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Mary Burns

June 12, 1932 — July 5, 2021

Mary Josephine Burns, née Rafferty, nurse, midwife, ski patroller, beloved mother, and sister to 26 siblings passed away on July 5, 2021, in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where she lived with her husband of 58 years, Gerard Patrick Burns.

On June 12, 1932, Mary was born in Craigavole, Swatragh, in Northern Ireland in the family farmhouse with the help of the local midwife. “Maybe not even the qualified one,” says her sister, Anne O’Connell of Garvagh, Northern Ireland.

In 1938, when Mary was just six, her mother, Susan Rafferty (née McNicholl), died after giving birth at home. Because of prolonged hemorrhaging, the doctor called a local Garvagh policeman to do a blood transfusion on the spot, but the blood was the wrong type. Tragically, the transfusion killed her.

When Mary’s father, William Rafferty, married Kathleen Margaret Kearney, his new bride was not much older than the eldest Rafferty. Years later, Kathleen would write in a letter to Mary: “I always wanted to tell you that after her death, your mother told your dad in a dream that he had to marry me. So I hadn’t any say in the matter!!” Kathleen soon became the matriarch of the Rafferty family, beloved by all. “We never, ever called her ‘stepmom,’” said Mary’s sister Sr. Teresa Rafferty, a Franciscan missionary who retired in Dundalk. “She was just ‘Mum.’”

For nearly four decades, the Rafferty home was filled with children. Counting all the babies born to William and his two wives, Susan and Kathleen, Mary was one of an astonishing 27. There were 12 in the first family and 15 in the second. As it was in that time, however, not all those children survived, including a set of triplets who died shortly after childbirth in 1947. A live birth of triplets was such a rare occurrence that Queen Elizabeth II sent a letter of acknowledgment.

When Mary was growing up, life on the farm lacked modern conveniences. Before running water was installed in the 1950s, they used a “cow’s tail” pump and a well for water. On Saturday nights, the children would take turns in a tin bath set up in the front room.

“If you had a priest and a pump in your house,” said Sr. Teresa, “you were well above the earth.” (The Raffety family counted more than one priest in its clan.)

The house also had no electricity, so they used Tilly lamps after dark to find their way. “You had to put oil in the bottom of it and carry it by a handle,” said Mary’s sister Rose Boylan, a retired teacher from Garvagh. “It was a process to light it.” A single fire in the living room was the only source of heat, so at night the children would use hot water bottles and pack into the beds four at a time. “Two at the top and two at the bottom,” said O’Connell. “Tops and tails.”

Even before the electric range came on the scene, the smell of baking bread was a constant presence in the house, where Kathleen baked soda bread in a big black pot over the open fire. Eventually, they upgraded to a range, but it had to be lit each morning and fed with sticks and coal to keep it going all day. Her sisters remember Mary standing in the kitchen whisking batter for Christmas cakes by hand. The house finally had electricity installed in 1956, when Mary was 24 and already out of the house. Mary continued to make soda bread from scratch, and she passed down the recipe to her children.

Mary’s father, William, was a pig dealer, and when a new litter arrived, he would scrub the pigs pink and load them up in a crate and drive them around in his lorry to sell to the neighboring farmers. They also raised sheep and cows and grew crops like corn, barley, and hay. During the war, they grew flax that was sold to a local mill and made into linen. When Mary was in primary school, she and her sisters would put on special rubber boots and tramp on the flax that was soaking in a dammed-up pool. “Mary was so strong,” said Teresa. Mary also helped with potato “dropping” (planting the potatoes with the seed side in the ground), and for two weeks in October, she’d take time off school to help gather up the potatoes. “It was cold,” said Teresa. “Mum would bring us tea out in the field.” Between the meat raised on the farm and vegetables like turnips, cabbages, and leeks, the family ate well. Breakfast was porridge and home-cured bacon. Dinner was often hearty stews. When Mary moved to the United States, the Americans would ask her if she grew up on corned beef and cabbage. She had never had it.

Mary attended Swatragh Primary School from 1946 to 1949 and went on to secondary school at St. Mary’s Dominican Convent, a castle-like boarding school on the sea in Portstewart, where she was head girl and played camogie, a women’s game played with paddles, not unlike men’s hurling. “I remember picking her out of the photos in the hallways when I went to school,” said Rose. “She was very athletic.”

Mary went on to nursing school at Belfast City Hospital, earning her Registered Nurse certification in 1953. In 1954, she gained certification as a nurse-midwife, working at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital. Two years later, she completed training for the nursing of tuberculosis at Musgrave Park Hospital Belfast.

Mary always said she hated to work on Saturday nights. Evidently, the marketing slogan from the iconic Guinness posters from artist John Gilroy (“Guinness is good for you” and “A Guinness a Day”) wasn’t just hype. The TB patients on the ward were, in fact, given a Guinness a day. They would save the daily beer allowance for Saturday nights, Mary said, and drink it all in one raucous sitting.

