Burke, Joan (1929–2016), nurse, politician and farmer, was named Hanna Teresa at her birth on 8 February 1928, at Roughgrove House, Bandon, Co. Cork, the last of four children, and the only daughter, of Denis Crowley and Bridgid (‘Cissie’) (née Russell). The family farmed at Roughgrove and she was educated at Presentation Convent, Bandon, and later at Loreto Convent, Killarney, Co. Kerry. She trained as a nurse at Galway Regional Hospital, qualifying in 1951 and worked in Dublin at Cork Street Fever Hospital, and Cherry Orchard Hospital, Ballyfermot. Joan met James (‘Jimmy’) Burke while attending the wedding of mutual friends. They married in June 1959 and settled on his farm in Cargins, Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, and had a son and a daughter together.
Jimmy, a farmer and the son of Joseph Burke, a former Roscommon county coroner, was a Fine Gael councillor on Roscommon County Council. He was first elected to the dáil in 1954, aided by the transfer of votes from Clann na Talmhan supporters. Burke retained his seat in 1957 and, after a section of county Leitrim was appended to the constituency, again in 1961. His death on 12 May 1964, due to illness, spurred Joan’s entry to politics. She failed in her attempt to be coopted onto the Roscommon County Council seat vacated by her husband, losing by two votes to the Fianna Fáil candidate.
Described almost universally in the press as a ‘widow’ who farmed and was raising a young family, Burke was initially dismissed by political commentators. The campaign for the by-election triggered by James Burke’s death (held on 8 July 1964), attracted considerable national media attention during June 1964. Both Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party sought to take the seat by drawing some of the estimated almost 1,000 votes which, in the 1961 general election, had gone to various independents and residual Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta candidates. Journalist John Healy (qv), however, was sanguine about Burke’s chances: ‘Widows don’t lose. This is the one great political maxim and constant in 40 odd years of political independence. Parties and policies come and go but widows go on for ever’ (Irish Times, 4 July 1964). Party leaders, cabinet ministers and front bench opposition politicians all campaigned hard on the ground in advance of voting on 8 July. Burke topped the poll with 17,308 votes (49.7 per cent; more than tripling her husband’s 1961 tally of 4,753 votes, 13.58 per cent) and took her seat in the dáil on 3 November 1964. (In the five other by-elections held (1963–5) during the seventeenth dáil, two other widows (Sheila Galvin and Eileen Desmond (qv)) took their husband’s seats, while Paddy Belton (qv) took his deceased brother’s seat and Michael Donnellan’s (qv) seat was taken by his son.)
Burke successfully harnessed latent Clann na Talmhan support to establish a formidable electoral bulwark in an overwhelmingly rural constituency populated by small holding famers. She topped the poll in subsequent general elections, winning 9,467 votes (26.93 per cent) in Roscommon in 1965, 8,102 votes (26.73 per cent) in the enlarged Roscommon–Leitrim constituency in 1969, 7,241 votes (25.43 per cent) in 1973 and 7,862 votes (22.1 per cent) in 1977. Indeed, her continued success in attracting large first preference tallies hindered the transfer of votes to Fine Gael candidates, and the party struggled to retain a second seat in the constituency.
The archetype of an Irish local politician, Burke was highly attentive to the needs and passions of her electorate. She spoke rarely in the dáil; when she did, her contributions invariably (irrespective of the topic of the debate in the chamber) touched on the provision of health services in Roscommon, the drainage of the Shannon region and local pension, social welfare and employment issues. However, Burke did lend ongoing support to two issues with a national reach. She demonstrated a consistent concern for nurses in Ireland, urging improvements in their pay and conditions, and drew upon her personal experiences to raise the plight of widows in the dáil. Along with fellow TDs Eileen Desmond and Celia Lynch, Burke was a prominent supporter of the Association for Irish Widows (AIW), established in 1968, including campaigning for reform of a range of discriminatory tax and social welfare policies.
In one rare dáil contribution, in March 1971 Burke asserted that seventy-five per cent of married women are eventually widowed. Referring to widows’ pensions as a ‘false economy’, she observed that ‘illness springs from undernourishment and mental anguish which are a direct result of the miserable allowances being paid to widows’ (Dáil debates, 31 Mar. 1971). In April 1971, speaking in Birr, Co. Offaly, to a group of women business owners (National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs), Burke urged the greater participation of women in politics. She also observed, in explaining the paucity of women in the Oireachtas: ‘The vast majority of our women have no wish to take part in politics. They prefer to work in the background behind their men … If some of them were to come through the electoral sorting out process, they would then be in a position to fulfil their highest ambitions in the life of political action’ (Irish Times, 2 Apr. 1971). In February 1972 she was among a rump of Fine Gael TDs that voted with the Fianna Fáil government against contraception legislation. In 1975, during an address to the annual dinner of the AIW, Burke wryly noted the predictability with which journalists and newspapers would invariably refer to women TDs as widows or daughters of politicians.
Burke was briefly considered for ministerial office during the Fine Gael–Labour government (1973–77) led by Liam Cosgrave. On 6 July 1976 the car Burke was driving crashed into a lorry near Kilcock, Co. Kildare; she was hospitalised with serious injuries which affected her for the rest of her life. Burke recovered to stand in the 1977 general election; party election literature described her as a ‘housewife and farmer’ and emphasised her consistent poll topping performances (Roscommon Herald, 10 June 1977). Six women TDs were elected to the twenty-first dáil (1977–81); Burke and Desmond were joined by another widow (Eileen Lemass) while Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (daughter) and Síle de Valera (granddaughter) were also from political families. Kit Ahern (qv) was the only woman elected without a close male relation who had been a TD. The sole woman elected for Fine Gael, that autumn Burke declined Garret FitzGerald’s (qv) offer to become the party’s spokesperson for posts and telegraphs, likely due to the ongoing impact of her injuries. In August 1979 Burke underwent surgery at St James’s Hospital, Dublin, afterwards requiring a period of convalescence.
In February 1981 Burke announced, in the Roscommon Herald, that she would not stand in the forthcoming general election. Her public statement emphasised ‘personal and health reasons’ (Roscommon Herald, 13 Feb. 1981) and she refused entreaties from FitzGerald to stand again, and those of her local supporters to stand as an independent candidate. Burke made it known that she disdained the modernisation and centralisation of the Fine Gael party, heralded by the appointment of Peter Prendergast as general secretary and Ted Nealon (qv) as press officer in 1977. Their recruitment of hand-picked volunteer constituency organisers and press officers generated resentment in many of Fine Gael’s local constituency organisations, not least in Roscommon. Burke, a highly successful politician with an enviable electoral track record, especially resented this change in the party. Ironically this strategy ensured the election of a new generation of women TDs, standing on their policy positions rather than patriarchal familial links, in the three subsequent general elections held in 1981–2. Burke briefly returned to the public eye when, in May 1997, she launched the campaign of Denis Naughton for the by election occasioned by the death of his father Liam. In her speech Burke recalled that the candidate’s grandfather, also called Denis, had in 1964 launched her own political campaign.
Listing her recreational interests as ‘family and work’, in later life Burke moved to live with her daughter in Dublin and enjoyed gardening and cooking. She died on 27 November 2016 at Marlay Nursing Home, Rathfarnham, Dublin. After a funeral in the Church of Saints Eithne and Fidelma, Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, she was buried in Tulsk cemetery.