Jarlath Burns Interview: For the good of the game

This is the principal’s office but not as you know it or him.

Jarlath Burns Interview: For the good of the game

You may think you have Jarlath Burns sussed, categorised, summed up. Croke Park man. Committee man. Future presidential material. Gaeilgeoir. Catholic. Fíor Gael.

But here he is now in this very room trying to recreate the sound of U2’s rhythm section and the intro of ‘MOFO’ from what he believes was a criminally-underrated Pop album. A little bit later he’s momentarily bouncing on his toes — without going Tom Cruise on it, more like Bono himself — to the thought and intro of ‘Elevation’.

“I remember [his wife] Suzanne dragged me to Madonna in Slane. She [Madonna] just walked on and sang. On the way home Suzanne said ‘I thought that was good.’ I said ‘No. She never connected with the crowd.’ When we got home I popped in the DVD of U2’s [2001] Slane concert. And from the first beat, Bono has the crowd going bananas, right up to the top of the hill.” Woo-ooo! Woo-ooo!

In a life full of passions, this is another one of his: music, especially that of Dublin’s, Ireland’s, the world’s finest. “Rock ‘n’ roll is the one true language of the world,” he says. “And the biggest band in the world is from Ireland. People give out about their taxes. Look at all they’ve given this country! For me, U2 is possibly singularly the biggest achievement of Ireland of the last 100 years.” The cue for this discussion is a disc on his desk. It’s of an obscure U2 concert, one a student at the school here was able to track down for him. What makes St Paul’s, Bessbrook one of the biggest and best high schools in the north is that he’s down with the kids and they’re down with him.

Here there’s no trepidation knocking on that door. It’s already open. You’re welcome, any time. It’s yours as much as his. Whenever there’s a shortage of computers around the school, Burns will vacate his and his office and let students have free use of it.

“It’s just important to send out the signal that I might be the principal but as a person they have the same value as me. In a catholic school that’s what we believe. Every person is unique and special.” He’s literally walked the walk on that, to the point it has outraged some righteous catholics. Last autumn, he and members of his staff marched with senior students representing the school at a gay pride march in neighbouring Newry. As far as it’s known, it was the first school in the country to make such a gesture.

Some detractors in person and online condemned his stance, claiming he couldn’t choose both the cross and the rainbow flag. Burns remained undeterred. “Our pastoral care policy is light on dogma,” he’d say, “and heavy on compassion and celebration of diversity.” All around this office there are little clues to the full life he lives. A big picture of a countryside lake adorns a wall. Turns out it’s of Camlough Lake, just a few miles from here, one he swam in last Saturday in a triathlon.

“It’s my midlife crisis,” the supremely-trim 47-year-old quips. “Some boys go for other women, I go for a swim, cycle and run.” Nearly every morning he cycles into work here, showers in the office’s en suite, then slips into one of the suits he has hanging in the closet.

Also on the wall is a framed poster featuring images celebrating the game and history of football, most being of a mid-90s spiky-haired Dublin forward called Dessie Farrell. “My old nemesis,” smiles Burns.

Their wrangling now all seems a bit of a blur. What you will recall is that Farrell was the figurehead of the newly-founded, renegade GPA. In the opposite corner was the recently-retired Burns, the choice of GAA president Sean McCague to act as chairman of the official players committee.

McCague’s successor, Sean Kelly, would write in his book that Burns did a “brilliant job” by being “strong, articulate and streetwise”. Burns himself though isn’t as glowing about his role or that time.

“I don’t look back at that time with any degree of happiness or satisfaction. It was tough, very energy sapping, because you were in the midst of this political storm. It got very bitter at times. Dessie and I were both writing columns in the papers and we’d be constantly having a dig back at one another. It was juvenile, immature nonsense really.”

On his behalf?

“Oh yeah, on everybody’s. I had knowledge and he had knowledge but we were both twisting it. I felt in those early years that they were looking for a professional game. They were less interested in the games than TV rights and sponsorship money and where it was going. It just wasn’t the right way to do business. But maybe it was the right for that time.”

