In the year 2000 I visited The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
and came across a portrait of the General of the Russian
army by the name of Joseph O'Rourke. In the same Hermitage
I obtained some documents that helped me to trace the careers
of the members of this princely Irish family in Russia.
The O'Rourkes were one of the most celebrated clans
in Irish history. The surname came from Ruarc, or Ruadhrac,
the King of Breifne in the 9th century.
His descendants, the O'Rourkes, were Princes of Breifne.
Some of them were elected Kings of Connacht.
From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the O'Rourkes
were amongst those chieftains who resisted the English incursion.
They were valiant Irish leaders in the course of the Elizabethan
wars; nevertheless they managed to retain their properties.
After 1649 Cromwell confiscated much of their lands and
many of the O'Rourkes, like members of all great gaelic
families, fled to the continent. Several of them became
important churchmen, statesmen and in particular military
leaders in European countries.
Brothers Brian, John and Cornelius O'Rourke, grandsons
of Count Brian O'Rourke, drew their descent from the
Cloncorrick Castle line of O'Ruaircs.
John O'Rourke was born in 1728 in a village near the
ancient castle of Woodfort, in Co. Leitrim, which was the
residence of his ancestors. At the age of twenty-five he
left Ireland for London and entered the military service.
He remained in the English capital for about five years,
experiencing many disappointments, but ultimately fixed
on the military profession as the best suited to his genius
and disposition. In the First Tropps of Horse Guards he
received the rudiments of arms; however, being a Roman Catholic,
he was forced to resign.
John O'Rourke then went to France. Travelling to Versailles
in 1758 he petitioned King Louis XV for a military commission,
specifying his princely origin and praying for a regiment.
The impressed King had O'Rourke installed as the Captain
of the Royal Scotch' Brigade, much to the chagrin
of the French officers. As a few instances of irregular
promotions had been made in the brigade, the lieutenants
were hurt at his appointment and resolved to contest the
matter with him.
Challenged by a number of these enraged officers, John O'Rourke
was forced to demonstrate his regal military deportment
in a series of fencing duels, four in two days.
He emerged victorious in all those duels and so gained a
great reputation - not more by his gallantry in the field,
than by his honourably confessing that he thought it an
injury to the national regiment that he as a foreigner should
be thrust upon them.
He therefore gave up his commission, informing the French
monarch that it was too dear a purchase to fight for it
every day. After receiving a certificate of recommendation
from the French King he was off to Russia and the court
of Tsarina Elizabeth 1 in St. Petersburg.
In Russia John O'Rourke met up with his younger brother
Cornelius, who like himself had emigrated from Ireland in
search of a foreign military career. Cornelius was as regal
minded as his brother and had allied himself dynastically
in marrying the niece of Count de Lacy, descendant from
the Norman Co. Meath family and a field marshal in the service
Both O'Rourkes became prominent Russian military leaders.
They retained their titles of Irish Counts as they entered
the Russian military service.
John O'Rourke finally demonstrated his military prowess
during the siege of Berlin. In 1761 he was appointed First
Major of Horse Cuirassiers in the regiment of Body Guards.
During the course of the war he greatly distinguished himself,
in particular, by storming the City of Berlin, which he
laid under contribution.
When the war with Prussia was over, word reached O'Rourke
that the Prussian King, Frederic the Great, impressed with
his gallantry, sought his counsel.
Advised by his fellow Russian officers not to go to this
meeting with the enemy, O'Rourke remarked that A
man who was a brave enemy could not be a dangerous friend.
So he picked his way towards Berlin where he was graciously
received by Frederick and presented with a diamond-studded
sword. Frederick inquired how the Count could possibly have
believed he could defeat Berlin, to which O'Rourke
replied, If ordered by my commanding officer to storm
the heights of Heaven, I would have made the attempt.
At the end of that war John O'Rourke returned to France
with certificates of his gallant conduct from Peter the
Third, Prince-General Volkonsky, and Prince-General Souvorov.
He was appointed by King Slanislaus as one of his chamberlains
in the year 1764.
In 1770 he was appointed a Colonel of Horse by the French
King and was enrolled among the nobility of France. He was
also granted a pension from the French civil list and in
1774 was honoured with the order of St Louis.
