day Serbia.

O’Rourke played his part in ending Napoleon’s influence in Eastern Europe. In 1812 he achieved success against the French emperor by stopping his advance on Moscow. The following year he fought at the Battle of Leipzig, which proved a decisive victory for the combined Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Swedish forces.

O’Rourke was awarded the orders of Saint George, Alexander Nevsky, and Saint Anne for his military victories.  A monument commemorating O’Rourke and his men was erected in Varvarin in 1910 on the centennial celebration of their victory against the Turks.

O’Rourke concluded his military career as a lieutenant general, and he fought French forces again in Germany. In 1819 General O’Rourke retired and subsequently settled down in the Navahrudak region of Minsk province. A prominent landowner in Byelorussia, he possessed about 20,000 acres of land including a small town called Usialub (Vselyub) and five villages.

The Census of 1858 stated that his family owned 236 serfs (an agricultural labourer bound by the feudal system). In 1848 he petitioned Tsar Nicholas I for permission to retain the title of Irish Count. The Tsar granted the title to him and his descendants in November 1848. In December 1897, Tsar Nicholas II confirmed that the O’Rourke family of Byelorussia was entitled to be called Irish Counts.

By the time of Joseph O’Rourke’s death in 1849 all of his sons had thriving military careers.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in the October revolution in 1917, several O’Rourkes fled Russia, dispersing to European states and ultimately to North America. A few O’Rourkes remained in Russia during Stalin’s long, cruel reign and it is believed that a few descendants may be somewhere in contemporary Russia.

Studied Theology, Economics and Languages

The last well-known Irish Count O’Rourke of Byelorussia (today spelled Belarus) was Edward Alexander O’Rourke, born in Basin in 1876. Educated by Jesuits, he studied economics and theology at Innsbruck University in Austria and later on lectured there in theology.

He became the Bishop of Vilna and Riga, and then apostolic administrator of the Polish city of Gdansk. Edward O’Rourke became the first Bishop of a new amalgamated diocese and was referred to as the Irish Bishop of Gdansk.

In the 1920s he researched his family roots at Dromahair in County Leitrim. From his home in Gdansk he published a book entitled ‘Documents and Materials for the History of the O’Rourke Family’. He died in Rome in 1943.

A feature article about all this by Anthony Kudryavitsky appeared some years ago in the Leitrim Observer newspaper.

After the creation of the Diocese of Danzig/Gdansk on 30 December 1925, O’Rourke was appointed as the first Bishop of Danzig. He initially established good relations with the authorities (who granted him citizenship on 12 June 1926) and the mostly Protestant German speaking population. After the Nazis took over the area in 1933, he came into conflict with them over their anti-Polish policies. He hosted a synod from 10 to 12 December 1935, but growing pressure from the Nazi-majority senate made him resign as bishop of Danzig after he had tried to appoint four additional Polish parish priests.

On 13 June 1938 he was appointed Titular Bishop of Sophene. He adopted Polish citizenship in December 1938 and was made Cathedral Canon in Gniezno/Poznań. When the Germans attacked Poland in September 1939, O’Rourke was on a journey to Estonia. He travelled via Warsaw and Königsberg to Berlin, where he applied for a visa to Italy. After going to Rome, O’Rourke tried to return to his Diocese in Poznań but his visa application was rejected by the German Nazis because of his sympathy for the oppressed Poles.

Danzig/Gdansk was a bi-lingual port city on the Baltic in northern Poland. For centuries it had been a cosmopolitan commercial and shipping city that accepted refugees fleeing from ethnic and religious discrimination. The German Reformation radically changed the religious face of the city. The tolerant city and its outlying towns gave shelter to various religious dissidents. German Protestants, numerous Dutch Mennonites and Scots, Huguenots and Jews found their haven here. Jews had to flee from Tsarist pogroms, Gdansk – affluent and recognised in Europe – a melting pot of nations, cultures, faiths and tongues formed a unique community of diversity.

Lech Walesa and Solidarność

In the 1970 Gdansk came to international prominence as the birthplace of the free trade union movement led by shipyard worker, Lech Wałesa, Solidarność (Solidarity) was supported by Polish intellectual dissidents, Catholic clergy and theologians, ‘flying university’ groups holding seminars in private homes, citizens furtively passing from hand to hand ‘samizdat ‘typed and carbon-copied dissident essays and newsletters, Polish nationalists and others who wanted Poland to be free of communist government restrictions and the overshadowing political power of the Soviet Union. Shipbuilding was a huge industry and dockers (stevedores) played a major role in import-export of merchant shipping.

Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979. His visit boosted the Solidarity movement enormously. The regime acted viciously. A few outspoken clergymen were murdered and several others severely restricted. Eventually the Soviet Union collapsed and Lech Wałesa became President in Poland.

Until the late 1930s Edward Alexander O’Rourke worked pastorally in a city that lived in conflicting times. A linguist who spoke German, Polish, Russian and other languages, he used his faith and intellectual talents to contribute positively to those interesting times.

In 1972 O’Rourke’s ashes were moved from Campo Verano in Italy to his former bishopric, now in Poland; they were buried in a crypt in the Oliwa Cathedral.

Poland honours the O’Rourke descendant who stood up for his adoptive country.

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