O'Rourkes in Russia

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 of Austria.

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 in 1790.
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 corps.

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 Nevsky.

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 Waterloo.
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 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.

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!

Leitrim Observer
by Anthony Kudryavitsky