John O'Rourke eventually returned to London and published
his Treatise on the Art of War' and attempted
to secure a position among the English military elite.
The English however, were not as susceptible to O'Rourke's
charms and he was viewed with much suspicion despite being
introduced to the King by Lord Stormont himself in 1779.
The English doubted O'Rourke's credentials forcing
the Count to produce his now large collection of titles
and certificates of regality.
He, in turn, was disdainful of those he termed the
upstart families of England'; however, he was nevertheless
made a Knight by them in 1782, four years before he died.
Upon his death in 1786, a large obituary appeared in The
London Times, highlighting his career. Before that, The
Hibernian Magazine for March, 1782, published a picturesque
description of some incidents in his life.
His brother Cornelius O'Rourke remained in Russia where
he was made first a Captain, then a Colonel of Horse and
finally a General Major. His son Joseph (Josif Kornelievich)
O'Rourke, whose portrait hangs in the Hermitage, was
born in 1772 in Dorpat, Estonia.
Being enlisted in his childhood into the elite Izmailov
life-guards Regiment in the rank of sergeant, Joseph O'Rourke
started his actual service as a Captain (Rotmistr) of cavalry
He took part in the Russian-Swedish war in Finland and later
in the campaign against the Polish Confederation. At first
he served in the Pskov Dragoon Regiment but in 1797 he was
transferred to the famous Pavlograd Houssar Regiment.
In 1798, he became a Major of same regiment.
During the Italian Campaign of General Souvorov he participated
in the battles at Austerlitz and Praslau where he greatly
distinguished himself and was soon made a Colonel. His service
record was adorned with numerous awards.
In 1805 he was decorated with St George Order (the 1st level),
five years later he was awarded the St Anna Order.
Between 1809 and 1812 Joseph O'Rourke took part in
the war with Turkey and was appointed commander of a cavalry
In 1812 he was entrusted to command the vanguard of the
Western Army. He led the cavalry in pursuit of the remains
of The Great Army' from Biarezina to Kouna and
Warsaw. For his part in the battle of Leipzig he was made
General-Lieutenant and decorated with Order of Alexander
During the Congress in Vienna he was, in the suite of Tzar
Alexander 1, amongst the most distinguished Russian generals.
Soon he was helping to ensure Napoleon's demise at
In 1819 General O'Rourke retired and subsequently settled
down in Navahradak region of Minsk province. He was quite
a prominent landowner in Byelorussia and had in his possession
about 20,000 acres of land including a small town called
Usialub and five villages.
The Population Census of 1858 stated that his family owned
236 serfs. In 1848 he petitioned Tsar Nicholas 1 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 were 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.
The volume Titled Nobility of Europe lists the
officers Major Alexander P O'Rourke, Lieutenant Patrick
A O'Rourke and Lieutenant Constanine M O'Rourke
as serving in the Russian Imperial Army.
Apparently, it was Lt. Patrick O'Rourke to whom John
O'Donovan was referring when he wrote, It is
curious to see how this fallen Irish family has found its
proud level in the present Prince O'Rourke of Russia.
Documents regarding the military service of this family
can be found in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
and also in military archives in Vienna.
The last well-known Irish Count O'Rourke of Byelorussia
was Edward Alexander O'Rourke born in Basin in 1876.
He probably owed his interest in Catholicism to the Jesuit
boarding school where he was educated in 1880s. After leaving
the boarding school, he studied Economics and Theology at
Innsbruck University in Austria and later on lectured in
Theology at the same university.
He was made the bishop of Vilna and Riga, and then apostolic
administrator of the Polish city of Gdansk. In 1922 a new
diocese was established there and Edward O'Rourke became
the first Bishop and he was referred to as the Irish Bishop
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.
In the 1970s his remains were brought to Poland and buried
in Oliwa, in the vault of the Bishops of Gdansk.
Descendants of these O'Rourke families of Russia, Poland
and Byelorussia survive to this day, though many of them
relocated to the west after the Bolshevik Revolution.
During the 1990s, a Russian newspaper even referred to a
Russian count, one Igor O'Rourke!
by Anthony Kudryavitsky