Adopted by working-class family and elevated with love

With a mother who believed ferociously in her, Burton was not afraid to try anything

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Where are they now, those 260 giddy commerce lads, who foot-stomped and wolf-whistled when Joan Burton – an actual female – arrived late into a UCD lecture hall in 1967? A “friendly” kind of stomping, she says.

That smiley demeanour masked a steely spine. The day after her Leaving Cert, she had started work as a clerical assistant, then got the news she had won a Dublin Corporation scholarship to UCD – a rare prize for a boy but vanishingly uncommon for a girl.

Her original degree choice was English and history and she was already knee-deep in dense Russian novels when she encountered Mr Keogh, a famous UCD porter: “No, no – you’re going to need a job. Do commerce.”

Around 10 girls were in that rowdy lecture hall in 1967. Plus she was working-class. That made her doubly rare.

Later, as a trainee accountant, she found she was the first woman apprentice Price Waterhouse had taken on in over 30 years.

The randomness of fate that gave her love and refuge in a Dublin, working-class family, is pivotal. She was born 65 years ago at the foot of Mount Leinster in Carlow, in the maternal home, to unmarried parents from a farming background.

At a few months old, she was taken to St Patrick’s Infant Hospital in Temple Hill in south Dublin , run by the Sisters of Charity, from which babies were sent for adoption through St Patrick’s Guild.

Though boarded out to a series of foster homes, the ultimate plan – as revealed by a passport, recovered many years on – was to have her adopted in the US. Ill-health was all that prevented her becoming the 573rd child to be sent off through that agency alone in the 30 years to the 1970s. At about two and a half, she was taken home by Bridie and John Burton, a foundry worker. The couple had lost their own infant daughter. They lived in a rented one-bedroom artisan’s cottage in Rialto before moving to Stoneybatter on the northside.

Happy household

Burton was four when the formal adoption papers were to be signed and vividly recalls the terror among family and neighbours that she would be “taken away” by the social workers: “I was very thin. I can remember the whole street being involved in force-feeding me tonics [including Guinness] in case I was taken away.”

The Burtons were clearly a happy little household and one where music was important. On Saturday mornings when The Waltons Show was on radio, her father – a war-time army reservist – would march around the house with the kitchen brush, while she and her brother Paul (the Burtons’ birth-child, born five years after her arrival) marched behind, performing manoeuvres to general hilarity.