Patrick Burke – actor, scholar and writer who made lasting contribution to Irish life

An Appreciation

Actor, teacher, drama director, scholar and writer Pat Burke, born on May 6th, 1943, in Johnstown, Co Kildare, was a "man for all seasons" (to borrow the title of Robert Bolt's hit play on Thomas More, in which Pat once played The Common Man). Educated locally and as a boarder at Knockbeg College, Carlow, before attending UCD to obtain a BA, Pat began his teaching career in earnest at Clongowes Wood College, where he taught English and Latin. He moved thereafter to the inspectorate division of the Department of Education and thence to the English Department of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, where he worked for 36 years until retirement in 2008. (In 2001, he was elected president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, a happy experience for him.) When the college amalgamated with Dublin City University he established a postgraduate drama programme with great success. It is said he was the first to introduce the work of Brian Friel onto the syllabus, and in 1991 he was the first to write a doctoral dissertation on Friel at UCD, under Prof Augustine Martin and Christopher Murray.

From this point on he was acknowledged internationally as a Friel expert. In addition, Pat had the gift of inspiring students to write doctoral dissertations in theatre studies.

With an imposing presence, a strong voice and a profound interest in performance, Pat looked outside the academy to participate in amateur drama as actor, director and adjudicator. In the 1970s, playing the lead he twice helped Moat Club Players (Naas) to win the All-Ireland Drama Festival. He worked with that company for 15 years. He also worked with the Dublin Shakespeare Society ("The Shakes"), where he filled a wide diversity of roles. In 1985 he was admitted to the Guild of Drama Adjudicators in London. Michael Poynor, president of the Amateur Drama Association of Ireland comments: "A founding member of the Association, Pat brought a wealth of knowledge and experience which he shared with wit and great insight. He was a superlative adjudicator."

He later served as vice-president of the Amateur Drama Association and helped reorganise and revise its constitution and marking system. His kindness and attention to detail made him a favourite on the circuit. As a director himself, Pat fearlessly tackled Shakespeare, Yeats and Ibsen, as well as Friel, Murphy and many others, and he wasn’t above the occasional Gilbert and Sullivan.


In the academic area, Pat made a lasting reputation as contributor to conferences on Irish literature, such as the Association of Teachers of English, whose journal he edited, and conferences on theatre and drama in Ireland and abroad. A recent message of sympathy from the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL) fondly recalled his many contributions. Among the many friends Pat made in IASIL were Prof Donald Morse and Dr Csilla Bertha at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. In 1996, they invited Pat to direct the first production of Friel's Translations in Hungary and to teach a seminar on Irish drama, both proving inspirational. Dr Bertha comments on Pat's passing: "We have treasured him as a dear friend of many years and admired him for his sharp mind, his enthusiasm for drama, literature, Irish culture and more."

Of his many publications, perhaps Pat's articles on Friel are the most brilliant. In 1999, when Anthony Roche honoured Friel's 70th birthday with a special issue of Irish University Review on Friel he included Pat's article on The Mundy Scheme, Communication Cord and Volunteers, minor works which Pat made seem major. In 2006 came Roche's Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, in which Pat wrote: "I have seen all of Brian Friel's plays, translations and adaptations, from The Enemy Within in 1962 to The Home Place in 2005, 22 of them in their premiere productions."

Prof Roche comments: "Pat Burke was second to none in expounding the complexities of Friel as master of the theatrical effect." Prof Nicholas Grene of TCD agrees: "Pat Burke had a passion for all forms of theatre and expressed it in his sharply perceptive work as a reviewer and critic. As a committed observer of contemporary Irish theatre, he will be much missed."

Sadly, Pat suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the final decade of his life, cared for by his second wife Máire Ní Bhaoil. As a patient in Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, Pat’s spirit still shone forth with admirable interest in all areas that gave him lifelong pleasure, including chess, cards, and traditional Irish music. He died on November iith, 2020.

He is survived by Máire, his children Patrick, Cathy and Denis, their mother Marion, grandchildren Nora and Benjamin, his brother Arthur and a wide circle of friends.