In a way, they worked for each other, fighting each other. Very promptly upon his appointment Burns started championing for a consistent mileage rate and basic gear and ticket entitlements for players. “Some of the suggestions,” Kelly would write in Rule 42 And All That, “the GAA could not countenance because they were ahead of their time.” But a lot of them he got through. Before Burns, before Dessie, the going mileage rate in Cavan might have been 15p a mile; in Monaghan, 20, somewhere else, 30. Burns saw to it that it was 50 cent across the board.

“It was a bit like when John Hume could always get concessions from the British government. He could always say ‘Well, Gerry Adams behind me might get them off you better then.’ So very quickly we were able to establish a protocol of what was acceptable for every county team to get which is still in place now — in fact I’m surprised they [the GPA] haven’t renegotiated for a higher mileage rate all these years on.” Burns would walk away from the post when McCague’s presidency expired, and with it, his spot on Central Council. “The phone just stopped ringing then. I was happy enough with that.” In truth, the animosity with Farrell would subside in those years. One summer back in those early noughties, they ended up bumping into one another in Salou, shared the same bus, same plane, civil — even convivial — conversations.

“The strange thing about it was while our correspondence would be terse, in person it would have been ‘Hey, Jarlath/Hey Dessie, how are things?’ He wouldn’t have been precious about himself either.

“And looking at it now, I have great respect for Dessie Farrell. I think in time people will look at Dessie Farrell and appreciate here was a very special person, who broke a mould, who changed the GAA in how we view our players.

“I’d be now 100% behind the GPA. I think the role that they’ve carved out for themselves is such a positive force. They seemed to become a lot less occupied on marketing and money and more on genuine player welfare. I’m very proud of the stance they took on the marriage equality referendum. I wrote to Dessie to congratulate him and the GPA on the wonderful leadership they showed there.”

As a player and captain for Armagh, Burns commanded huge respect. For 13 years, he played for the county. But he won’t sugarcoat them either. Former players often say they “loved every minute of it”. Burns didn’t. “There were some awful bad years,” he says, “some terrible disappointments.” Even 1999, his final year, Armagh’s breakthrough year, involved hardship. By then he was already 10 years married. “I married at 22. Our daughter Megan who’s 23 now laughs at that.” But back in ’99 Megan wasn’t laughing. As her father was leaving for training, she was crying through her bedroom window. So was her brother Fionán out the window of his room. Then at the front door so was their infant brother Charlie Óg, in the arms of Suzanne.

Burns couldn’t go on like this. But before he finished up he couldn’t go on losing either.

“I remember something happened in 1999 that made all the difference for me. We were after training in Belfast in Lady Dixon Park and towards the end of the session [trainer], John McCloskey called us in. We could see where the cars were and were ready to head towards them when he pointed to a tree maybe half a mile away at the top of this massive hill. And he said ‘Right, lads, we’re going to do five runs up to that tree.’ “After the second time he said, ‘Lads, I was only joking. We’re not going to make you do anymore.’ But five or six of us said almost simultaneously, ‘No, we’re going to do it five times.’ And the fifth time we did it this sense came over all of us, ‘Right, we’re going to bloody well win this.’” Ten minutes into their first-round game that year, Donegal had blitzed them for two goals and a point. By half-time Armagh had clawed the deficit back to three points. In the dressing room, Burns reminded them of that tree. It couldn’t have been for nothing.

Armagh would eke out a draw that day. Burns would end up man of the match. But the memory of that wet day in Ballybofey, especially his brother’s, stayed with him.

“My eldest brother Jerome that day was sitting beside a boy who didn’t really rate me. After Donegal’s first goal he said ‘That was Jarlath Burns who gave that away.’ After the second goal he went to the brother ‘Jarlath Burns might as well come off now.’ So Jerome turned around and said ‘I was with Jarlath Burns and his wife and three children at mass this morning and she taking everything she has to feed them before he goes training and there’s you bloody abusing him!’ And your man kept quiet for the rest of the game.

