The Burkes of Castlebar: Who are the high-achieving family from Co Mayo?

Subscriber OnlyPeople

Ammi Burke’s Arthur Cox hearing is the latest high-profile case involving a family member

“When I began to have a family, I took that responsibility really seriously, that my husband and I were responsible for these children. That was always inherent in my being, I suppose. Whatever happened, it was my responsibility,” Martina Burke said in an interview on North West Radio four years ago.

Every parent takes their role seriously, but for the Castlebar mother of 10, the idea of parental responsibility goes further than most. When the eldest of her children – who range in age from 19 to 34 – was ready to start school, the qualified teacher decided to homeschool. Martina and her husband, Sean, an electrician, later built a school in the garage beside their family home. One local describes it as like “a small library”.

The investment paid off: each one of those 10 children, all of whom have uncommon biblical names, went on to achieve “an average of 500-600 points in their Leaving Cert exams. . .going on to study at third level, including Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE)”, one of the 10, Esther, wrote in an email to this journalist.

Martina Burke’s reflections on parental responsibility may shed some light on why she ended up back in the news in recent days.


When she is not involved in protesting, Martina runs Burke Christian School from her home

She was the subject of exasperated commentary at the Workplace Relations Commission, where her daughter Ammi, a solicitor, was taking an unfair dismissal claim against law firm Arthur Cox, which was eventually thrown out. Repeated interruptions by Ammi’s mother prevented the hearing from proceeding for more than five hours on one day. “What is the problem? My daughter worked from 8am to 2am. . . that’s 18 hours she worked, non-stop for Arthur Cox,” Martina Burke interjected at one point.

The company had denied unfairly dismissing Ammi, claiming there was a breakdown in her relationship with three senior partners in the division where she was a junior associate on her first placement. The hearing was eventually terminated after the adjudicator said the interruptions meant he was unable to proceed. Sources indicate Ammi is likely to appeal.

So who is this family of unconventional high achievers, who have recently come to prominence as a result of its pursuit of a number of high-profile legal actions?

Though everyone in Castlebar seems to know who the Burkes are, few in the area would claim to know them well. One person first recalls seeing them singing in Market Square in the town at Christmas a few years back. “The harmony between them, you’d need to see it to believe it.”

When they’re spotted in public these days, however, it is often in a less harmonious context. They are regular protesters near the offices of Mayo County Council over the management of Covid-19 at Mayo University Hospital. Impeccably dressed in dark, tailored clothing, armed with placards, they cut a striking picture. “They’re a tight-knit organisation,” says another local community activist.

A protest at a March tree-planting ceremony commemorating those who died from Covid on the mall in Castlebar in March – the family turned up with placards claiming hospital staff had been gagged – upset some involved in the event, who felt it was inappropriate.

When she is not involved in protesting, Martina runs Burke Christian School from her home. It is not clear how many students are enrolled full time, but she also offers grinds to part-time students. There was some local curiosity recently  when a pop-up shop with a bright red-painted front opened on Market Square, called Burke’s, selling religious reading materials. A small sign in the window directs people who want “advice, support and resources” on homeschooling to contact Martina.

She has also been a regular contributor to local radio on various issues, including her concerns about sex education in schools. “We’ve had them on air, and any exchanges with the mother and son are fine. They make good sense, they’re intelligent people,” says a journalist with Midwest Radio.

One daughter, Jemima, had a summer placement with the Connaught Telegraph, where she wrote well-crafted articles on subjects including Irish people's love of the land. She broke the story of Sally Maaz (17), who died with Covid-19 at Mayo University Hospital in April 2020, having initially tested negative.

Jemima no longer writes for the newspaper, but has continued to pursue her interest in the case, frequently turning up with her mother and brother at Swinford courthouse. Members of the Burke family made a complaint to gardaí about Maaz’s death and pushed for a murder investigation. A subsequent Garda investigation found no evidence of any criminal intent.

Jemima then came to national attention at a May 2020 press briefing from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). Claiming she represented the Western News, a publication which does not currently exist, she put a series of questions to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, before her microphone was eventually cut off. The combative tone of that interaction surprised several people who had encountered her earlier in her career.

