By Kieran Lynch
ON Friday night in Croke Park, Silverbridge and Armagh legend Jarlath Burns was elected to be the 41st GAA Uachtarán (President), in front of a large gathering of family, friends, and supporters from both club and county.
Burns, whose stellar playing career in the orange and white saw him captain Armagh to an Ulster title in 1999, has been involved in a variety of GAA roles over the last two decades including serving as both chairperson and secretary of his native Silverbridge Harps, and he has been Armagh’s delegate to Ulster GAA since 2018.
Of the 277 votes cast for the next GAA President on Friday night, the St Paul’s High School, Bessbrook Principal’s tally of 158 saw him elected ahead of Offaly’s Pat Teehan and Donegal’s Niall Erskine.
‘A great honour’
Having celebrated long into the night with many a rendition of ‘The boys of County Armagh’ the party was only getting started in Silverbridge, and they gave Burns a hero’s welcome as he returned to the club on Saturday evening.
Several hundred club members turned out to show their support, and after many handshakes, hugs, and selfies, the new president elect of the GAA took time out to do an interview, and he was on cloud nine, after a whirlwind 24 hours.
“It’s a great honour for myself and my family,” said Burns.
“But it was great to look around and see the number of people who came out to support me here in Silverbridge – I didn’t know we had that many members in the club. It’s a great honour for them, because they feel, and rightly so, that the presidency of the GAA has come to Silverbridge as a club.
“We’re a very small club, we’re a rural club. And at a time when we’re worried about rural depopulation and people leaving the countryside, this night proves the importance of community, sense of place, and of love of place.
“This is why it’s worthwhile fighting to keep people in communities, so that we have a sense of family, and a sense of achievement when something happens to one of us.”
A dream come true
On Saturday night, Burns was surrounded by members of the Silverbridge committee, family members and lifelong friends.
Silverbridge chairperson Pat Casey, Armagh chairperson Paul McArdle, vice-president of Ulster GAA Michael Geoghegan and former Armagh chairperson Mickey Savage all delivered speeches paying tribute to Burns, and backing him for tremendous success, before Burns himself addressed the large crowd.
Reflecting on a remarkable night, Burns paid tribute to all those who showed him support.
“I’m quite overwhelmed by it; it’s almost like it’s a dream. It’s one of these things that you would really love to happen to you at some point in your life,” he said of Saturday night’s event.
“I be in Dublin, and in the Ulster Council plodding through committees and slogging my way through the administration in the GAA and you always think that the people down here don’t really notice it. But when something like this happens, there is a remarkable connection between what is happening at home and what happened in Dublin on Friday.
“It’s only then that you realise what it means to these people, for the highest office in the GAA to come to this club. I wouldn’t have got this, if I hadn’t have got the raring that I did in these walls.”
Second time’s the charm
This of course, was Burns’ second attempt at becoming GAA President, after he came up short in 2020, losing narrowly to Larry McCarthy. Having been unsuccessful on that occasion, Burns pondered not running for presidency this time around, but his support network convinced him to give it another shot.
“It’s not so much that I kept going; I just went back into the club, and into Armagh and Ulster, because it’s just the instinctive thing to do, to work in the GAA and to help out in your community,” he said, of how he reacted to the disappointment in 2020.
“I’m secretary of my club, and I got really into my work and enjoyed it, so much so, that I actually forgot about the presidency, until I started getting texts from people saying ‘you really have to go for this, because you got so close the last time’. There was almost an expectation.
“Last September, I was thinking that I was really over it, and I wasn’t inclined to go for it. But there were so many people around here, and in Armagh who wanted me to go for it, that I did. Once I decided that I was going to go for it, I gave it my all.”
‘I’m up for the challenge’
Burns has been given a clear vote of confidence that he is the right person for the job, and there are high hopes that he will be a tremendous leader for the organisation in the coming years.
There are several challenges facing the GAA at present, and Burns highlighted several that he hopes to find solutions to, during his tenure.
“I’ve mentioned already rural depopulation, and the fact that demographics mean that people are moving out of the countryside and into towns, and that presents two challenges,” he said.
“What do we do with clubs who are losing members and plyers, and losing the soul of their communities? Secondly, what do we do with this influx of people coming into towns, when we don’t have enough places for them to play?
“Another one is equality in opportunity, and that’s integration. Full integration, where we would be a fully connected organisation, serving the Gaelic Games needs of everybody in Ireland. And I’m glad that we’re doing that very methodically, and in a strategic way, with Mary McAleese at the helm.
“There are many other things as well – I would have concerns about where the amateur status is in the association and the demands being placed on our county players, and the financial demands in running county teams. That is something that has been said to me in every single county.
“All of these things are big challenges, but I know that I am up to them, and that I will have great support in trying to rectify them.”
Burns will shadow current GAA Uachtarán Larry McCarthy for a year, before taking over for a three-year term during 2024’s annual GAA Congress.