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Justin McAleese was ‘terrified’ as a gay teenager at Catholic schools, says former president

Mary McAleese and Mary Kennedy speak to GAA president Jarlath Burns about Pride, partition and hurling in new weekly podcast

Former president Mary McAleese has spoken of how her son Justin, who is gay, was “terrified a lot of the time” while attending Catholic schools.

In an interview with new GAA president Jarlath Burns, she said “one of the proudest days for me was when you led your young, uniformed school, boys and girls, in Newry’s first pride parade” in 2012.

Mr Burns, principal of St Paul’s Catholic secondary school at Bessbrook near Newry, is on a three-year break while serving as GAA president, a role he assumed last month.

Ms McAleese said it was a “wonderful thing for me as the mother of a gay son who had been through Catholic schools but had been terrified a lot of the time and who, looking at a headmaster, a school principal in a school where the patron was the Archbishop, [of Armagh] and the courage that took”.

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She said Mr Burns had “changed lives that day”.

At Easter 1999, then president McAleese withdrew her 14-year-old son Justin from the Jesuit-run Belvedere College in Dublin and moved him to the Church of Ireland King’s Hospital coeducational school at Palmerstown in west Dublin. It is understood this was due to bullying at Belvedere.

At the time, sources at Áras an Uachtaráin described the move as a “personal family matter”. The then headmaster at Belvedere College, Fr Leonard Maloney, told media that Justin McAleese had never settled in at the all-boys school college and wanted to attend a coeducational facility.

In the interview, Mr Burns explained how a pupil at St Paul’s had come to him with marks on his face and said “something very worrying – ‘sure there’s nothing that can be done for me’”.

Other pupils also came forward, he said, and the Pride parade in Newry came up in discussion. They asked could they wear their uniforms and would he lead them. “I said why not?” he said.

He was “very proud that was something we did and that we sent out a very strong message – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, there’s a place for you in our school”.

There were also transgender children at St Paul’s, he said, “and I know these children, all they want to do is to live a quiet life”.

They want to live in peace and be allowed to be who they are. “And that’s what we do,” he said.

Mr Burns was speaking in a new weekly podcast series Changing Times – The Allenwood Conversations where leading personalities are interviewed by Ms McAleese and former RTÉ presenter Mary Kennedy.

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