‘Am I marked by it? Yes’: Joan Burton recalls her life in a mother and baby home

Television: the Temple Hill apartment block was very different in the early 1950s – when Burton crosses the threshold, a shadow passes over her face

One of Joan Burton’s earliest memories is of the sea. “I’ve always loved the coastline – I never knew why I liked it so much,” the former Labour leader and ex-tánaiste tells host Brendan Courtney during an episode of RTÉ's Keys To My Life, featuring the former politician which airs on RTÉ One (Sunday, 7.30pm).

These are bittersweet recollections. As a child born to a single mother in 1949, Burton was shunned by the Irish State. She was put in the care of the Sisters of Charity, whose forbidding mother and baby home at Temple Hill in Blackrock looks out mournfully over Dublin Bay.

Temple Hill is today a luxury apartment block. But it was very different in the early 1950s; when Burton crosses the threshold with Courtney, a shadow passes over her face.

“Am I marked by it? Yes,” she says. But she adds: “You can’t let a particular thing define your life. It tells you an awful lot about what a censored, closed society Ireland was.”

Burton’s adoptive parents raised her in what is now trendy Stoneybatter, in a tiny house where, today, you couldn’t swing a hipster in. Surrounded by poverty, she developed a keen sense of social justice, which compelled her to first stand for election in 1989 – by which time, she had moved to the Navan Road area in Dublin. Later, she would make history as Labour’s first female leader.

Courtney is an affable host of Keys To Your Life – but perhaps he inserts himself a little too much into this episode of a series in which celebrities retrace their past through places in their lives that hold particular significance. In a voiceover, he talks about Burton’s “polarising politics”, claiming they “tarnished her political legacy”: a reference, presumably, to her participation in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition during the bailout years following the 2008 crash.

It’s a legitimate view, but why bring politics into it in the first place? He also requires her to sit through a Mario Rosenstock skit in which the hilarious comedian pretends to be Burton singing Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball. What’s the point beyond making fun of Burton? It’s just bad manners.

To her credit, she doesn’t seem bothered. “I haven’t seen it, she says of Rosenstock. “Maybe it was late at night, and there wasn’t much of an audience.”

Burton stresses that those early years at Temple Hill did not define her. She instead traces her progressive political views to her adoptive parents.

“There were a lot of tenement houses,” she recalls of her childhood, adding that heavy rain could bring a dwellings tumbling down. “There was always a house or two that would fall down – we were conscious that people were less fortunate.”

She was the first in her family to go to college, which she attended on a scholarship. University was followed by a working holiday in the United States, which is where she was when her mum died. While her mother had been unwell, her death at 55 was still a shock: Burton received a letter from her father saying that her mother had already been buried. That, as much as the nuns, left a mark, one suspects.

“The hope is that somewhere her presence is out there,” she says, adding that she sometimes feels her mother’s spirit.

Keys To My Life is the sort of assuming light entertainment RTÉ does well. Courtney – when he isn’t subjecting us to old Mario Rosenstock videos – is an amiable host, and the idea of specific locations connecting us to periods and people in our lives will resonate with many viewers.

Burton’s memories are especially moving. Whatever you think of her politics, she was a victim of a cruel and repressive Ireland. Her story is also the story of a generation of women and their children – one that can never be retold too often.

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