The former principal of Wilson’s Hospital School has given evidence in court that efforts were made to accommodate both the Christian beliefs of teacher Enoch Burke and the requests of a student transitioning genders.
Niamh McShane outlined the events that led her to compile a report in August 2022 that pre-empted disciplinary proceedings against Mr Burke.
She said that Mr Burke’s interruption of a staff meeting in May to raise his concerns was “disrespectful”, and that another disruption at a school event on June 21 last year was “wholly disrespectful” and left her feeling embarrassed.
Ms McShane said that the Bishop of Kilmore was concluding his service in the school’s chapel, organised for Wilson’s Hospital School’s 260th anniversary, when Mr Burke stood up and addressed the congregation for around two minutes.
“The public statement of his refusal to accept transgenderism in the chapel… it was as (if) the school had demanded to accept transgenderism, which was not the case, so it was a misrepresentation of what happened,” she said.
“What I asked is that we could support the student in their request, that is very different to ask the staff to accept transgenderism,” Ms McShane said.
She said that sixth-year students left the chapel while Mr Burke was speaking, and she got the impression that people were “shocked” by what had happened.
At a subsequent dinner, part of the same event on the same day, Ms McShane said Mr Burke approached her and twice asked her to withdraw her “demand”, to which she said it was not the time to discuss the matter.
She said that this made her feel “kind of hunted”.
“I was, to be honest with you, I was feeling nervous,” Ms McShane said.
“I started to feel like I don’t want to be on my own here in another difficult situation.”
She told the court that because he had brought the request of the student “into the public realm, which was a private matter for the student”, she believed the matter had moved into “gross misbehaviour”.
Ms McShane said the students may not have been aware of the situation of the student who was transitioning.
She also said that there may have been other students present in the chapel who may have been “triggered” by Mr Burke’s comments, and who may have questioned whether they had the school’s support.
In August, when writing her report, Ms McShane had assessed that Mr Burke had not been “caring or fair” in response to the request from the student, and that he was “not professional” when he made his interruptions.
“Mr Burke’s behaviour was very significant misbehaviour in my opinion,” she said.
“I had tried to engage with Mr Burke, I felt he was entrenched in his position.”
Ms McShane said she had hoped that by widening the issue out to the board of management that “progression” could be made, and said that his dismissal was just one outcome of issuing the stage four report.
She said that there were many witnesses present for what she called “these public outbursts”, and said she had sought to be “reasonable and fair with Mr Burke, in the past and in this matter”.
Ms McShane also told the court about a meeting of the school’s board of management in January, where she was asked to read the report she had compiled about Mr Burke and to take questions if requested.
She told the court that Mr Burke was present, along with three members of his family, who objected to two solicitors and the stenographer being present, and then raised concerns about the absence of the chair of the board, John Rogers.
“I delivered the report shouting to be heard over the Burke family,” Ms McShane said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the High Court case between Mr Burke and his former employer Wilson’s Hospital School was repeatedly put back to wait for an indication from Mr Burke on whether he intended to appear.
Mr Burke had represented himself in court on Tuesday morning, but after he was warned that he was in contempt of court, Mr Justice Alex Owens said that he should not be allowed back in when proceedings resumed in the afternoon.
On Wednesday morning, neither Mr Burke nor members of his family appeared in the Dublin court when the case returned, meaning there was no-one to represent Mr Burke in court.
After the judge asked the school’s legal team to make contact with Mr Burke, and adjourned proceedings while waiting for an indication from Mr Burke on what he intended to do, the case continued at around 11.20am.
Mark Connaughton SC, acting on behalf of the Co Westmeath school, said that the rights that Mr Burke contends have been infringed upon are “simply not engaged” in the case.
“If you go back to the request (from the principal), that Mr Burke has elevated to an attack on his rights, you’ll find there was no interference with his right to practise his religion,” he said, adding that the request was an “entirely proportional response” to respect the rights of the student.
“His single-mindedness is so utterly devoid of any recognition that there could be any view other than his own.”
Ms McShane, who was the principal of Wilson’s Hospital School from 2016 to 2022, said that when she sent an email on May 9 2022 to request that a student be referred to by a new name and the pronoun “they”, she had not thought much of it because they had issued a similar request in November 2021, without incident.
She also said that she had had “mostly positive” interactions with Mr Burke, referring to his teaching of extracurricular debating classes.
Ms McShane told the court that with any issues he had raised prior to May 2022, they had worked through them together.
She said that she had made several attempts to “find a way through, like we had in the past” with Mr Burke but added that the student was “of paramount concern”.