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David R. Burke, R.I.P.

Memoriam – David R. Burke


I remember the first time I ventured up to Lawrence, a mill town north of Boston with a strong Irish presence that dated back the 19th century.

It was 1982, and I was going to meet Dave Burke, who ran a gift shop called Irish Jaunting Car, at 89 South Broadway, across the street from St. Patrick’s Church.

His shop was like an old-fashioned New England variety store -- shelves with stuff tucked everywhere -- books, magazines and music on one shelf, then Irish tea bags, cookies and oatmeal on another.  Knitted sweaters over there, next to walking sticks, tri-colored flags and the 1916 Easter Proclamation.  Claddagh rings and Celtic jewelry. Waterford crystal proudly displayed in a glass case.

Dave was chatting to a half dozen customers in the shop, while talking on the phone, and he brought me right into both conversations, with out taking a breath.  He reminded me of a stage director on opening night, or an air traffic controller sending planes off into the blue yonder, but with a wry sense of humor throughout. 

Dave was a choreographer of all things Irish and all things Lawrence, right up until his death on May 27, and that’s how I’ll fondly remember him. 

His Irish-American persona took shape in the early 1970s, when he helped revive Division Eight of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Lawrence.  Dave relished the friendship and brotherhood of men and women around the country working to further Irish heritage and culture in all its forms. 

He was passionate about issues of peace and justice in Northern Ireland, well known in Derry and Belfast for delivering Christmas gifts to families of prisoners, funding Irish language schools, or donating artifacts to the Linen Hall Library.   

But Dave also had a distinct perspective about being Irish-American.  It bespoke an appreciation for what Irish immigrants faced in the 19th century, and a heightened desire to strengthen the Irish persona in America, to safeguard it from being devalued.

That is why he took such care in creating the collection of Irish books, music, and memorabilia at the Lawrence Public Library, a testament to the past now open to residents and scholars.   And why he led efforts to build the Irish Famine Memorial at St. Mary’s Cemetery, paying tribute to immigrants of the 1840s who fled the Irish Famine. Many of those refugees arrived in Lawrence and formed the community to which Dave had devoted his adult life.

Dave had a rich life beyond the Irish front of course, rooted in Lawrence, the hometown he cherished.  He was  a loving husband to his wife Pat and proud father to his son Kevin, and a loyal sibling to his brothers and sisters and extended family.  He was particularly proud that both his wife and son were school teachers, because it represented the betterment of the community that meant so much to the Burke family.

The outpouring of friends, family and colleagues from around the country at his funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Church was testimony to how he was beloved by so many.

Dave himself worked for Lawrence Housing Authority for thirty years, helping families, senior citizens and veterans tackle the bureaucratic enigmas of seeking shelter from the storm. Many of the phone calls he was always getting came from people seeking his help.

After he retired, he volunteered at City Hall, giving sage advice to Mayor Michael Sullivan.  In 2002 he was honored by the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism for his volunteer work at Lawrence’s State Heritage Park.  He helped raise money for local food banks, and supported Lawrence’s History Center and its immigrant archives.   In 2003 the Center honored Dave for his contributions to the Center.

A lot has changed since I met Dave Burke back in the 1980s.  His gift shop is long gone; few are buying Waterford Crystal these days.  And the long-time Irish congregation of St. Patrick’s Church is diminished, as other ethnic groups move in, seeking the same chance the Irish sought many generations ago.

To a large degree, Irish-America’s tireless, relentless work on behalf of Ireland - stretching back to the 18th century – is nearing completion, thanks to people like Dave.   In his lifetime, a peace process emerged in Northern Ireland for the first time ever.  Ireland finally achieved prosperity in the 1990s and will likely do so again when global economies rebound.  Anti-Irish sentiments from earlier times are a distant memory.

At the end of the day, Dave’s devotion to his family, community and heritage made a difference.  He was the master choreographer, a charming, enthusiastic, generous and committed individual, whose good deeds and good intentions will keep his memory in our hearts for a long time to come. 

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by Michael P. Quinlin

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