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.

Her luck, she says, was to find an adoptive mother who “just believed ferociously in me and was thrilled that I was her adopted child and who therefore had the sense that whatever I wanted to do, just try and do it”.

Her next turn of fortune was to attend the Sisters of Charity secondary school in Stanhope Street (the same order, interestingly, that ran the infant hospital in Temple Hill) where classes were small and the ferment of Vatican II was motivating nuns such as Sr Stan, back from London with her social-studies degree, to develop their educational ideas in the context of social justice.

“In many ways, that is where my politics come from – that whole notion of justice and fairness”. The fact that Burton was caring for her ailing mother (Bridie died from cancer during her daughter’s finals) curtailed university activitism. But she says now she “just lacked the social confidence to get involved in politics” then.

Socially rich

A meeting with David Thornley, then a Labour TD for Cabra and Finglas, led to her Labour Party induction. Through that, she met husband-to-be, Pat Carroll, a precociously young director of elections for Noel Browne, who became a Dublin city councillor while finishing his Masters in physics.

The couple were lecturing in the Dublin Institute of Technology when they took leave of absence to work at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, during which the Kerry Babies case erupted at home and the first divorce referendum was defeated. Ms Burton’s time in Tanzania “led in huge part” to her career in politics, she once said.

She watched as president Julius Nyerere – heavily influenced by an Irish priest – unified a nation of Christians and Muslims and “built up a system based on respect. Economically the country was very poor but socially it was very rich. All of this contrasted greatly with what I was hearing from home”. Meanwhile, she learned to speak Swahili.

After a failed Dáil run, she was elected on the “Spring Tide” of 1992, at the age of 43 – around the same time as she finally identified her birth mother, who had died by then.

Through a cousin of her birth mother’s in the US, she found her Carlow relations and made an emotional return. “Several people have said to me, ‘we knew you’d come back’.”

From the musical chairs of her infancy to the laddish foot-stompers of UCD, from her engagement with Labour at the height of its intellectual heft, to the Tanzanian experience, her whole life might be seen as the ideal blooding for her future career in politics. A field in which the timbre of her voice (“whiney, grating”), the shade of her hair, the pinkness of her jacket, the mere fact of being a woman provide tremendous sources of levity for sniggering, idle backbenchers.

More seriously, she stands accused of stretching answers to infinity and beyond. So it’s fair to say that, while broadcast interviewers are girding their loins with a sigh, the parodists are in paradise. She takes it on the chin. She was asked at a hustings when she would stand up to the media.

“I find them incredibly difficult but not as difficult as Mario Rosenstock in relation to me,” she remarked to roars of laughter. “But at least we have a free and open media. They’re all cornerstones of that thing that is democracy.”

Banking crisis was male

Unsurprisingly, she is an unapologetic feminist. “The funny thing about this banking crisis is that it’s a male crisis. There are very few women,” she said at the time.

Though accused of being populist, she has talked passionately about the strong, working-class work ethic in which she was reared: “When it was unacceptable for people not to work unless they had no alternative.”

There are few trips by public bus any more but she can be spotted in the changing rooms of Arnotts or Clerys (on the northside, note), often with her daughter, Aoife, a barrister.

She is a keen swimmer and walker, joining the Fingal Walking Group on Sunday mornings when she can. Holidays are spent with her husband in a rented villa near Périgueux, France, where they meet up with friends involved in a local Irish music festival.

Down there, Mr Carroll gets on his bike while she “detoxes” on murder/mystery novels or a Donal Ryan novel (she’s a big fan) plus at least one fat, economic tome.

Whether yesterday’s elevation puts paid to that idyll remains to be seen.