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Enoch Burke has ridden roughshod over the rights of students he was employed to teach

Justine McCarthy: To the student in question, this must seem a callous brand of Christianity, one that even Jesus Christ might want to dissociate himself from


Every time Enoch Burke’s name appears in the news – an almost daily occurrence these days – it conjures up the troubling spectre of the transgender school student who is being forced to deal with an intensely personal transition in the glare of a national spectacle.

Though the student, properly, has not been publicly identified, the chances are that, by now, most people in the environs of Wilson’s Hospital School, and many others beyond it, know the name of the young person who wishes to be referred to as “they/them”. The situation has the ingredients of a psychological horror story when looked at from the student’s perspective.

At a defining juncture in a young person’s life when privacy is crucial, the student has been involuntarily embroiled in an ideological test of the tolerant New Ireland by the Old Ireland of judgment, brimstone and damnation. Burke, who was suspended from the teaching staff last August for refusing to obey the school’s instruction to respect the student’s chosen name and pronouns, has been standing stubbornly in the corridor and in the school grounds while journalists wait and watch at the gates. He says he cannot comply with the instruction because it is anathema to his religious beliefs.

To the student, their family, schoolmates and friends, this must seem a callous brand of Christianity, one from which Jesus Christ himself might wish to dissociate himself. The impasse has led to Burke’s high-profile jailing for contempt of court last autumn and his release before Christmas without having purged it, a rowdy disciplinary hearing last week culminating in his sacking, and subsequent arrest this week at the school under the Public Order Act, and a letter of concern sent by the student council to the school authorities about the disruption being caused by the entire affair.


The letter expressed a worry that Burke might say something that would upset LGBTQ+ students. It said his “presence here is a daily reminder of the prejudices they feel” coming from him.

“We believe if you [Burke] cared about the students at this school, as you claim to do, then why would you continue to cause this disruption to our school life?” the letter-writers asked. Undeterred, the teacher indulged in further histrionics this week, thus ensuring the spotlight remained trained on Wilson’s Hospital, by getting arrested and making a speech outside the gates.

Aristotle said that educating the mind without educating the heart was no education at all. Burke and his nine siblings are reputed to possess brilliant minds and have been educated with impressive academic results, initially by their home schooling mother, Martina, and subsequently by illustrious universities in Ireland, London, Oxford and Cambridge.

The Burke offspring have demonstrated a bullish appreciation for their own education. As students, Enoch and three siblings sued NUI Galway in the Circuit Court after they were barred from life membership of college societies. They claimed they were being denied their freedom of speech and of religious expression.

One of the Burke sons, Isaac, won a case against the same university over a scheduling delay in exams for his PhD in mathematics. Another son, Elijah, won a High Court case after the State excluded him from the calculated grades process in the Leaving Cert.

The Burkes’ appreciation for education is laudable and their fiercely-held religious beliefs appear sincere, but what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. If it is wrong to deny them their freedom to express their religious beliefs, it is also wrong to deny students the freedom to express themselves.

While Enoch Burke and his siblings vigorously asserted their own education rights, his conduct has ridden roughshod over the education rights of students he was employed to teach. In this country, education is a universal entitlement and every child in every classroom ought to be allowed to learn unimpeded. This is the season of the mock Junior Cert and Leaving Cert exams. Stress levels are rising in schools and in homes as final exams draw nearer. The last thing students need is a public melodrama being played out in their school, starring their teacher as the main protagonist.

In a perturbing sideshow, some teachers’ unions are reported to be concerned about the “speed” with which Enoch Burke was sacked after last week’s disciplinary hearing. Seriously, is it really their uppermost apprehension that a teacher was dismissed nearly five months after refusing to obey a school instruction relating to a potentially vulnerable student and after nearly three months in jail for flouting a court order?

When teachers’ representatives imply that the niceties of the process should trump the educational and emotional needs of students and ignore the obligation that it is the teacher who is supposed to be the adult in the classroom, we should all be very worried. New Ireland’s tolerance does not extend infinitely to indulging the zealotry of a few to the detriment of the many. The real reason to be concerned about this whole affair is that the school seems to have believed it could not bring it to an end sooner by telling Burke his services were no longer required ever before he was taken away to Mountjoy Prison in September for 108 days for disobeying a High Court injunction.

The parents and children of the Burke family of evangelicals have often protested outside Leinster House against such measures as the introduction of civil partnership, marriage equality and abortion provision. Their commitment to burgeoning life in the womb is undoubted but it does rather jar with the repercussions of Enoch Burke’s antics for the lives of children in the schoolroom.

Staff, parents and students at Wilson’s Hospital are to be commended for the consideration they have shown for the young pupil dragged into Burke’s theatrics. By their public silence, they have refused to give the spectacle more oxygen. The beacon of hope in all of this is that, for the majority, the education of the mind has not eclipsed the education of the heart.

Perhaps we could make that the refrain for the New Ireland’s national anthem.