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Justin McAleese was “very scared” as a gay teenager in Catholic schools, the former president says

Former President Mary McAleese has spoken about how her son Justin, who is gay, was “often very afraid” while attending Catholic schools.

In an interview with new GAA president Jarlath Burns, she said: “One of the proudest days for me was when you led your young uniformed school, boys and girls, in Newry’s first Pride parade in 2012.”

Mr Burns, headteacher of St Paul’s Catholic Secondary School in Bessbrook, near Newry, is on a three-year break while he serves as GAA president, a role he took up last month.

Ms McAleese said it was a “wonderful thing for me as a mother of a gay son who had attended Catholic schools but was scared most of the time and who was looking at a headteacher, a headteacher of a school where the patron was.” Archbishop, [of Armagh] and the courage that was necessary for it.”

She said Mr Burns “changed lives that day”.

At Easter 1999, then-President McAleese picked up her 14-year-old son Justin from the Jesuit-run Belvedere College in Dublin and transferred him to the co-educational school at the Church of Ireland King’s Hospital in Palmerstown, west Dublin. It is believed this was due to bullying at Belvedere.

At the time, sources in Áras an Uachtaráin described the move as a “personal family matter”. Belvedere College’s then principal, Father Leonard Maloney, told the media that Justin McAleese never settled in at the all-boys school and wanted to attend a co-educational institution.

In the interview, Mr Burns explained how a student at St Paul’s came to him with marks on his face and “said something very worrying – ‘Sure, there’s nothing you can do for me'”.

Other students had also reached out, he said, and the Pride parade in Newry came up in conversation. They asked if they could wear their uniforms and if he would lead them.

“I said, ‘Why not?'” he said.

He was “very proud that we did that and that we sent a very strong message – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, there is a place for you in our school.”

There are also transgender children at St. Paul’s, he said, “and I know these kids, they just want to live a quiet life.”

They want to live in peace and be allowed to be who they are. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

Mr Burns was speaking in a new weekly podcast series, Changing Times – The Allenwood Conversations, in which leading figures are interviewed by Ms McAleese and former RTÉ presenter Mary Kennedy, available at And

Belonging to the GAA in Northern Ireland “was our way of saying we’re Irish, we’re proud to be Irish and that’s how we’re going to show our Irishness by playing our games,” Mr Burns said.

It was “a non-aggressive way of being Irish and promoting your identity” which also “kept many of us away from the IRA”.

The GAA has “always just ignored the division, that’s how we dealt with it,” Mr Burns said.

He said he and others wanted a united Ireland but would “not seek to engage in any coercive effort”.

He spoke of his own “complete obsession with the Orange Order because it is also a community-based organisation. “They tap into the same love of community as the GAA.”

As for the GAA internally, he said: “I want amateur status to be the focus.” [of it]. Every aspect has to become professional except for one thing and that is the players.”

The money spent “has not made Gaelic football more attractive. So that’s a good starting point,” he said.

Another thing he would like to change is the “football mentality around hurling”.

Many clubs don’t want hurling because they fear it could affect their competitiveness, he said.

“Kids want to play hurling, kids love playing hurling. When kids start playing hurling they almost want to quit Gaelic football because of how wonderful it is to be able to beat a sliotar with a stick. And hurling is the local game,” he said.

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