Burke, Thomas (1876–1951), politician, farmer, and bonesetter, was born in Dunsallagh, Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare, son of Thomas Burke, farmer, and his wife Mary (née Burke). From age 16 he developed a wide reputation throughout Co. Clare and beyond for his putative skills as a bonesetter, travelling long distances to attend patients, and treating a constant stream of sufferers at his farmhouse in Dunsallagh East, where he lived and worked all his life. Though he was deeply revered by many, opinion regarding the efficacy of his treatments varied sharply. In a nationally renowned case in 1912, he was acquitted by jury of a charge of manslaughter, arising from the death by gangrene of a man whose injured leg he had set and bound; an autopsy determined that the limb had not been broken. In his summing up, the trial judge had admonished ‘the farmers in Clare [who] looked twice at a halfpenny before they would spend it,’ and were too mean to pay a doctor for proper medical attention (quoted in Clare Association Yearbook (1987), 50).
However, Burke's largely positive reputation proved the basis of a lengthy political career, initially on local government bodies, and latterly at national level. From 1906 to 1920 he was sometime member of both Ennistymon rural district council and Milltown Malbay council. He served on Clare county council (1925–45), and on the county's board of health (of which he was sometime vice-chairman), mental hospital committee, and agriculture committee. His political affiliations were changeable: through the 1920s he belonged variously to Labour, Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil. Failing to secure a Fianna Fáil nomination to contest the 1932 general election, he left the party and continued as an independent. Proposed as general election candidate at the 1937 nominating convention of the newly organised Clare Farmers’ Party, he was summoned to the convention hall in Ennis. After announcing his support for the party manifesto (an echo of Fine Gael policy, including complete de-rating of agricultural land, and an ‘honourable settlement’ to the economic war), he accepted the nomination, pausing to set a delegate's dislocated ankle before hastening back to attend patients elsewhere in the town. Receiving 6,333 first-preference votes (second among ten candidates behind only Éamon de Valera (qv), who remained a constituency rival throughout his dáil career), Burke was elected TD for Clare (1937–51), taking the fourth seat out of five, at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Projecting himself and his party (which organised fifty branches throughout the county) as ‘non-political’ – he described the farmer's three enemies as the weather, the markets, and the politicians – he retained the seat in the 1938 election with a slight increase in first preferences. When the Clare Farmers’ Party was subsumed into the new national farmers’ party, Clann na Talmhan, Burke, pleading the support of a wife and large family, and his willingness to assume his own election deposit and expenses, declined to comply with the Clann's £10-per-week levy upon dáil salaries, and was dropped as their candidate (February 1943). He retained his seat as an independent in the subsequent 1943 general election, in which none of the constituency's three Clann na Talmhan candidates was returned.
For the remainder of his dáil career Burke epitomised the politician for whom electoral success was founded upon a loyal personal following amid the exigencies of the Irish system of proportional representation, attracting transferred votes from all quarters. He was atypical, however, in his refusal to manipulate the mechanics of the ‘parish pump’, failing even to get repaired the road to his own house, out of which patients’ cars had continually to be hauled by tractor. Dependent entirely on name recognition, he operated without any organisation or canvassing of funds. A colourful personality with a genial demeanour and ready smile, he was noted for eccentric election addresses that included admonitions to ‘vote for the man that kept you on your feet’, and claims to have ‘done more lasting good for the people of Clare than all the other candidates combined’ (Clare Champion, 26 May 1951); all were invariably signed ‘the same old bonesetter’. His attendance in the dáil and at political meetings generally was notoriously poor; through fourteen years as a TD he spoke in the chamber five times, never after 1939. He regarded his TD's salary as deserved recompense for long years of therapeutic labours, for which ‘his fee was a handshake’ (quoted in Sheedy, 386). (Consistent with the traditions of the bonesetter's craft, he never demanded direct payment.)
After barely scraping into the fifth seat in 1944, and facing the reduction of the constituency to a four-seater, in 1948 Burke issued his most celebrated election address, deploring to find ‘people so ungrateful as to forget what I have done for them when they were . . . only a mere bundle of shattered bones’, and the consequent necessity ‘to go on my knees and almost beg their votes off them’ (Clare Champion, 10 Jan. 1948). Enjoying a considerably easier election, he was returned to the third seat. His description in this election of his party affiliation as ‘Bonesetter’, though the object of derisory amusement, was a shrewd tactic to distinguish himself clearly from two other Burkes on the Clare ballot paper, including another Thomas Burke, candidate of Clann na Talmhan. In the newly elected dáil he supported the nomination of de Valera and voted against John A. Costello (qv). In 1951, his tally reduced to 4,031 first preferences, he was defeated by 107 votes for the last seat by Fianna Fáil's Patrick Hillery.
Burke had at least five sons and six daughters by two marriages; his second wife, Margaret, survived him. He died 20 November 1951.