Former Gaelic football star turned TV pundit
If you were to get a glimpse of the trophy cabinet in Jarlath Burns’ home near Silverbridge, you might be forgiven for thinking that something was missing.
The former captain of the Armagh Gaelic football team has a Railway Cup medal, an Armagh Minor Championship medal, a Sigerson Cup medal and an Ulster Senior Championship medal. So where is the All Ireland Senior football medal?
Burns doesn’t have one. Time ran out for him and he had hung up his county jersey before Armagh finally made the breakthrough. In 2002, Burns watched from a television studio as his county defeated Kerry, 1-12 to 14 points, in the final to take the Sam Maguire Cup back to the Orchard County for the first time.
And while he would love to have been on the team that set Croke Park alight in an orange glow that unforgettable September Sunday, Burns accepts, somewhat like Moses, that while he didn’t reach the promised land, he did play a part in getting his team there.
Armagh football went into decline after the All Ireland final defeat to Dublin in 1977. The barren years for the county ended in 1999 when the Silverbridge midfield player led the team to the provincial Ulster title victory over neighbours and rivals Down in Clones.
‘I remember the whistle going for the end of the match and the chaos as the crowd invaded the pitch. When I lifted the Anglo Celt Cup in the air, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders after 17 years. It was a hugely emotional time.’
Armagh threw away the chance to reach the All Ireland final for only the third time when they capitulated against Meath in the semi final. It seemed that the Ulster men would forever wear the label of also-rans.
Burns retired from inter county football to concentrate on his full-time career as a teacher, and his part-time commitments as a Gaelic football administrator and a television pundit.
‘Looking back it was the right time for me to go. There was a resurgence in football in the county, but I was 31 and it needed someone else to take Armagh on another push to win the All Ireland.’
Burns, who exudes optimism in almost everything he does, was always confident that the day would come when he would have something to celebrate.
‘I felt the day was just around the corner. When Joe Kernan took over as manager for the 2002 season, there was a new buzz about the place. We had missed out at Croke Park a few times and when we got through to the final against Kerry I was as nervous as everyone else.’
Trailing 0-11 to 0-7 at half-time, Armagh retrieved the situation and Steven McDonnell scored what proved to be the winning point eight minutes from full-time. As the Ulster champions hung on, the closing minutes were the longest Burns can
‘I thought the referee would never blow the whistle and then when he did and Kieran McGeeney [his replacement as Armagh captain] sank to his knees it was the most unreal feeling, It took a while to sink in.’
Viewers of BBC Northern Ireland’s coverage may recall seeing Burns leaping from his seat and going out into the stand of Croke Park to savour the atmosphere.
Six years on from county retirement Burns is still playing for the Silverbridge team and enjoying the camaraderie that comes from involvement with the parish club. His television partnership with former Donegal star Martin McHugh is Gaelic football’s equivalent of Alan Hanson and Mark Lawrenson and has raised his profile even further. And he has played a part in the process to reform the regulations surrounding amateurism in the Gaelic Athletic Association.
With the exception of that All Ireland medal, Gaelic games has given Jarlath Burns almost everything he has dreamed of. However, he has lived to witness Armagh win the ultimate prize and that’s all that matters.
By Padraig Coyle