In 1958, while working at Musgrave, she met a young doctor named Gerry Burns, who invited her to a dance. Before long, they planned to marry, but the wedding was postponed when Gerry’s father, Frederick, was struck by a drunken driver as he walked home from the local church.

In March of 1961, Mary’s sister Martha was killed, struck by a car while riding her bike. Mary came home from nursing school on the weekends to help take care of Martha’s nine children. “She’d put all the babies in the bathtub in the living room, two or three at a time,” said Rose. “She’d make them scrambled eggs and toast and bake for them. She had so much energy.”

Mary had a big heart. “We got very little for Christmas,” said Rose, “maybe a pair of gloves or a hat—and an orange.” But Mary would come home with a big suitcase full of gifts for everybody. She will always be remembered for her kindness, whether it was filling a backpack with lunch to tour a visiting relative around New York City; flying down to Atlanta, Georgia, to help a niece who was having her first baby; volunteering to deliver Meals on Wheels; or myriad other kindnesses over the years to her own brood of six.

Mary and Gerry eventually married on August 28, 1961, at St. Brigid’s Church in Belfast, with Mary’s older brother Fr. William Rafferty officiating. It was an understated affair, with Rose as the bridesmaid and Gerry’s brother Derek serving as best man. On their marriage certificate under “condition,” Mary was listed as “spinster” and Gerry as “bachelor.”

“I was lucky to be invited,” said Anne, who was 16 at the time. “I think it was because I’d made a stylish dress in domestic science class.” It was checked with a white collar and a belt. “Mary was always so glamorous,” she says. “She’d come home on weekends with floaty summer dresses, high heels, and stockings with a seam up the back.”

In 1966, Mary and Gerry traveled by cruise ship to Buffalo, N.Y., with their three children for Gerry’s work as a general surgeon. On the way across the pond, they sailed through a hurricane. “Everyone except Mary was ill,” Gerry told the Buffalo’s Courier-Express. Before returning to London, they took their two oldest on a 26-day, 8,000-mile road trip across the United States, camping along the way in places like Yellowstone National Park. A year later, they moved back to the United States permanently.

Mary was a force to be reckoned with. She had so much energy, even her kids couldn’t keep up when she was walking somewhere. They dubbed her “Turbo Mom.” And when her fifth child was born in 1968, she delivered the baby herself in the back of the station wagon while Gerry was speeding down Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway en route to the hospital. When Gerry heard crying, he pulled over. “Why are you stopping?!” Mary asked from the backseat. There was the small matter of cutting the cord.

Despite seeing little sneachda (Gaelic for “snow”) in her lifetime, Mary became an avid skier and put all six of her children into a ski racing program at Kissing Bridge, a local ski area near Buffalo. For years, she woke up in the wee hours to make packed lunches and drive to races all over New York state—often through perilous snowstorms. Rosaries were said—for the roads and the races. How Mary delivered six kids to competitions at different ski areas remains a mystery.

In 1979, the family moved to Old Westbury, N.Y., for Gerry’s work. After two decades of raising six children, Mary went back and earned her RN certification from the State University of New York in 1981. She did private duty nursing, some in the hospital and some at patients' homes, including notable New Yorkers like Gene Simmons’ mother. She met Simmons (a singer in the rock band Kiss) and called him “a prince of a man.” She joined the ski patrol at Holiday Mountain in Monticello, N.Y., where season passes for the family of eight were perks of the job.

After Gerry and Mary retired, they moved to Colorado to ski, golf, hike, and spend time with their grandchildren. They continued to take trips home to Ireland to visit with their respective families.

Mary is survived by her six children, Gerard K. Burns, married to Tanya Burns; Catherine Burns, married to Ken Apen; Helen Burns Olsson, married to Jeffrey Olsson; Peter Burns, married to Gowon Song Burns; Stephen Burns, married to Kelly Sullivan Burns; and Clare Burns. She leaves behind 11 grandchildren: Darby Burns, Fergus Burns, Maeve Burns, Kilian Apen, Quinn Olsson, Aidan Olsson, Anya Olsson, Finn Burns, Ronan Burns, Rory Burns, and Fionnula Burns. She is also survived by her sisters Sr. Teresa Rafferty, Rose (Boylan), Sr. Veronica Rafferty, Anne (O'Connell), Noeleen (O'Connor), Christine (Murphy), Carmel (McHale), Pauline (Scullion), Joan (McGovern), Fionnuala (Boyle) and her brothers, Brendan Rafferty, Brian Rafferty, Raymond Rafferty, and Terence Rafferty.

A memorial service will be held at Sacred Heart of Mary church in Boulder, Colorado, on a future date yet to be determined due to COVID-19 restrictions. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in her name to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, (
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