“But I remember when Jerome told me that story it really brought home for me that it’s not all about the player. It’s about his family circle and his advocates. And when you win it’s wonderful because they share in all the goodwill. But in those years it was not going well for Armagh. And I used know when I came home from matches if Suzanne had heard a particularly vitriolic thing about me because she’d be very quiet. The abuse wouldn’t bother me — they’re only shouting at a number, you just happen to be wearing it — but it struck me that this goes deep.

“I remember when Charlie Vernon started playing for Armagh and I’d see his dad at a national league game standing on his own right behind the goals. And I thought to myself, ‘I know why you’re doing that.’ You feel for your loved ones. So in 1999, I made a decision that they’d sacrificed enough.”

He’s still out most evenings though. He’s secretary of the club — Silverbridge — now, having been its chairman the previous three years. “I tell you, secretary is a lot harder than chairman,” he groans and grins.

The other night he was distributing tickets for tomorrow’s game in the Athletic Grounds, the county expectant that Armagh could be on the verge of another breakthrough win over Donegal. The allocated eight stand tickets were allotted to elderly servants of the club, but yesterday Burns called into the county offices in Armagh for some more tickets. Then there was arranging the club disco to raise funds for the U14s heading to Féile in Carlow. There’s always something on.

Now on top of all that, he’s taken on being chairman of the playing rules committee, something you probably knew yourself ever since his famous ‘death of football’ tweet. Does he regret it? Good question, he says, without fully answering it, but he found putting it out there certainly wasn’t the end of the world and instead has prompted a good debate.

“That night watching the match Conor Murphy [the then Sinn Féin MP for the area] was sitting in the house and I said, ‘I’m after sending something out there, wait ‘til you see the storm that there’ll be over this.’ Of course I didn’t mean Gaelic football was dying. More people are playing it than ever before. I meant the spirit and the spontaneity of the game was in danger of dying.”

He feels underage football is in a particularly good place. St Paul’s here have been in the past couple of McRory Cup finals while he’s at a Silverbridge juvenile game most nights and he can see that whatever few blanket defences are thrown up are duly smashed by some big young fella who renders such a system futile.

But as for the adult game, and going forward? He can only say so much about the committee’s work at this point, though still quite a bit.

Every day he receives proposals on championship formats but, he says, “it’s none of our business.” Their brief is strictly what’s happening between the white lines.

He’s co-opted Sean Boylan onto the group after the passing of the late, loved Dave Billings, joining on the taskforce with the likes of such residents as Pat Daly and Frank Murphy.

They met for the first time six weeks ago. They will report to Central Council in the autumn but may not necessarily have any proposed rule changes for another year or two.

They mustn’t be afraid to change. At the same time he’s highly conscious his new taskforce can’t tweak things for the sake of it either.

“You always have to look out for the laws of unintended consequences. People say ‘bring in the mark.’ But if you do that, the man who spoils the catcher gets even greater prominence.

“I remember a Redemptorist priest giving a homily one time. He was living on the third floor of those big houses they have and this bird came along and built a nest on the window sill. And every morning he looked out and he could see the eggs getting slightly bigger and better. Suddenly the first three hatched but he noticed the fourth was taking longer than the rest. So he just put his hand in and lifted the shell of it. But as he watched them all, he noticed the fourth fella wasn’t thriving like the others. When he went to the ledge to try and jump off he fell. His wing never developed. In trying to help, all the priest did was make it worse.

“And us trying to help Gaelic football along a little bit and push it a particular way, we could end up doing the same thing and turning it into a very contrived game that’s hard to understand and referee.”

Right now though he himself has to fly. It’s evening and Camlough Lake is calling for another swim. Life for Jarlath Burns is full on but it’s a full life he lives.

Along the way he’s making it better for others and very likely football as well.

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