Almost a year after failing to be elected Mr Simeon Burke appeared at an NUIG Students’ Union Council meeting. His questioning of the executive committee was satirised online by the now Welfare position candidate Cian Mortimer. Mortimer was subsequently censured by NUIG University Management in a widely ridiculed move that trended online as #FreeCian. Burke, for his part, supposedly threatened legal action against UCD student newspaper The College Tribune after they published a meme of him with allegedly false information that he had perpetuated hate speech. This action, as well as a previous one taken against Galway Pulse appear at odds with his previous grievances toward intimidation tactics
Infamous. Controversial. Ireland’s answer to the Westboro Baptist Church. All those words have been used to describe the Burke family of Mayo. More often than not if you read about an incident involving a Burke, it is probably a member of this very family. Ten siblings, all with biblical names and biblical influences, have been making waves in the west for years now with their brand of ultra-conservative ‘Christian’ values. In doing so they have garnered the same national attention as fellow alt-right figures such as Gemma O’ Doherty and Hermann Kelly. But who really are the Burke family?
Led by parents Martina and Sean Burke, the family rose to prominence as a far-right Christian family who regularly protested outside the Dáil. In a 2010 Irish Times profile of the different quacks that gather outside government buildings eldest brother Enoch was heard shouting “Well, where does aids begin” and reciting figures from St. James’s hospital to ‘prove’ homosexuals started it. The family would often spend up to 9 hours a day protesting. In 2017 they went around their hometown Castlebar holding up placards denouncing homosexuality.
The most recent of the Burke’s to make waves is Simeon. In keeping with family tradition, Simeon mounted an NUIGSU campaign for Welfare and Equality Officer last year. In a widely viewed video on Twitter, Simeon begins by saying “you are only welcome into NUIGSU if you are 110% committed to LGBT”. He goes on to describe ‘LGBT bullies’ and the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ in response to posters being torn down.
Almost a year after failing to be elected Simeon appeared at an NUIG Students’ Union Council meeting. His questioning of the executive committee was satirised online by the now Welfare position candidate Cian Mortimer. Mortimer was subsequently censured by NUIG University Management in a widely ridiculed move that trended online as #FreeCian. Burke, for his part, subsequently threatened legal action against UCD student newspaper The College Tribune after they published a meme of him with allegedly false information that he had perpetuated hate speech. This action, as well as a previous one taken against Galway Pulse appear at odds with his previous grievances toward intimidation tactics.
If not openly trying to justify discrimination, this along with the legal actions claiming ‘religious discrimination’ can be seen as part of a wider tactic of self-defence as a way of furthering their ideology. This is a tactic used regularly on the far right. Say something offensive, then turn the argument into your right to say it without criticism instead of focussing on the usually baseless claim you began with. In the absence of any other real policies, (aside from a call to abolish the LGBT and ethnic minorities position) it seemed like Simeon’s campaign was entirely borne out of his family’s disgruntlement with the college.
It appears the Burke’s favour framing their arguments about the ills of modern society around that of mental health in young people. Both their website, and other publications they have written in feature claims that ‘research’ has shown sexual activity in young people and homosexual activities in general are bad for mental health and result in substance abuse. Isaac Burke, in a radio debate for marriage equality, referred to the mind suffering when the body is used in unnatural ways. Isaac himself won a court case against NUIG last year during which his mother Martina contacted a professor and allegedly berated him about mental health problems in young people.
Isaac himself seems to have an obsession with the intimacy of gay people. In the same radio interview, he repeatedly dodged any arguments of the legislative issues in favour of continuously asking his opponent Declan Meehan of Yes Equality what gay sex entailed. Isaac’s focus is on the sex, as he said, “The fact remains that the sexual conduct between two men and two women ought not to be given the same legal status as that between a man and a woman”. He views marriage as an approval of gay sex, and as far as he is concerned “We’re all given heterosexual bodies”.
