GAA president Jarlath Burns: ‘I get angry when I hear or see a gratuitous attack on the GAA’

The former senior inter-county captain and secondary school principal on defending the association, growing up in south Armagh and his relationship with his father

Jarlath Burns: 'Technically my full name is Jarlath Francis Francis Burns.' Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

How agreeable are you?

I am not a combative person and enjoy the challenge of achieving consensus, but try not to broach controversial subjects with me if I am either tired or hungry! I’ve said many regrettable things on an empty stomach and made plenty of apologies on a full one.

What’s your middle name and what do you think of it?

My middle name is Francis, after my uncle. A fun fact is that when we were picking Confirmation names, I thought they meant that we just had to give our existing middle name, which would become our Confirmation name, so I took that name, so technically, my full name is Jarlath Francis Francis Burns.

Where is your favourite place in Ireland?

The top field in Silverbridge GAA club. It’s where I learned how to catch a ball, how to be a team player, how to win, how to lose, how to lead, how to be led, how to serve, how to be part of something bigger and how to be ordinary. I cannot think of a single place that has had a more profound impact on my life.

Describe yourself in three words.

I had three words selected and called them out to my wife and she laughed so much I won’t even include them. I then asked her for her three words that would describe me and I couldn’t include those either. Let’s say in our house there is a contested narrative on this matter.


When did you last get angry?

I get angry when I hear or see a gratuitous attack on the GAA. I made it an article of faith for me that I would not stand for the association being needlessly criticised by those not in possession of the full facts. Much of what we do in the GAA is a compromise because there are no solutions to many of the conundrums we face in terms of club/county, hurling/football, fixtures, finance, broadcast agreements and so on. This leaves us ripe for anyone who wants to pick at the compromises and insert their own solution, which would cause 50 other problems. However, the sheer injustice at the heart of the Seán Brown murder is something that invokes rage within me.

What have you lost that you would like to have back?

My father. I owe him so much. He taught me how to be a man. I never hugged him, or told him I loved him and have no regrets about that, because it wasn’t that type of father-son relationship. We just did things together, mostly DIY stuff; me on the barrow, him on the pick and shovel. We landscaped our entire gardens together, the two of us. I would love to be back there, pushing the barrow, chugging, quietly pretending I was driving a lorry and heading back to dad as he had the next load ready with the pick and shovel.

As we were preparing for his wake, I went down to the garage to get some chairs, and there was the barrow, and the pick and shovel. I stood looking at them and cried like a baby. Those were the only tears I shed.

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What’s your strongest childhood memory?

The aroma of pipe smoke at Armagh county matches in the 1970s. Even now when I get that whiff, I am transported to concrete seats, paper hats, old-style football and a block wall with the word “FIR” written in paint behind, which was not a place for the faint-hearted.

Where do you come in your family’s birth order, and has this defined you?

I was the fourth boy in a row from a mummy who always wanted a little girl with pigtails and dresses. My older brothers tell me I was kicked into the corner while trials for number five began in earnest! Luckily for me, my sister Helena came a year later, so I received as normal an upbringing as any south Armagh youth navigating the harsh realities of a being brought up during a military conflict while trying to ponder the teenage mysteries of life.

What do you expect to happen when you die?

I expect a Silverbridge GAA club funeral with full pomp and ceremony. We do wakes and funerals really well in our club. We basically take over and look after everything, from stewarding the wake to carrying the coffin, and the bereaved families see it an immense reassurance that we do. Speedy McCann is our funeral tsar, even going to the extent of painting numbers on the road to identify the point at which the coffin carrier exchanges occur on the funeral route.

When were you happiest?

Someone once told me that grandparents get on well with grandchildren because they share a common enemy! I now know what that means. Our daughter Megan and her husband, Dee, have provided us with more happiness than we could ever deserve with our grandchild Bláithin.

Which actor would play you in a biopic about your life?

In my first year of teaching, one of my students told me I looked like a cross between Liam Neeson and Tom Selleck without the moustache. I let her off detention for that remark until one of my colleagues told me she had told him exactly the same thing with the same result.

What’s your biggest career/personal regret?

I never look back in anger. I would have loved to have won a championship with Silverbridge or an All-Ireland with Armagh but, as Charlotte Church says, “Even God can’t change the past”.

Have you any psychological quirks?

My wife and family could answer that question more honestly than I, and please don’t ask them.