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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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