An Appreciation: Joan Burke

Pioneering parliamentarian who was the first woman to represent Roscommon in the Dáil

Joan Burke: Topped the poll in each election.

Joan Burke: Topped the poll in each election.


Joan Burke, a pioneering parliamentarian, died on November 27th. Her brave, quiet death was consistent with the dignified manner in which she served as a Fine Gael TD for Roscommon for an unbroken 17-year period from 1964 until her retirement in June 1981. Her resilience and capacity for hard work were continually rewarded by the people of that county, renowned for its political surprises and turbulence.

Joan Burke entered politics upon the death of her husband James in May 1964. His untimely death occasioned a byelection, resulting in Joan Burke’s brave decision to defend her late husband’s seat, despite the pressures of a farm, and two young children to support.

In winning the Roscommon byelection of July 1964, securing 17,308 first-preference votes, she became the first, and to date, only woman to represent the people of Roscommon in Dáil Éireann. She also became only the fourth woman to represent the Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael party since the foundation of the State.

Joan Burke defended her seat in the subsequent elections of 1965, 1969, 1973 and 1977, first in Roscommon and later in the Roscommon South Leitrim constituency, topping the poll in each election. She was a vocal opponent of the “marriage bar” prohibiting married women from working in the public sector and tirelessly fought for the rights of farmers.

Born Joan Crowley in Bandon, Co Cork, into a family of nine children, she was educated in Loreto Convent, Killarney, before going on to study nursing, completing her studies in the old Fever Hospital in Cherry Orchard in Dublin.

During this time, she became friendly with Frieda Lennon from Strokestown, who invited Joan to her wedding to Michael Jones of Tulsk. There, she met James Burke. The couple marrying in 1959, before settling in the grounds of the old Cargins Demesne in Tulsk village.

From Granlahan in west Roscommon, James Burke was a member of Roscommon County Council and was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1954, before being re-elected in the subsequent elections of 1957 and 1961. A farmer by profession, James Burke was a well-respected political figure, who numbered among his friends Henry Kenny, father of Enda Kenny.

Joan Burke’s last election was in June 1977. She was lucky to escape with her life following a road traffic accident near Kilcock in July 1975.

Later in retirement, she moved to Dublin to be close to her daughter Ann and kept a regular interest in political affairs and pursued her twin passions of gardening and cooking. She was also an adoring grandmother to Emily and Isobel.

She is survived by her daughter Ann (Browne), son Joseph, son-in-law David, brother Billy and sisters Kathleen (Walsh) and Monica (Buckley). –