While it may seem incredible, in 1867 this Tipperary man Thomas Burke was one of two Irish rebels who were the last people sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering! While this brutal practice may be one of the most gruesome inventions of the medieval period it survived until 1870 before being struck off the law books.


Thomas Burke was born in Fethard, co. Tipperary in 1840. His family emigrated to the United States just before The Great Famine. As an adult Burke became a senior member of the Irish Fenian movement in the U.S.. before joining the Union Army in the United States Civil War.

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, Irish American Fenians like Burke began to press heavily for an insurrection in Ireland. Having gained much military experience they were keen to use this in an attempt to achieve Irish Independence. Unhappy with the progress among Fenians in Ireland they began to send former soldiers to Ireland to stage a revolt which was fixed for March 1867.  Among those to return to Ireland in 1860’s was Thomas Burke.

The 1867 revolt was destined to failure as little serious preparation had been undertaken in Ireland. When the revolt was staged it was quickly defeated by the British Army in Ireland and many Fenians including Burke were arrested.

Through April 1867 a series of trials were held and some of the accused including Burke were charged with high treason. On May 1st, 1867 Thomas Burke who was tried along with Patrick Doran and received the maximum sentence; death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Unfortunately for Doran he was convicted by association having played a relatively minor role in comparison to Burke.

The sentence caused outrage in Ireland, invoking huge sympathy among the population. Meetings were held across the country  and two days before they were due to executed the two received a reprieve. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison. In the 19th century a life sentence meant the two seemed destined to spend their remaining days in what was a brutal system of incarceration. However incredibly the two were freed within four years after the great Amnesty campaign in 1869.

This campaign saw over four hundred demonstration held across Ireland between July and October including one of over one hundred thousand people in Cabra, Dublin. This is the subject of a fascinating post in the coming days. (To ensure you receive this post submit your email in the top right hand corner.)

While Burke died in 1880, in 1898 he was honoured in his birthplace of Fethard, Co.  Tipperary when a street was renamed in his honour.

0 comments on “The Fenian who was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered

  1. Gerry Regan on

    I believe Emmet received the same sentence, in 1803, and was ‘permitted’ to die by hanging before he was quartered. Were the authorities planning on meting out the same sentence, or had they resigned themselves to merely hanging Burke?

    • Irish History on

      He was due to drawn through the streets by horses and then hanged until dead, at which point his body would have been quartered. He would not have had a chance to do a Mel Gibson shout as someone ripped out his innards!

  2. Eugene Treacy on

    it was a dreadful sentence to be passed on anyone as late as the 19th century.
    So I wonder was this punishment used on anyone in the 19th century ?
    Very interesting article , and on a period of Irish history I know very little about.


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