Joseph Burke, Irish musician noted for being a pre-eminent button accordion player, is born in Kilnadeema, south of Loughrea, County Galway, on April 11, 1939. He records and performs traditional Irish music for over half a century.
Burke starts playing traditional at age four and purchases his first accordion in the 1950s. He wins the All-Ireland Senior Accordion Championship in Thurles in 1959 and again in Boyle the following year. Together with fiddler Aggie Whyte, he wins the All-Ireland duet championship in 1962 in Gorey, County Wexford.
Burke co-founds the Leitrim Ceili Band with Padden Downey in 1956. Other members of the east Galway-based band, which wins All-Ireland Championships in 1959 and 1962, includes Irish flute players Paddy Carty, Ambrose Moloney and Tony Molloy, button accordionists Mick Darcy and Sean McGlynn, fiddlers Michael Joe Dooley, Paddy Doorhy, Aggie Whyte and Séamus Connolly, drummer Sean Curley and pianist Anne-Marie Courtney. The band tours in England and releases an LP on the New York-based Dublin label.
Burke first tours in the United States in 1961, and lives mainly in New York from 1962 to 1965, during which period he forms a musical partnership with fiddler Andy McGann. With McGann and pianist Felix Dolan, he records an LP, A Tribute to Michael Coleman, first released in 1966 on his own Shaskeen label. He records again with this trio, issuing The Funny Reel LP on the Shanachie Records label in 1979. Other musical collaborators over the years include Belfast fiddle great Sean McGuire, piper Michael Cooney, harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh, fiddler Kevin Burke, pianist Charlie Lennon and his wife Anne Conroy Burke, whom he marries in 1990, on guitar and button accordion.
Burke’s first solo LP, Galway’s Own, is released in 1971. He also tours extensively for the next two decades, including with groups sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. From 1988 to 1991, he lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where he has a musical residency at John D. McGurk’s Pub and hosts radio programmes at two stations, one of them the “Ireland in America” programme on KDHX. He represents Ireland in 1989 and 1992 at the International Accordion Festivals, in Montmagny, Quebec, along with accordion greats who include Cajun accordion player Marc Savoy and jazz accordionist Art Van Damme.
After residing in the United States from 1988 until 1991, Burke returns to Kilnadeema in 1992. There, he carries on teaching and performing music. He dies at the age of 81 on February 20, 2021, at Galway Hospice.
Burke is named RTÉ‘s Traditional Musician of the Year in 1970. He goes on to win both the AIB Traditional Musician of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Irish World in 1997. A Joe Burke Tribute Concert is held in April 1997 at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, on his reception of the AIB award. Three years later, he receives an award in Musical Mastery from Boston College. He is later conferred Gradam an Chomhaltais in 2003.