‘I would die for Catholic education’

Martin O’Brien meets GAA legend passionate about Catholicism

Jarlath Burns, passionate defender of Catholic education, GAA icon and bridge-builder in a divided land seems likely to magnify his mark not just in his native south Armagh but beyond its borders in the years ahead.

Physically striking at 6ft 3 inches  the dapper  former Armagh Ulster senior championship winning captain has just assumed  the daunting challenge of leading the North’s third largest post primary college, St Paul’s High School, Bessbrook, with a roll of 1,538 boys and girls aged 11 to 18 and a total staff of around 160.

The 46-year-old married father of five served as a teacher at the Co. Armagh school just outside Newry for 23 years before his appointment as principal at the start of this year.

Jarlath Burns has enjoyed national recognition a GAA analyst with BBC Northern Ireland and more recently TG4. But his new responsibilities as a school head mean that he has concluded his engagements both with the BBC and with the GaelLife weekly as a columnist, “though I will continue to work with TG4 in Irish when I can”.

His ability has been recognised beyond the worlds of education and the GAA and one has heard Lord Eames and others pay tribute to his work as a member of the Consultative Group on the Past.

Although he supported Martin McGuinness’s presidential bid in a personal capacity and comes from a republican background he has never been a member of any political party and rules out ever seeking election as a party politician.


“The set of beliefs I have don’t really fit naturally into any one political grouping.”

Currently chairman of Silverbridge GFC and a member of the GAA’s national management committee the St Mary’s Belfast Sigerson medal winner was credited with doing a good job as chairman of the GAA 125Commemorative Committee.

He is already being tipped as a future GAA president.

It is hard to disagree with this close observer: “Jarlath is intelligent, able and articulate and his time will come. Actually he has the potential to go all the way to the Áras.”

St Paul’s is an all ability school and in common with other non-selective schools uses admission criteria which are not dependent on academic ability.

This is an approach that the Northern bishops are working to achieve in the Catholic grammar schools in the teeth of opposition from many grammar heads and their substantial body of supporters.

Speaking in his office as he prepares to oversee the safe departure of his pupils in 15 buses at the end of a school day Mr Burns can’t wait to speak up for Catholic education. “

“There are very few things I would die for. I wouldn’t die for Ireland. I would die for Catholic education.

“The Church does not believe in education as a utilitarian thing to get you, for example, from here to become a doctor. We believe education is a good thing in its own right.”

He stresses “the four core values of truth, integrity, compassion and kindness” enshrined in his school’s mission statement: “Catholic education is about dignity, respect, inclusion and love. You teach them by showing them what love is.”

To press home the point he quotes from the school prayer: “There are three things that last, faith, hope and love and the greatest of them is love.” (1 Cor.13.13.)

His pride in St Paul’s is palpable reinforced by the fact that he and wife Suzanne sent all five children there.

Jarlath says suggestions that Catholic education is segregationist, such as President Obama’s speech last year, are “offensive” and “simplistic as if all our problems will be solved if pupils are educated together”.

Shared classes

He praises shared classes with local (effectively Protestant) High Schools such as Newry and Newtownhamilton. His students go to those schools for certain classes and vice versa.

“I think shared education allows each school to retain the ethos it cherishes, while not segregating children and in fact, allowing them to access a much more comprehensive curriculum.”

“I feel that shared education is creating a new sector in education and that the divide will soon not be between Catholic and Protestant schools, but schools which are pro-selection versus those who are non-selective.”

Asked about Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s suggestion that schools in the Republic should “top up” literacy and numeracy by using periods allocated for religion he is scathing.

“The idea that education is only about preparing a pupil for a career is so narrow and so pathetic. Somebody needs to tell [Ruairi Quinn] there is an entire philosophical knowledge structure around [Catholic] education. This is so uninformed that you almost feel sorry for him.”

Mr Burns stresses the inclusive nature of St Paul’s and its respect for diversity underlined by the appointment in successive years recently of a Muslim and an atheist head girl “because they were the best qualified candidates at interview.”

He welcomed the recent acknowledgement by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality could be used in a homophobic way.

Dr Martin’s comments were “very important”.

“This is one area of Church teaching where I part company completely with the Church.”

“Why should we say to gay people that it is not a sin to be gay but it is a sin to have a partner and to practise homosexuality? That is a very prescriptive thing to say about people who can offer so much to us and to society.”

Mr Burns paraphrased comments by Mary McAleese on RTÉ in 2012: “[Mary] put it very well. The Church has this complete fixation with the physical aspect of people’s relationships.”

“Maybe once every couple of months a pupil [in St Paul’s] would come out as being gay”.

“The school’s whole approach is to be child-centred and to help children who might be feeling suicidal.”

 “We would celebrate, under diversity, the fact that we are all different, all made in the image and likeness of God but all different.”

Jarlath, one of eight children of Colman and Helen Burns, says that after his parents the person who had “the most profound influence on my formation” was Hugh Macauley, his teacher at Cullyhanna Primary School, father of Conor, the BBC NI reporter and great friend of Cardinal O Fiaich. 

He imbued him with “a great love of Irishness and of the Irish saints who evangelised Europe”.

“I wanted to be like him.”

He recalls every lesson he gave the class before Confirmation “including one on alcohol” which prompted Jarlath to be become a Pioneer “so I have never taken a drink”.

He praises the GAA “for being able to promote the idea of an Irish identity in a non-violent and creative way”.

“The GAA kept me and many of my friends out of the IRA.”

His membership of the Eames-Bradley Group on the Past had a deep influence on him. 

“When you meet people who have lost loved ones you very quickly come to an understanding of their perspective on life.”


He is grateful for what he learned from Protestant members of the Group including Lord Eames, David Porter and Rev. Lesley Carroll “about how unionists think”.

Nationalists “have to understand unionist fears and find out what makes our Protestant neighbours tick.”

The priority he says is not a united Ireland but “to make friends and to work for reconciliation with our unionist neighbours”.

So he has himself in the last two summers observed an Orange demonstration in Newtownhamilton and a Royal Black Preceptory demonstration in Co. Tyrone and senior figures in the Orange Order will shortly visit his school.

A school where the PSNI in uniform are welcome and “are in and out all the time…a perfectly normal societal relationship from a school that is asking for a service from the police and getting a very good one”.

Driving home from Bessbrook one felt that Jarlath Burns is a man prepared to “go also the second mile” (Matt. 5.42) in the cause of Christian love and understanding. 

An uplifting thought in a society still struggling so hard to make real the values of the Good Friday Agreement of almost 16 years ago.