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07th Dec 2017

“I wanted to do something my kids would always remember…” Sergeant Graham Burke on making Ireland cry

Rosanna Cooney

It is the most watched show of the year and there was that one moment that made it…

Gone are the accusations of The Late Late Toy Show promoting voracious consumerism and fuelling double sided santa letters. Gone too are its Dublin-centric notions, loyalty to the Billy Barry Kids and focus on celebrity.

We have come full-circle to the original sentimentality of The Late Late Toy show where the children of Ireland are doted upon and yet a contemporary desire to project the notion of inclusivity is made abundantly clear.

It is not a show that is obliged to address social issues and the turbulence of Ireland in 2017, but presenting a picture to the nation of Disney taffeta and milky-toothed kids would appear superficial and unsatisfying without reference to the shadow side of Irish society.

Hosted by Ryan Tubridy, this year’s show touched on child homelessness, a situation over 3000 children are currently experiencing and for a brief moment the difficulty of having a parent overseas was also explored.

Adam and Kayla Burke from Middleton, Cork, were interviewed by Tubridy, and asked about their Dad who couldn’t watch the show as he was in Mali serving in the Irish Defence Forces.

The moment that followed Adam and Kayla’s interview has become Toy Show iconic, a bastion of hope and tangible love against the cold of winter and inequality of our society.

Sergeant Burke is on tour in Mali, Africa, his sixth tour with the Irish Defence Forces, he describes how his homecoming on the Toy Show came about;

“An email was sent out to all the senior officers who are deployed across the world, it said RTÉ were looking for someone from the defence forces to be reunited with their family on the Toy Show.

“The boys and I were talking about it one night and they said why not throw your name in the hat?

“That was in early November . A few weeks later I got an email and they said look this might be happening. I had forgotten about it till that point”.

It wasn’t until the week of the Toy Show that Graham Burke heard for definite he would be travelling home to surprise his family on live television.

“I got the call on the Monday and then three days later I was at home.  I was whisked from the airport and spent two days hidden away in a hotel until Friday came along.

“It was easier for me to keep the secret  when I was away, where as for my wife, Marie, she had to keep the secret all the time. She was bursting with it. I’m a quiet person, not into fussing, I just thought it would be a nice thing for my kids.

“It’s hard being away from home, but out here I only have to look after myself. My wife, I think it is harder for her. She has to be the mammy, the daddy, everything, do all the school runs and the gymnastics…

My wife told me a story, one night she put the kids to bed and she went up to check on Adam, he was curled up with the tablet in his hands crying. He was watching videos of American soldiers coming home and surprising their kids. he was crying saying he wished that would happen for him. I was welling up when my wife told me that story.”

Sgt Graham was brought into the RTÉ studios through a back entrance and five minutes before his kids featured on the show he went into the box, waiting to see his kids for the first time in months.

“I slipped out and all of a sudden I was on the stage. I could hear the kids names being called out.

It was lovely I could hear the crowds cheering and I was dying to get out and see them. it felt like ages I was in the box, but it all went so quickly, it was lightening in the end.

I didn’t realise it was so emotional, and then I looked back on the videos, and I was like oh my God.

I had no idea it would be such a big deal. I thought it would get one or two likes on Facebook and that would be it. I thought the lads would slag me and it would be a bit embarrassing. But one of the lads texted me and said it was gone viral and I started laughing thinking he was joking”

After the show Sergeant Burke and his family went home to Cork for a few days, he couldn’t believe the reaction;

“It was bedlam, absolutely mad. People stopping me, coming up to shake my hand, when we were out walking and in the shops, in Smyths. I really didn’t expect any of this. I thought everything would be rosy, no fuss”

Sergeant Burke spent five days with his family in Cork before returning to Mali on Wednesday morning, where he is serving with 19 other Irish service personnel on a European Training Mission. The difficulty of leaving his family at home was softened by the reaction Sgt Burke got from the soldiers at his camp:

“It’s amazing, everyone out here in Mali has seen it too. The lads set up a projector in one of the rooms on the base, and got pizza in, they all sat down and watched the show live.

The General over here, a Belgian guy came up and shook my hand, and said it was an amazing thing for everyone to see”

Commenting on the moral boost this has brought for the Irish Defence Forces, Sgt Burke said;

“We’re in the paper an awful lot for something negative at the moment but it’s nice to give back. All the lads and ladies away overseas are doing their jobs out here, but the big work happens at home.

“Even when I was home for a few days I was just doing all the normal stuff, making sure there is coal in the bunker and firewood, there are loads of little things that I wish I could do. You’re not there to bring the small fellow training to gymnastics. It’s tough, but it is my job, it’s normal. A soldier is a soldier.

“I always bring back a fry for the lads from home, I’ve got rashers, sausages and puddings. So we’ll fry that up at the weekend.

“It’s the little things and I’ll be home for Christmas”.

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