The Burke’s even run their own ‘school’. This ‘school’ is actually quite successful from an academic perspective. Almost entirely made up of the Burke family of course, it prides itself in religious expression and public speaking. Isaac is a Hardiman scholar, while younger brother Simeon is an Irish Times debating finalist. As its principle and Burke family matriarch Martina states, “Education is not neutral”. The website speaks of a humanistic ethic imposing itself on schools, with religion seen as a barrier.
This is obviously untrue, with over 95% of primary schools in Ireland being denominational. This creates the opposite problem where a lack of religion can shut young people out of a proper education. Martina continues, “Do we want our children to become educated atheists, embracing the values of an education system from which God is excluded?”
Given it is very difficult to receive an education in Ireland without receiving the sacraments, Martina may be speaking about her own version of Christianity. The one that castigates yet obsesses over the sexual activities of gay people and gets hurt when others criticise it. The one that uses youth depression as a framing device to spread homophobic views.
This hurt manifests itself in the Burke family in a series of litigations. They are currently a part of two cases for religious discrimination, one against NUIG and the other against law firm Arthur Cox. They were successful in a third action last year against NUIG and another against the Minister for Education for the exclusion of Elijah Burke from the calculated grades system. As shown earlier, other publications have also had to issue apologies for incorrect assertions of fact about the family. One wonders if they need the money.
In 2014, siblings Isaac, Kezia, Ammi and Enoch were banned for life from student activities for improperly using €325 of Christian Union society money for printing of flyers. This triggered a long running legal fight. After an unsuccessful complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, the Burke’s finally got their day in court last year, and promptly squandered it.
Ahead of the hearing NUIG lifted the ban, and when counsel for the university raised this on the first day of the hearing Judge Petria McDonnell asked the family if this made their claim moot. Rather than answer, the Burke’s instead claimed the judge had prejudiced the case and demanded she recuse herself. McDonnell refused this and delisted the case. The Burke’s then continued to show up for the next two days, with Gardaí eventually being called when they said they would not leave until they “could talk to the judge”. In a series of videos filmed outside the court the Burke’s claimed professional damage and serious judicial misconduct.
Given a five-year legal battle ended on the first day in court, one wonders if the Burke’s seek to pontificate about their perceived injustices suffered rather than actually seek justice.
Last year Isaac Burke won a claim against NUIG for breach of contract in Galway Circuit Civil Court after a lecturer failed to schedule his final ‘viva’ exam on time. Once again here, four years have passed and Isaac has not actually sat the exam he was offered, seeking instead to pursue the legal route.
Sister Ammi is currently taking a case against Arthur Cox to the WRC for unfair dismissal on religious discrimination grounds. The family are particularly aggrieved over a post that appeared in a British article calling Ammi a “Christian nutjob”. It is understood that a conflict arose at work when Ammi took offence to the use of ‘blasphemous’ language. After asking for her job back earlier this year in a letter to the firm she also claimed her dismissal was in breach of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and in disregard of fair procedures and the requirements of ‘natural justice’.
Cox, for their part, has stated Ms. Burke was sacked after “a breakdown in meaningful relationships… (with) trust and confidence lost”.
Another Burke, this time Jemima Burke, managed to sneak into Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan’s press briefing under the apparently fake name of “The Western News”. Such a newspaper has not existed since 1926 in Ballinasloe. She seized on a tragedy involving a child, bringing up the death of 17-year-old Sally Maaz, who died after being transferred to the Covid section of a hospital. Jemima then tried to generalise about it in a manipulative line of questioning to whip up distrust in the medical system. She then went on and seemed to suggest it “bordered on the criminal”.
The Burke’s firebrand of far-right religious-driven politics marks them as being decidedly more radical than the likes of the Iona Institute or the Ascough family. Many such bodies have distanced themselves from the Burke’s. They act as a snapshot of an ugly past, trying and failing in their attempts to form an ugly future. As Declan Meehan said in his debate with Isaac “I’d find it hilarious if it wasn’t so offensive”.
The opinions shared in this article are those of the author and not of FRONTIER Current Affairs. As per FRONTIER Guidelines, a bibliography of sources used in this article are available.