The former principal of Wilson’s Hospital School has told the High Court she tried to find a compromise with Enoch Burke, after he raised concerns about a request to identify a student by a different name.
Mr Burke had previously expressed concerns about a wall display at the school which included a non-binary person, and asked the principal if she supported this, she said.
After two false starts on Wednesday morning, Mr Justice Alexander Owens opened proceedings without members of the Burke family present.
It followed Mr Burke being barred from court on Tuesday by Mr Justice Owens, in the case of the school against Mr Burke in relation to disciplinary action taken against him last year.
Mr Burke was suspended from the Co Westmeath secondary school last year, and was the subject of High Court injunction, which was put in place pending the outcome of the full hearing of the dispute, over his failure to comply with the terms of his suspension, which required him to stay away from the school while he was on administrative leave.
The teacher denies any wrongdoing and claims his suspension arises out of his opposition to transgenderism and a direction by the school to refer to a student who wishes to transition by a different pronoun.
In a counterclaim, he says the disciplinary process against him should be set aside and that it breaches his constitutional rights, including his right to freedom of expression of his religious beliefs.
The school says it was fully entitled to bring disciplinary proceedings against the teacher, and rejects any wrongdoing.
Having originally set a time for 9.30am, Mr Justice Owens entered court again just after 11am and said Mr Burke would be permitted to re-enter proceedings “anytime he wants to re-engage and make a commitment he will obey the strictures of the court”.
With no sign of Mr Burke after 11.20am, the court proceedings carried on in his absence.
Alex White SC, for the school, told the court they had written to Mr Burke to address his concerns, which he spoke to the court at great length about on Tuesday, that documents given in discovery had been “tampered with”.
Mr Justice Owens said the court accepted the explanations given by Mr White as to the issues raised, and said he “rather fancied this was always the position”.
“Usually, these types of inquiries don’t lead to the third secret of Fatima,” he said.
Mark Connaughton SC, for the school, then finished his opening statement and said Mr Burke’s “single-mindedness is so utterly devoid of any recognition that there could be any view other than his own”.
He added: “He cannot and will not accept there can be any other view other than the view he expressed.”
Mr Connaughton also told the court that while Mr Burke was due to remain on the payroll until April 21, he will remain so until his appeal into these matters have concluded.
In her evidence, former Wilson’s Hospital School principal Niamh McShane said Mr Burke was hired in 2018, and taught German and history at the school.
She said his engagement with him had been largely positive and he had helped out with extra-curricular activities at the school such as debating.
“In my last year there, I did have a number of conversations around his own belief system,” she said. “And how he found it difficult for certain things to be happening in the school. He’d discuss it with me.”
Ms McShane said one of the instances related to an anti-bullying week at the school, where students had mocked up a wall display of people they admired. One of them was a "Harry Potter actress” who identified as gender-neutral.
“He brought me to it and said ‘are you supportive of this?’,” she told the court. She said Mr Burke left her with the impression he was “very unhappy about it”.
However, around the same time in late 2021, a student made a request to be called a different name and to be referred to by a different pronoun. This was the first time this had happened while she was principal at the school, Ms McShane said.
She said she wanted to support the student and this involved a workshop from advocacy group Teni, who answered questions the teachers had in this regard. She said Mr Burke did not attend this meeting.
Ms McShane was asked if Mr Burke raised any issue in relation to a direction to call this student by their new name at that time and she said she had “no recollection” of him doing so.
When another student made a similar request in May 2022, it was then that Mr Burke raised an objection after she had sent an email to staff regarding this matter.
In an email the following morning, the court heard Mr Burke said “this belief system would be forced upon students” and he was shocked “that students were being forced to accept this position”.
Ms McShane said she responded shortly afterwards to say “all due care” had been taken and that if he wasn’t willing to include this person in his classroom, he should arrange a meeting with her.
At a staff meeting later that day, Mr Burke “interjected” to raise the issue and that he “needed to bring this matter immediately”. He asked the chaplain what his personal belief in the matter was.
“He was tense about this,” she said. “You could see it was a matter of particular significance to him.”
The chaplain said he was brave to raise the issue, the court heard, but his personal beliefs were not of relevance to the situation.
At this time, Ms McShane said she tried to find a compromise but that the student was of “paramount concern”.
“At that stage, we understood fully that Mr Burke didn’t actually teach the student in question,” she said.
“But for any teacher in the school, there are cases where you’d supervise students you mightn’t teach.”
She said Mr Burke was “very clear” he wanted her to remove this request of him and that he “cannot support this”.
However, he did not say definitively that he would not address the student by the new name.
The case continues on Wednesday afternoon.