National Army Soldier (Sergeant Major) Christopher Henry Burke


National Army Soldier (Sergeant Major) Christopher Henry Burke (aged about 28) of 2 Harrington’s Avenue, Ballyhooley Road, St Luke’s, Cork (Cork city)

Date of incident: 17 Aug. 1923 (died 21 Aug. 1923)

Sources: CE, 24, 30 Aug. 1923; MSPC/3D237 (Military Archives); Keane (2017), 363, 423.


Note: Sergeant Major Christopher Henry Burke died of typhus fever at the Cork District Hospital in Cork city on 21 August 1923. His ‘disability’ was incurred on 17 August and was later deemed service-related. His widow Lucy Burke explained her understanding of the circumstances leading to her husband’s death in her pension claim of 12 October 1927: ‘The deceased was on active service operations and was quartered at the Customs House Cork in Aug. 1923. As a result of the unsanitary conditions existing in the Customs House (a matter which was notorious at the time), coupled with the hardships of continuous day and night duty on active operations, he was attacked by malignant typhus on 17th Aug. 1923, from which his death resulted [on] 21st Aug. 1923.’ Burke was treated at the Mercy Hospital from 17 to 20 August and at the Cork District Hospital on 20 and 21 August 1923. A copy of his death certificate in his pension file indicates that Burke died on 21 August 1923 of malignant typhus. He had been born in 1895. See MSPC/3D237 (Military Archives).

But according to an official of the Army Pensions Department at the Ministry of Defence, writing on 12 June 1924, the circumstances leading to Burke’s death had been different from those stated in his wife’s account. Burke had been ‘accidentally wounded [by] a comrade’s bayonet at Cork Courthouse—died afterwards of illness’. See MSPC/3D237.

Yet another version of what led to Burke’s death—seemingly authoritative—had come on 30 August 1923 from the Medical Headquarters of the National Army’s Southern Command at Sydney House in Cork city. According to this report, Burke had been admitted to the Mercy Hospital on 18 August ‘with a temperature but no definite symptoms’. He had been diagnosed with ‘malignant scarlet fever’ on the evening of 21 August. He had then been removed to the Fever Ward of the Cork District Hospital. He was said to have died there on 22 August. See MSPC/3D237.

The understanding of the Acting Command Adjutant of the Southern Command, as relayed to the Adjutant General’s Office at GHQ in Dublin on 29 May 1924, challenged the earlier report in certain respects. The officer noted that Burke had been attached to the City Plain Clothes Squad, stationed in the Custom House in Cork. His illness had first been diagnosed as tonsilitis, then as scarletina (at the Mercy Hospital), and finally as typhus fever (cited as the cause of death at the Cork Distruct Hospital). This officer also noted that while serving in the British army, Burke had contracted malaria, and that he had been treated at the Mercy Hospital for this ailment shortly after enlisting in the National Army. See MSPC/3D237.

The occurrence of this death from typhus gave a new urgency to the continued presence of troops in the Custom House premises of the Cork Harbour Board. The Harbour Commissioners viewed ‘with some alarm the recent case of typhus fever in the midst of the board’s staff, where all the workers in the board’s employment are paid weekly, and where the members of the board meet themselves some three days a week.’ At a meeting of the Cork Harbour Board, Sir John Scott, a local candidate in the 1923 general election, returned to a subject that he had raised previously: ‘More than once he drew attention to the danger of sickness breaking out there owing to the filthy, dirty, disgusting condition of the lavatory. Typhus fever was the most dangerous and infectious of diseases.’ The Harbour Commissioners declared that ‘there should be no necessity for a large building such as this to be in occupation for the limited few [soldiers] that now occupy same.’ See CE, 30 Aug. 1923.         

Burke’s funeral took place on Thursday, 23 August, two days after his death, from the Cork District Hospital to Rathcooney, where he was buried. ‘The band of the 10th Infantry Battalion was present and rendered appropriate music. A firing party and about 100 soldiers with arms reversed, under Commandant Scott and Capt. Frank McCarthy, were in attendance, as was also a large body of the public. The coffin was covered with the tricolour and many beautiful floral tributes. At the graveside the Last Post was sounded and three volleys fired.’ See CE, 24 Aug. 1923.

Burke had joined the National Army on 1 August 1922. In civilian life he had been a waiter at the Imperial Hotel in Cork, earning about £5 a week ‘and perhaps more’, of which about £4 a week went to his wife Lucy Burke. After his death she received from army funds sums totaling £36 8s.—the equivalent of six months’ pay from the National Army at the weekly rate of 28s. These weekly payments ceased on 22 February 1924. She benefitted from the provisions of the 1927 Army Pensions Act. In March 1928 Lucy Burke was finally awarded a weekly allowance of 17s. 6d. (with an effective date of 1 April 1926) during her widowhood. When she later remarried, she received the usual remarriage allowance of £45 10s. See MSPC/3D237.

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