BORN in Kilnadeema, south of Loughrea in Co Galway in 1939, Joe Burke was introduced to music at an early age. His mother played the box in the old style. He recalls that he was four years of age when he first started playing. “There was always dancing in the house,” he told one interviewer. His uncle taught him his first tune – Let Erin Remember. As far back as he can remember there was a gramophone in the house and he remembers listening to early 1930s recordings by the Ballinakill Ceili Band and Michael Coleman.
His most significant instructors were the Downey family of Leitrim Cross, also near Loughrea. “A great music house, millions of tunes.” Two or three nights every week the young Joe Burke played with Jack Downey and learned his trade. There were also good players around Ballinakill, between Woodford and Loughrea: Stephen, Eddie and Ambrose Moloney and members of the White family, from whom Burke learned his music.
In the Fifties he bought an accordion in Waltons of Dublin for £5 which he still has. The one he plays most often was custom-made by the French maker Bertrand Gaillard and the reeds are hand-made by an Italian, Binci.
He won the All-Ireland Senior Accordion Championship in Thurles in 1959 and again in 1960 in Boyle. He withdrew from competition after that believing in a convention that the victor lets others have a chance of winning.
In 1955 he was part of the newly-formed Leitrim Ceile Band, with such players as Ned Coleman, Oliver Roland, Paddy Downey, Sean McGlynn, Paddy Doorley, Jack Derven and Mick Darcy. Later the band was joined by Michael Joe Doorley and flute player Paddy Carty.
“The first night we played in Galway Rowing Club. We each got £1 a night at that time,” he once said. Later the pay rose to thirty shillings. The band won two All Ireland titles. He left the Leitrim Ceili Band around 1962.
He was now playing a lot in England. “In the Galtimore in Cricklewood, you could have 2,000 people.”
In 1961 he visited the United States for the first time with singer Sean O Siochain, harpist Kathleen Watkins, Eileen Markey and singer Edmund Browne, touring about 16 cities. Club owner Bill Fuller brought him back the following year to play Chicago and New York, accompanied by a drummer. In the blossoming folk scene of the Sixties, Burke found work in Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany and the US.
He toured England and Scotland regularly with the great Belfast fiddle player Sean Maguire and in the US with Andy McGann.
1989 represented Ireland at the International Accordion Festival in Montmagny, Quebec, and again in 1992, teaming up with international names such as Marc Savoy and Art Van Dame in “Accordions that Shook the World.” In 1997 won an AIB Traditional Musician Award, a Galway honour won also by Mairtin O’Connor and Frankie Gavin.
Influenced by the Nenagh box player Paddy O’Brien (1922-91), who helped replace the old push and draw method of box playing with the B/C style, Burke is noted for his stylish use of triplets and rolls. He has given workshops and masterclasses at home and abroad and has influenced a generation of box players.
Married Anne Conroy of Abbey, near Loughrea, in 1990. She played accordion and guitar with the group Oisin and today they regularly feature as a duet.They have restored the old family home in Kilnadeema and have begun a music school where they run classes in the winter.
In late 2002 he released an album The Morning Mist, named after the only tune he has composed to date. The tune was previously recorded by the Liverpool Ceili Band among others. In 2004 he produced a compilation of the work of his fellow east Galway musician Kevin Keegan, The Music of Kevin Keegan, Cló Iar Chonnachta, CICD 156. It was Keegan, and not Joe Cooley as widely thought, who played a warm up for the Grateful Dead way back.
In early 2010 he was inducted into the select Comhaltas Mid-Western Hall of Fame along withy another Co Galway musician Charlie Coen. In summer 2012 he published Joe Burke; Traditional Irish Music Book, a booklet and three CDs comprising 104 tunes.
A Tribute to Andy McGann, Joe Burke, Brian Conway, Felix Dolan. 2007. CICD 168.
The Morning Mist, with Charlie Lennon, New Century Music, 2002
The Bucks of Oranmore, with Charlie Lennon, Green Linnet, 1996
Happy to Meet & Sorry to Part, with Michael Cooney and Terry Corcoran, 1986
The Tailor’s Choice, with Maire Ni Chathasaigh, 1983
The Funny Reel, with Andy McGann and Felix Dolan, 1979
Traditional Music of Ireland, with Charlie Lennon, 1973
Galway’s Own Joe Burke, Outlet, 1971
Two Champions, with Sean Maguire, 1971, Outlet
A Tribute to Michael Coleman, with Andy McGann and Felix Dolan, 1966