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Playing Gaelic football kept me out of the IRA, says former Armagh star Jarlath Burns

By Cate McCurry

A high-profile GAA star has revealed how football stopped him from joining the IRA while growing up in the republican heartland of south Armagh.

Co Armagh principal Jarlath Burns also said his mother spent most of his childhood trying to prevent him from following many of his friends into paramilitary violence.

The former Armagh captain was speaking about life as a young Gaelic footballer in an area blighted by republican violence.

"My mother spent most of my childhood trying to keep me out of the IRA," he said in an interview with the Irish Times.

"Many of my friends got into it, I didn't. It was just 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."

He added that ultimately "it was the GAA that kept me out of IRA".

Reflecting on the IRA's ceasefire 20 years ago, the successful GAA pundit said he felt at the time that south Armagh could rise above the past and its violent history.

At the time, Jarlath was a young teacher at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook where he is now headmaster.

He said: "I remember it being a time of great hope and expectation. I remember us talking in the staff room and saying hopefully this was going to be the end of it, that children coming through were going to have better prospects than the children who were through the school in the years previous to this."

He said the area is changing like the rest of Northern Ireland.

He also revealed how PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton spoke to and took "hard questions" from his students for over 90 minutes.

"We are bucking the trend," he added.

"More people were recruited into the PSNI from our school than from any other Catholic school."

Mr Burns also visited two Orange Order museums in Belfast with pupils from his school after they were refurbished in 2015.

In that same year, when the Co Armagh main Orange Twelfth parade was held in Bessbrook, Orangemen and women were allowed to use St Paul's parking facilities.

"That is the sort of stuff that challenges people but education must be transformational, it must challenge people," he added.

"So, we try to get people to take risks, and take them out of their comfort zone and into a new place.

"And it has really worked well for us.

"I see very confident children that could be in any part of Ireland, their horizons are broader, their opportunities are better.

"They are not being judged by their name or their address like their parents and grandparents were.

"They are children who have grown up far more in touch with themselves, with their own feelings and aspirations."

Mr Burns, however, did acknowledge the dissident republican elements that still exist in south Armagh.

He added that there was "no appetite" for going back to violence.

"There is absolutely no stomach for it, the war is over," he said.

"I would always have argued that the people of south Armagh were a law-abiding people but they were just pulverised by successive British Government policies.

"Now we see the true potential shining through as a people and as a community.

"I rarely hear young people saying I live in Co Armagh; they say they are from south Armagh, a place apart."

Belfast Telegraph

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