Count Eduard Alexander Ladislaus O’Rourke was born October 26, 1876 in Basin near the city of Minsk in modern day Belarus. At the time the area was part of the Russian Empire and the O’Rourke’s were an aristocratic family. They had large estates acquired no doubt on the basis of several generations of loyal and successful military service to the Czars. Edward’s father was Michael Graf O’Rourke and his mother a Angelika von Bochwitz who was of Baltic-German descent. The O’Rourkes had never forgotten their Irish and Leitrim Heritage and had petitioned the Czar to retain their Irish Titles
Eduard was a direct descendant of Ualgarg Mor Ui Ruairc of Breifne. Ualgarg’s descendants became known as the O’Rourkes of Clooncorrick and they were the major landowners in the modern Barony of Carrigallen in East Leitrim on the Cavan border. The O’Rourkes were greatly reduced in both wealth and influence from the end of the nine years war 1594-1603 but the O’Rourkes of Clooncorrick retained much of their lands until after the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland in the early 1650’s. In the ensuing land confiscations many of the O’Rourkes fled to the continent with many of them achieving fame on the bloody battlefields of Europe.
Brothers Brian, John and Cornelius O’Rourke, were grandsons of Count Brian O’Rourke of Cloncorrick Castle. According to Anthony Kudryavitsky:-
‘John was born in 1728 in a village near the ancient castle of Woodford. 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.
John’s brother Cornelius 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 was born in 1772 in Dorpat, Estonia. His portrait hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
General Joseph Cornelius O’Rourke
According to Kudryavitsky:- “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 Joseph O’Rourke’s died 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.
Early Life & education
The young Edward would have grown up in a multi-lingual environment and it is likely that his first language would have been German. He attended the famous Jesuit College in Chyrów (then in Austria-Hungary, now modern Ukraine).. In 1903 he graduated from the Trade and Mechanics Faculty of the University of Riga In 1903 he moved to Freiburg, Switzerland where he continued his studies at the University’s faculty of law. The following year O’Rourke moved to the theological faculty at the University of Innsbruck in Austria-Hungaria.
On October 27, 1908 he was ordained a priest in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) and became a professor of ecclesiastical history, German and French language at the seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev in Saint Petersburg Between 1912 and 1915, he became the priest of the multilingual congregation of St. Stanislaus in Petersburg.
After the February Revolution in Russia, the church decided to re-establish the diocese of Minsk; O’Rourke was appointed as its administrator and the interim head of the Catholic Church in Russia. He met Achille Ratti for the first time, the Apostolic Visitor for the Baltic Countries and later, Pope Pius XI. Due to the proposed independence of Latvia, in 1918 the diocese of Riga was established. O’Rourke was appointed the bishop of Riga on recommendation of Ratti on 29 September 1918.
O’Rourke’s position in Riga was problematic as German forces occupied the city in early 1919. By the end of World War I, the ecclesiastical organisation was largely destroyed, and only a few priests were active. O’Rourke did not speak Latvian but tried to encourage Latvian priests. He resigned after a new government in Latvia was appointed and there was a popular movement calling for an ethnic Latvian bishop. Released from Riga in April 1920, O’Rourke was appointed the titular bishop of Canea and Apostolic Delegate for the Baltic States. In November 1921 he was also appointed as the Pontifical Delegate for Russian refugees in Danzig and East Prussia, and in 1928 for Russians in Germany.
In the post war settlement the City of Danzig (modern day Gdansk) was problematic. The City was overwhelmingly a German city. Its population, history, culture and language were German. However, the River Vistula in all except the few miles which ran through Danzig was in Polish territory, and the natural part of Danzig was as a trading city to serve the basin of the Vistula; that is, to serve as the trading centre for Poland. Danzig was therefore a German city with a Polish trade.
The Poles wished to have free and direct access to the Baltic Sea and so were given a corridor through the former German lands of Pommerania and Prussia. Danzig was too German and too large to be incorporated in the Polish State, so the Peace Conference in 1919 made it a Free City under a Commissioner appointed by the League of Nations—an office occupied by an Irishman, Sean Lester. The Free City experiment was not a success, the Poles set about reducing their reliance on what they still considered a German run Port and began constructing a massive new port called Gydnia, just North of Gdansk. The Poles then starved Gdansk of Trade which had the effect of increasing the Danzig Germans hostility to the League of Nations, due the double in justice of been denied union with their mother land and denied trade by their polish neighbours. Danzig became a hotbed ripe for exploitation by the Nazis.
