The first person of the name to arrive in Ireland was William Fitzadelm de Burgo, a Norman knight from Burgh in Suffolk, who took part in the invasion of 1171, and succeeded Strongbow as Chief Governor. He received the earldom of Ulster, and was granted vast tracts of territory in Connacht. His descendants adopted Gaelic laws and customs more completely than any of the other Norman invaders, and very quickly became one of the most important families in the country. In Connacht, which remained the centre of the family's power, new septs were formed on native Irish lines. William Liath de Burgh, a great-grandson of the original William, was the ancestor of the two most influential clans, the MacWilliam Uachtar of Co. Galway, and the MacWilliam Iochtar of Co. Mayo. Other descendants founded families which created distinct surnames; "Philbin" derives from Mac Philbin, son of Philip (de Burgh); Jennings, now common in Co. Galway, is an anglicisation of Mac Sheoinin, son of John (de Burgh); Gibbons in Mayo, was originally Mac Giobuin, son of Gilbert (de Burgh).
According to legend, the arms of the family originated during the Crusades, when King Richard dipped his finger in the blood of a Saracen slain by one of the de Burghs, drew a cross on the Saracen's golden shield, and presented it to the victor. The family motto "Ung roy, Ung foy, Ung loy" translates as "One king, one faith, one law", reflecting the loyalism of the most prominent branches of the family.
Edmund Burke (1729-97), born in Dublin, became the most respected statesman of his time, a powerful opponent of political violence and political oppression.
William Burke (1792-1829), born in Cork, was, with his partner Hare the best-known of the 19th century bodysnatchers. He procured fresh bodies for dissection in Edinburgh medical schools by the simple expedient of murder. "To burke", meaning to smother, derives from his notoriety.
John Burke (1787-1848) and his son Sir Bernard Burke (1814-92) were altogether more respectable. Their works documenting the arms and pedigrees of the gentry and aristocracy, Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, Burke's Landed Gentry, Burke's Irish Families, Burke's General Armory (and many others) have been standard reference works for more than a century and a half. Sir Bernard became Ulster King of Arms, responsible for the regulation of arms in Ireland, precursor of the present Chief Herald of Ireland.
Thomas Burke (1740 -83), the descendant of Irish emigrants, held large estates in North Carolina, and was deeply involved in the American War of Independence. Burke county in North Carolina is named for him.