Cahair O'Kane: Jarlath's the right man at the right time

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Jarlath Burns returns home to Silverbridge on Saturday evening having been elected as the GAA's next president, with his three-year term beginning in early 2024. Picture by Glenn Murphy
Jarlath Burns returns home to Silverbridge on Saturday evening having been elected as the GAA's next president, with his three-year term beginning in early 2024. Picture by Glenn Murphy Jarlath Burns returns home to Silverbridge on Saturday evening having been elected as the GAA's next president, with his three-year term beginning in early 2024. Picture by Glenn Murphy

JOHN Martin used to go door-to-door in south Armagh, lifting Armagh players for training in the mid-90s.

Benny Tierney, the Crossmaglen contingent, Jarlath Burns, they all regularly took the offer.

With no central base back then, most of their training took place around Brian McAlinden’s country, half an hour up the road.

They’d reach Lurgan and almost invariably they would see the soldiers standing.

John liked to have his say. He’d routinely give the British Army men some lip out the window and next thing they’d all be out of the car while their bags are searched and the seats pulled apart.

“After a while, there wasn’t even a need for excuses and by the time the car pulled into the car park in Lurgan, the other lads would be making their way through some incomprehensible drill,” recalled Oisin McConville in his book, The Gambler.

Jarlath Burns, as almost every GAA player in the north did at that time, sat through those checkpoints for 13 years.

In an interview with The Irish Times in 2017, he said: “My mother spent most of my childhood trying to keep me out of the IRA. Many of my friends got into it, I didn’t. It was just the by the grace of God that I didn’t. That’s just the way it was in south Armagh. That’s the world in which we lived… It was the GAA that kept me out of the IRA.”

Burns played football instead. He played at midfield for Silverbridge and Armagh.

He finished at county level on a high when he captained them to the Ulster title he’d always coveted in 1999.

In recent years, his eyes have been on the GAA presidency.

On Friday night at Congress, the counties of Ireland gave him overwhelming backing.

Thirty-six whirlwind, sleepless hours later, he was presented as the president-in-waiting to the Hyde Park crowd before Armagh played Roscommon. Warm applause, a quick wave and back to his seat. Same again at half-time.

Across the few hours he was there, he must have shook every single one of the 8,000 hands at least once.

It proved to be a disappointing afternoon on the field.

Among his roles is that of a father.

Jarly Óg has been a constant on Kieran McGeeney’s team for several years.

Burns often references Jarly Óg in interviews, not in dissecting his performances but that he offers the old man a window into what goes into playing inter-county football now.

The GAA’s incoming president sees up close the training schedule, the dietary requirements, the toll and the enjoyment of it.

“I’d say Jarly Óg is training better, faster, smarter, more economically than what I did, which was ‘up and down that hill 10 times’, and you didn’t know if there was any cardiovascular effect at all,” said Jarlath senior to this paper in 2019.

His and Suzanne’s daughter Megan is also married to Wexford hurler Diarmuid O’Keeffe. The players’ perspective will always be right at hand should he need it.

When it comes to amateur status, Burns’ own take has long been that the GAA needs to get back to being more of a full-back than the wing-half it has become.

Jarlath Burns rises to fist a high ball for Armagh above Derry's Anthony Tohill
Jarlath Burns rises to fist a high ball for Armagh above Derry's Anthony Tohill Jarlath Burns rises to fist a high ball for Armagh above Derry's Anthony Tohill

Genuine claims of amateurism has become flimsy, unable to breathe beneath the weight of 25-man backroom teams sitting on top of it.

From years on so many different Croke Park committees - it would be a sin to the environment to print them all here – Burns is just as familiar with the inner workings as fellow candidates Niall Erskine and Pat Teehan would have been.

The presidency has become an administrator’s role, a reward for years of service, but perhaps it needs to move away from that.

Burns’ big advantage, not in terms of winning the vote so emphatically but actually doing the job, is being able to see it and understand it from so many vantage points.

He couldn’t be better positioned.

The Irish unity question, the flags and anthems, will probably follow him around for the next three years because he’s from the north.

He’s never shied away from the question, but it’s created an endlessly open goal for headline hunters.

No matter how he treats it, there will be those who scoff at him putting the hand out to unionists, that would wonder what he’s doing inviting members of the Orange Order in to talk to the students in St Paul’s Bessbrook.

Dissenters might have you believe that by 2027, the tricolour will have been removed from every flagpole, matches will be preceded by Ireland’s Call and that all GAA clubs will have to adopt a sash on their jersey.

It would have taken a thick skin for a man from south Armagh to be as forthright to step out with the views he’s expressed over the last decade and more.

The GAA will never dissolve the north’s issues and nor will every Protestant ever pay membership, but we can at the very least extend open arms and be mindful of avoiding being antagonistic where there’s no need for it.

The same flags and anthems questions would not be repeatedly asked of Larry McCarthy, nor Erskine, Teehan or any other candidate not from the north.

It is a cross that Jarlath Burns will just have to bear.

There are times when it feels like the GAA needs a northern president. There have only been four in history.

Three years ago, he was the first candidate from the north since Peter Quinn, never mind first president.

Ireland’s future as a country looms over politics north and south. The political temperature around happenings in the Dáil will always be easier taken, given the GAA’s central roots in Dublin.

With elections in the south next year and particularly the ongoing impasse at Stormont, the intricacies of the situation would simply be better understood by a northern president.

If there are to be discussions in the next four years about a new Ireland, potentially even moves towards holding a border poll, the GAA simply needs a strong northern voice directing its policy.

Because however wedded Croke Park may be to apolitical status, the GAA’s northern rank-and-file membership would most likely not take too kindly to a rigid neutral stance if the question on unity is formally asked of the country.

Larry McCarthy was a quiet president, usually staying far from the limelight. Covid impacted hugely on his presidency. He spent the first two years just firefighting. But he was never the noisiest.

With Tom Ryan equally media-shy, the row around last month’s All-Ireland club final exacerbated the feeling that the GAA right now is devoid of decisive leadership.

Rightly or wrongly, that is the perception because its work is all done behind closed doors. Leaders don’t have to be parading to the cameras every night of the week but at times, a voice is needed.

Jarlath Burns won’t be a quiet president. Nor should he be.

He’s fresh for mid-50s. He still regularly attends the gym in the early morning. The energy is in him to have a real cut at making the most of what has been a long-held ambition.

It’s not that he knows everything, or that he’ll get everything right. He won’t.

But with the internal question of amateurism and the external one of Irish unity right at the top of the menu, a former Armagh captain that drove through those Army checkpoints back in the day, now with a son playing inter-county football, is perfectly placed.

Jarlath Burns is the right man at the right time.