The dismissed Mayo teacher does not accept his sacking, nor does he fear jail or fines imposed by the courts
All week, Enoch Burke has cut an isolated figure outside Wilson’s Hospital School in the north-west corner of Co Westmeath.
Driven to the 400-student co-educational boarding school by his father, the history and German teacher stands alone throughout the day, alongside what is a protected Georgian building in Multyfarnham.
Having dropped his son off, Sean Burke would drive away again, waiting on the forecourt of a nearby petrol station, before returning to collect the teacher at school day’s end. They would then undertake a two-hour return journey to the Burke family home in Castlebar, Co Mayo.
Dressed in a dark overcoat, wrapped in a scarf and woollen hat against the biting cold winter air, a brown leather satchel on his shoulder, his is an image which sparked a thousand online memes, and this is a scene which has transfixed the nation.
But how will it play out? The State authorities, local and national, have never quite come up against a figure like Enoch Burke before.
Faithful to the last will and testament of the heirless Andrew Wilson, the school is located on the grounds of a site which witnessed the Battle of Ballinamuck in the 1798 rebellion.
In that battle, General Humbert also crossed the Shannon from Castlebar, where ultimately, he was defeated and taken prisoner of war.
Is Enoch Burke destined for a similar fate — a return to jail — and if so, what then? With a character such as Enoch at its centre, it would appear this drama is far from over yet.
These days the school presents a less foreboding spirit than the bloody battles of the 1700s. With a distinctive Church of Ireland ethos, it fosters Christian practice and teaching, promoting “dignity and respect” for the individual, and is committed to the provision of a caring family atmosphere wherein education can flourish.
Unlike the students also being dropped by their parents shortly before 9am every morning, Burke is denied access to the school, where the former Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt was a coach in the 1990s.
Undeterred, Burke spent four days last week standing in the courtyard, within an alcove, the cameras of national and international media trained upon a most unusual, if determined man.
Sometimes he spoke to the media, other times not. When he did, most recently last Friday, he claimed he was being financially penalised by the courts for his opposition, on religious grounds, to transgenderism.
It is an issue that divides people, in Ireland and around the world, and as such, for many, what is really being fought out in the “oldest school in Westmeath” is the latest battle in a modern-day cultural war.
But the truth is, Enoch Burke’s transgressions are more prosaic. He has been, and remains, in breach of a court order to stay away from the school.
Notwithstanding the risk of a €700-a-day fine, or even a return to jail, it seems that no threat, penal or financial, will deter this evangelical Christian.
His refusal to accept transgenderism, on religious grounds, in the case of a child at the school led to a heated encounter with the then principal, and following a disciplinary procedure, it was this which eventually caused his dismissal.
The school, has appeared to tread most carefully at all times, taking legal advice from a leading law firm in Dublin, so potentially hazardous is the ground upon which the Enoch Burke case was always bound to turn.
The dismissed teacher does not accept the reasoning behind his dismissal, something which is slated to play out in another courtroom in the future, and so he attends each morning as though ready and willing to take his classes. It is expected he will return to the school tomorrow morning.
“How do you solve a problem like Enoch Burke?” a senior garda officer wondered aloud last week.
“There is nothing more dangerous than someone who feels they have nothing to lose. And that’s the space we are now in. He is not scared of prison or fines imposed by the courts. But this must be stopped, somehow.”
Enoch Burke is not a criminal, despite recently spending 108 days in Mountjoy prison.
He was jailed when he refused to purge his contempt by defying a court order to keep away from the school, from which he was suspended at the time. But he was released shortly before Christmas, with a judge stating he was “exploiting his imprisonment for his own ends”.
And so, since the school reopened after Christmas, and despite being sacked a fortnight ago, he has continued to show up in a protest which has gripped the nation, and beyond.
This led to his arrest on Tuesday for alleged trespass, under the Public Order Act.
The gardaí expect to send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and investigators are hopeful of a “prompt” direction, which officers suggest is a “cut and dry case” that may result in Burke being charged with the criminal offence of trespass.
It is this, gardaí believe, that will at least end Burke’s presence at the school. But then what?
If charged with trespass, the terms of his bail will likely stipulate that he is not permitted back at the school.
Should he defy such an order, gardaí would be compelled to arrest him and return him to jail to remain on remand until his potential trespass charge is brought before the courts.
Criminal barrister Paul W Hutchinson, who has been following the case and all its surrounding drama, said: “If Enoch Burke were to be charged with trespass, he would be subject to bail conditions, and one of those would be that he could not go near the school. If he did, he would have to be returned to prison and kept there on remand until his trespass case is before the court.
“That would put a stop to what he is doing at the moment. This is a very unusual case. He is someone who is happy to go to prison, this makes it very difficult for the courts to deal with and the courts are not set up to deal with this kind of scenario. Also, the entire country is gripped by the intrigue of it and his comings and goings from the school. There is a type of morbid fascination.”
Burke can also expect to be landed with a six-figure legal bill when his case returns to court on February 10.
Mr Hutchinson studied the court judgment last week, which outlined that if the schoolteacher refuses to purge his contempt and continues to show up at the school, he will face daily fines of €700.
“Within that judgment, it is stated that in February the costs issue will be addressed. This case has been constantly in and out of court and it is expected that the costs order will be in favour of the school, meaning that the costs order would be against Enoch Burke. It is hard to see how that would not be into six figures. That would be a huge costs order against him, which the school would be entitled to pursue, should he return to employment.
“The reality is that this is depriving other litigants and taking up a lot of judges’ time, when there is a shortage of judges as it is,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“But imagine what it is like to be a child at that school? And the child at the centre of this in particular. The distraction must be immense. The media presence must be very disruptive too. The constant coverage of him at the school, it is probably not helpful overall.”
Wilson’s Hospital School, both its staff and student body, have kept silent amid the controversy. The Sunday Independent has learned that parents presented a letter to the teacher in mid-January, asking that he stop showing up as it was disturbing their children’s education. He would not accept the letter, it is understood, and refused to take a similar letter penned by the student council days later.
“At the moment, the staff and students are happy about how the principal is handling the matter and are trying to stay out of the limelight. The school is trying to focus on educating the students and not let this be more of a disturbance than it already is,” according to a source close to the Westmeath school.
“Exam years — third and sixth year — classes have mocks coming up in February, just a couple of weeks away. They need to focus on their studies, not the circus going on outside.”
Enoch Burke is one of 10 children of Martina and Sean Burke, who converted to evangelicalism decades ago.
The Burke family appears to worship independently from all other evangelical and Pentecostal church and fellowship in this county.
One member of the evangelical community in Ireland has said: “Their church is their family unit, full stop.
“They do not associate with any other evangelical churches or communities in Ireland.”
A separate source said: “The Burkes are certainly courting a high level of fame right now.
“They seem to welcome the media attention, it is bringing attention to their cause, their belief that Enoch is being victimised for his beliefs.”
In the middle of all of this though, what about the transgender student? “Their voice is absent,” said this source, in a school which promotes “dignity and respect” for the individual.