“She was very meek and mild, but she has changed,” says one. “She was a very charming person . . . very easy to get on with. It came as a shock when that issue materialised at the press conference,” observes another.

Her brother Josiah, who has an MSc in economic history from the LSE, also had a number of political articles published in the Connaught Telegraph. “His knowledge and insight of Irish political matters was amazing,” says an individual who encountered him professionally.

Another brother, Enoch, ran for equality officer at NUI Galway in 2014 and is the author of a self-published book, The Hedonism and Homosexuality of John Piper and Sam Allberry. A sister, Kezia, has won academic awards for an essay in mathematics and physics. Isaac did a PhD in mathematics at NUI Galway. The siblings have also racked up awards for music and debating, including The Irish Times debating competition.

Aside from their academic and musical prowess, what they’re best known for are the number of high-profile legal cases and protests they have been involved in. When a €9 million Lotto jackpot was won in Castlebar in January, the joke went round locally that it must have been the Burkes who won it, given the likely costs involved in these cases.

In January, a landmark Supreme Court judgment found that Elijah Burke and other homeschooled students had been unlawfully excluded from the 2020 Leaving Cert calculated grades scheme. “This is a significant victory for home education in Ireland and for the rights of parents regarding the education of their children,” his sister Esther said afterwards.

A few months earlier, four of the siblings, Isaac, Kezia, Ammi and Enoch, lost a case in Galway Circuit Court over a decision to bar them for life from membership of college societies at NUI Galway, which they claimed amounted to discrimination on legal grounds.

The previous year Isaac was awarded €13,035 damages against NUI Galway in Galway Circuit Court over a delay scheduling his final viva exams for his PhD, which he claimed caused him distress and lost earnings. In her evidence, his mother told the court she had demanded the name and number of his heads of department and proceeded to contact them herself.

'If you spend the time with your children, and you just commit to that, great things can happen'

A younger brother, Simeon, ran as student union president in NUI Galway in 2021 under the slogan “A president for the many not the mob”. The contest became acrimonious and personalised. Simeon claimed during the campaign he had been the victim of online bullying and made a complaint to gardaí.

One student who encountered him at the time says he did not share Simeon’s politics, but had sympathy for him on a personal level. “I don’t think he is a bad person. I think he is a product of his environment. The family uses legal action to make a point.”

Another observer says that the family is clearly well informed and well educated. “They are careful not to be doing anything that might overstep the legal limits of what they’re entitled to do [in court]. They don’t very often trip over.”

A rare exception came during the February inquest into the death of Sally Maaz. On several occasions during the two-day inquest, as the grieving Maaz family watched on quietly, there were heated exchanges between the Burke family and the coroner for Mayo, Patrick O’Connor. At one stage Martina Burke told the coroner: “You are not invincible, let me tell you.” She later interjected that the inquest was a “whitewash”.

Acting under Sections 6 and 8 of the Public Order Act 1994, gardaí removed Martina, Josiah and Jemima from the courthouse. As he was led away, Josiah roared that the court was “a sham” and a “disgrace”. The family proceeded to film for their social media outside the coroner’s court, accusing witnesses of lying and describing the hospital as “wicked”.

Superintendent Joe McKenna later apologised to the Maaz family for having to “endure” the behaviour of the Burkes. The Maaz family, says one source, “had no involvement and want no involvement” in the disruption to the hearing. A verdict on their daughter’s death is due in the inquest at Swinford courthouse next Monday.

In that 2018 interview with North West Radio, Martina spoke about how the sacrifices she had made for her children were worth it. “You feel sometimes, I’m being honest, you’re locked in. You’re there with your family, your children, every day. But the rewards are immense. And you don’t have the anxiety, you don’t have the mental problems, you don’t have the fears . . . If you spend the time with your children, and you just commit to that, great things can happen.”

Responding to a request to speak to the The Irish Times this week Martina Burke said she was not available for interview as she was busy teaching students.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times