A family of Clare councillors

PJ Burke's father and grandfather were both elected as councillors for Kilrush in 1911.

Sixty years ago, the abolition of Clare County Council made local government history. It was, however, a dubious distinction, earned on the back of the Council's record as the worst local authority in Ireland for collecting rates. PJ Burke was a member of the Council in 1942 and recalls this turbulent period in Clare politics for Joe O Muircheartaigh ...

It was the spring but there was no spring in the steps of people, whether they were in Clare, Ireland or around the world.

Wartime saw to that. Times were tough on the front and for those left behind. A fact of war, I suppose.
It was a war that touched people in West Clare in many ways. There were the distant drums of war on the Atlantic, not to mind the plethora of fighter planes that passed over in the dead of night.

Indeed, some of the planes never got to pass fully by. Instead, they crash-landed at sea or on land. There was the RAF flying boat that ditched into Doughmore Bay killing five of those aboard.
Then, there was the six airmen who bailed out of their Wellington bomber over Kilmihil, parachuting into the bog next to Doolough Lake. And, of course, the curiously nicknamed American bomber, the Travelin Trollop, that crash-landed on Lahinch beach.

There were other tribulations of war. Money was scarce, a scarcity hammered home by Clare's status as the “worst in Ireland” for the collection of rates.

That's why there was no spring in the step of people in the spring of 1942. On April 25, 1942, to be precise. A day that will be forever remembered in Clare local government history.

PJ Burke remembers the day, remembers listening to the radio announcement that sealed that fate of Clare County Council. The radio was in Scullanes, down the road from PJ's home place in Colunlaheen, Coore.

Minister Sean McEntee took to the airwaves to announce the abolition of the local authority and the appointment in its place of a commissioner, David O'Keeffe, to take charge of council affairs.

Rates' arrears amounting to £52,176 were held up as reason for the Council's abolition while Commissioner O'Keeffe was also given charge of the Clare Board of Health and the Ennis Mental Hospital Committee.

Said Minister McEntee, “The members of these bodies were removed from office because the duties of these bodies were not being duly and effectively performed. The Council failed to collect the rates punctually.”

The young PJ Burke greeted the news in stony silence. The Council abolished, the political life of a new councillor nipped in the bud, barely five months after he entered the arena.

“It was a huge setback and bad for democracy,” says PJ. “And the way it was done was very hurtful. We should have been at least notified officially. Hearing our fate on the radio was very bad.

“It was a bombshell. We were out, no longer councillors and that was just it. We couldn't do anything about it only protest but our protests weren't going to get us anywhere.”

It was a baptism of fire for the young farming politician who was just out of his teens. Thrown in at the deep end one minute and not given a chance to swim the next.

He explains, “My father died on May 21, 1941. He was sixty five, he had been a member of the County Council since 1925. I was co-opted in December, 1941, having been proposed by Fine Gael's Bill Murphy and seconded by Fianna Fail's Tom Shalloo.”

So began the next stage of Burke generation game in politics. Young PJ was following a proud family tradition, going where father and grandfather had gone before to serve their constituents with distinction over a long number of years.

“My grandfather, Garret Burke, was elected a Sinn Féin Rural District councillor in 1905. Then, my grandfather and father, Tom Burke, were elected Kilrush Rural District councillors in the same year, 1911.

“When the election court was on, the pair of them were out in the garden casting spuds. My aunt went down the garden and said, “I have good news for ye. Ye're both elected. ‘My grandfather just said, ‘How did the vote go?' He was three votes behind my father - seventy six to seventy three - and was so disappointed, “ reveals PJ.

It showed the competitive spirit of the Burkes, a competitive spirit that prompted PJ to put his name forward for his late father's seat. “I was a Fianna Fail representative then and was proposed by a Fine Gael man. This had never happened before and hasn't happened since.”

When it happened in December, 1941, PJ thought it was the start of a long political career. Not that the young politician knew what to expect either in the council chamber or outside with his constituents. “I hadn't a clue what I was letting myself in for. But I had to learn quickly, learn how to operate in the council and then deal with my constituents,” says PJ about the early days.

“Money was very scarce at the time and people were in dire straits. People just couldn't pay their rates. People started coming to me about the rates. At that time, you'd go into the courthouse and you'd meet the officials and try to explain to them that people just weren't in a position to pay rates.
“There was one great thing about rate collectors. They didn't press people for their rates. That meant you had an overdraft in the council of £52,000 and the Department of Local Government came after the council. The conclusion the Department came to was that the council should have to be done away with.”

The abolition led to an outcry among councillors and, in a rare show of cross party unity, the thirty one members of the local authority came together in emergency session to condemn Minister McEntees' action.

All councillors backed a Fine Gael sponsored motion. “Let any Fianna Fail TD resign his seat and any ex-member of the County Council will fight and beat him in the next election.”

It seemed that PJ's fledgling political career was at an end. In reality, it was only starting because PJ wasn't about to forget his constituents. Though he was no longer a councillor, he never stopped trying to lend a helping hand.

“The public were at a loss without the councillors. If they had a problem of any kind, where were they going to go. The thing is, I used to make representatives to people. I was very bold, I suppose.”
Politics and making representations were in his blood and they wasn't going to be suppressed by Minister McEntee or anyone else.

When the Council was reconstituted in 1945, PJ was back for more and won his seat. He lost out in the 1950 election but, in 1960, regained his seat in the Milltown electoral area and retained it in five subsequent elections before bowing out in 1999.

So ended nearly a half century as a public representative, a half century so nearly over before they started when Sean McEntee took to the Radio Eireann airwaves and abolished Clare County Council.
PJ Burks was there and kept politicking through it all as his father and grandfather had taught him to.

- courtesy of Joe O Muircheartaigh
The Clare Champion