Despite boredom and cold, there is no sign the teacher plans to end lonely protest any time soon
Enoch Burke’s daily trek to the school he was sacked from is just another prison he has created for himself.
In Mountjoy there was a locked door to prevent him getting out. In Wilson’s Hospital there is a locked door preventing him getting in. But he feels compelled to stay at that door, with his mounting fine now more than €5,000.
For close to two weeks I have watched and interacted with Burke to try to get a better understanding of him and his decision last August not to comply with a request to address a young trans student by their preferred name and pronouns.
That difference of opinion, based on Burke’s deeply held religious stance opposing transgenderism, led first to his suspension, then a court action by Wilson’s Hospital School in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath, to stop him turning up there, and then a period of 108 days in jail for contempt of court when he kept turning up.
Just before Christmas, Mr Justice Brian O’Moore decided Burke was exploiting his time in prison and released him with a warning that the only threat to him remaining at liberty would be if he breached court orders again.
He went back onto the school grounds, again breaching a court order, at the first opportunity, and he is still going back despite an arrest and a daily €700 fine being imposed on him by the High Court.
Outside the school gates, he started to rant about his right to turn up for work. I pointed out to him that the reality was the school was no longer his place of work, but this went unacknowledged.
On Wednesday, January 25, he was driven to and from the school without making any comment. But on the Thursday when Judge O’Moore announced the €700 a day fine, he then began at the end of the day walking from his waiting position outside the school buildings to the gate and protesting loudly again. But he would not answer any questions from the media.
By late last week, people had started turning up at the school gates, curious to see the man who had become a household name.
“Where is he?” “Is that him?” “Is he not frozen?” “How long can he keep going?”
Those are the questions everyone wants answered.
Some say he is mad and wrong to turn up every day, causing a distraction to staff and students
Locally, there are mixed feelings about Burke and his lonely quest. Some say he is mad, that his opposition to a young student wanting to be acknowledged and accepted on their own terms belongs in the Dark Ages, and that he is wrong to turn up unwanted every day, thus causing a distraction to staff and students, especially those now facing into their mock exams.
Others say he was unfairly sacked for having his own opinion, and he is right to protest. There is wider debate around transgenderism nationally and internationally, and across social, cultural and religious divides. But Burke has brought that debate to a chilly remote hill in rural Westmeath.
The media presence dwindled as the days went by, and by last Monday afternoon I was the last reporter standing at the gate. That was the way it would continue.
I learned a bit more about Burke that Monday. Usually, he just issues verbal statements and does not take questions on board, churning through what he wants to say in a kind of stream of consciousness, pulling biblical quotes from his head.
He is polite, courteous and has a highly functioning intellect and mental capacity, but everything is said and done on his terms. There is no compromise.
However, on that Monday he did reveal something of himself to me when he was critical of judge O’Moore’s opinion that he had been “exploiting his time in prison” while there.
“I was in a cell for 108 days. I was behind a locked door. I was in a 12 feet by six feet cell. I had one to two six-minute phone calls a day and one to two visits a week. How do you exploit a situation like that?” he asked.
I asked him how he spends his day standing outside the school.
“It’s a long day, and I’m here to work,” he said. It was the only time he appeared to at least hear a question.
It was then I realised Burke has gone from one prison to another, and both are punishments in different ways.
One was a confined space in Mountjoy for 108 days. Now his prison is a cold and open one, standing outside the school where he once taught. He stands there as staff and students come and go, knowing he is not wanted. It is physically, mentally and emotionally crippling.
Of course, his period of imprisonment in Mountjoy, and his 8.50am to 3.40pm presence at the school, are his own choice. He could end his daily ‘shift’ at any time, but he does not. He has no criminal conviction to his name, but his religious conviction is as much of a burden to carry in many ways.
When I first encountered Burke, he was kind of a mystery, almost in an amusing way. But as time goes on, I see comparisons with Matt Talbot, the Dubliner who at the turn of the 20th century decided the best way to get closer to God was to engage in a kind of austerity and self-punishment, and who is said to have donned chains and cords around his waist and limbs.
On a human level, standing outside in the cold for hours on end in the face of rejection is very difficult to do. I know from countless alfresco assignments over the years that standing in one spot for long periods makes 8C feel like minus 8C. The cold gets into your bones.
I don’t know whether Burke has food with him in his brown leather satchel. Portable toilets were installed in the grounds of the school this week. The school would not comment on their purpose, but it can only be assumed Burke has access to them.
The language of Enoch Burke and the courts during this saga are also the language of dusty old bibles and dense law tomes. It is like dragging yourself back hundreds of years when you hear words at odds with our modern world.
Sequestration. Contempt. Purge. Now there’s a word – purge. What does “purging your contempt” look like these days? Do you just say “I’m sorry” and move on?
After nearly two weeks of watching and interacting with Burke, I can’t help but wonder if purging of contempt involves twilight, a bare back, cold water and hard steel on the shore of nearby Lough Owel.
But until he purges that contempt, he will find himself clocking up a fine of €700 a day and further self-inflicted persecution.
And still the questions remain. Will he ever pay the fines? Will he ever stop turning up at the school? How does he keep going? Where will it all end?
God only knows.