Edward O’Rourke was witness to all these tensions in the Free City as in 1923 he took up the post of ‘apostolic administrator’ (quasi-bishop) in the Free City of Danzig where he would remain for the next fifteen years. In 1925, as a separate political entity, the Free City was given its own diocese with its seat in Oliwa cathedral with O’Rourke becoming its first Roman Catholic bishop.
Such tensions also spilled over into the local Roman Catholic Church where the German-speaking majority resisted attempts by Danzig’s small Polish community to found their own Polish parish. During his first decade in the city O’Rourke sided with the German-speakers, even proposing in June 1931 to the Danzig Senate’s German nationalist president that there should be a ‘stepping up of anti-Polish propaganda in the Church.’
Bishop O’Rourke of Danzig Sean Lester
However, once the Danzig Nazi Party had taken control of the Senate in 1933, O’Rourke became one of the strongest allies of the Polish community in Danzig. With the Church now facing persecution by an external enemy, internal ethnic divisions in were set aside and the attitude of Bishop O’Rourke and part of the German-speaking clergy became more favourable towards the Polish community. Along with Irishman Sean Lester, the League of Nations’ High Commissioner in Danzig, O’Rourke was one of the very few independent voices prepared to publically criticize Nazi policies in the Free City. Of particular concern to O’Rourke were attempts by the Nazi Senate to absorb Catholic youth organizations and charities into Nazi structures and its pressure to completely ‘nationalize’ the Church in Danzig.
Despite the fact that Sean Lester was a Protestant and they initially had no common language except French, the two men became close friends and political allies. Both considered personae non grata by the Danzig Nazis, O’Rourke and Lester found a common affinity in their respect for human rights, their opposition to Nazism and their Irishness. Indeed, O’Rourke was intensely proud of his Irish ancestry, with Lester recalling in his diary how on their first meeting in 1934 the bishop came into the room ostentatiously carrying an Irish magazine and patriotically forcing himself to smoke ‘Irish’ cigarettes over his preferred Russian brand.
Once, however, Lester had been forced from his post in February 1937, O’Rourke’s became the last independent voice left in the so-called ‘Free’ City. With a section of the German-speaking Catholic clergy, along with the Nazis, openly opposing his support for the foundation of a Polish parish, O’Rourke finally resigned in October 1937, and moved to the Polish city of Poznan.
From then on, O’Rourke’s connections with Poland became stronger and stronger. Indeed, in 1939 he renounced his Danzig citizenship and became a Polish citizen.
When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939 O’Rourke was forced to flee Poznan. In Brest-Litovsk he met the famous German General Heinz Guderian who gave him safe passage by car to Stettin from where he made his way to Berlin and then to Rome. He did try to return to Poznan during the war but the Germans would not grant him a visa. In a letter to a friend in Ireland from February 1940, O’Rourke outlines his escape from the war zone:-
“I have been three months in Rome awaiting in vain for a German visum to go back to Posen. The most part of September I was in Poland; practically all the time of the warfare there. I was in Warsaw and in Siedlce during the bombardment of these cities, and came out of Poland with the help of a sympathetic German General, who sent me, with a motor car, to Eastern Prussia, and from there by sea I reached Stettin, and then Berlin and Rome.
The Germans were very kind to me, but they did not, and do not, wish me to go back to Posen. The rumours, spread in the papers, that I was killed by the Bolshevists, were probably caused by the fact that my cousin, Count Charles O’Rourke, was arrested by the Bolshevists, and it was said that he was killed. But he was only put in prison, and is till now detained, in horrible circumstances, in a cell with 30 other prisoners. He is 78 years of age, ill, and very weak. The President of Lithuania, Mr. Smetana, is trying to liberate him, but till now without success.
I was very amused by the cutting of the English paper. I am sorry I cannot confirm the good news it brought about me. But, fortunately, the bad news in the ‘Sunday Independent’ was not true. In Ireland there are many happy people and I hope Ireland will remain neutral and not take part in that terrible trouble the Continent is going through.”
Although O’Rourke died in Rome in 1943, in recognition of his defence of the Free City’s Polish community during the Nazi period, his bones were reinterred in Gdansk’s Oliwa Cathedral in 1972. Edward O’Rourke may the only member of his illustrious family to ever visit the birthplace of his ancestors. In the 1920’s he visited Leitrim and his enquiries led to him compiling “Documents and Materials for the History of the O’Rourke Family’ published in Danzig in 1925 (by Count Edward O’Rourke, Bishop of Pergame).
Thank you for this very interesting article. My Lithuanian grandmother was the Bishop’s cousin and proud of her Irish ancestry. (as am I!)
Hi Carola, great to connect.
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