Paul Burgess

Dr Thomas Paul Burgess was born November 1959 in Shankill Road, Belfast Northern Ireland.

He is a published academic, novelist and song-writer / musician with his band Ruefrex.

Much of his song writing, poetry, prose writing and academic publication draw on his interest in the Protestant working class community of Belfast and their sense of cultural identity.

He worked in Short Brothers Aircraft manufacturers before leaving to pursue a BA in English Literature at the University of Ulster, under the tutelage of the late Poet, James Simmons. He later attended Oxford University, studying Ethics & Moral Education and University College Cork, where he was awarded a PhD for research into social policy developments in the area of conflict resolution.

He has spent periods, variously as schoolteacher; community relations officer in local government in Northern Ireland; and researcher for The Opsahl Commission of Inquiry into political progress in the Province.

As a songwriter and performer with his band, Ruefrex, he achieved commercial and critical success with the release of seven singles and three albums. Most notable amongst these was the scathing commentary on American funding for Irish Republican violence, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ which entered the UK top thirty. The British music press – comparing his work to that of Yukio Mishima – described his writing as, “…a line of poetry written in a splash of blood.” and labelled Ruefrex as “…the most important band in Britain” at that time.

The band played a prominent role in cross-community, anti-sectarian ventures and actively lobbied and raised funds for the (religiously) Integrated Education Movement in Northern Ireland.

His first novel, ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ (Matador; ISBN 9781784621612) is a political thriller, dealing with the  emerging ‘post-conflict’ society of Northern Ireland and exploring the legacy of ‘the troubles’ and how its residue impacts on those who seek to build a personal and communal future in its aftermath.

He has published a number of academic works dealing with aspects of Education (‘A Crisis of Conscience: – moral ambivalence and education in Northern Ireland’ ISBN 1 85628 4204 ) Social Policy (‘The Reconciliation Industry: – community relations, community identity & social policy in Northern Ireland.’ ISBN 0 7734 70441 ) and Cultural Identity (‘The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants’ ISBN 9781137453938 ) as well as a number of treatises on Youth participation in European civil society.

He lives in Cork, Ireland, where he is Director of Youth & Community Work Studies at The School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.

What was your first degree and where did you study?

My primary degree was taken at the University of Ulster (then New University of Ulster) in 1981. My intention was to pursue a combined four year English and Education programme which would have led to a BA and Diploma / Cert professionally qualifying me to teach.

However, all did not go entirely to plan.

I had been working in administration for Short Brothers Ltd, aircraft manufacturers in Belfast since leaving school prematurely during my A level studies. Where I came from, ‘Shorts’ would have been viewed as a ‘job for life’ and not to be sniffed at. However, it quickly became apparent that heavy industry was avowedly not for me…so thank heavens I had the good sense to complete my A level studies, part-time at night classes. This ability to re-engage with the educational process in an al-a-carte fashion would come to define my future, both as student and educator.

I chose my degree subject areas for the right reasons; a passion for literature and a pull toward sharing this enthusiasm with others through education. And my place of study for the wrong reasons; NUU was in a semi-rural setting, about as far North on the island of Ireland as you can go. I had been travelling there at weekends to play with my band and to socialise with my many peers from school who were reading for a variety of degrees there. This student life looked wonderful to me and I couldn’t wait to ditch the steady job and join them. Unfortunately I hadn’t really considered the fact that most would be graduating as I arrived as a fresher! I made the most of it but spent a miserable three years there (I’d jettisoned the teaching qualification to cut it short) thinking that I’d made a terrible mistake.

Why did you choose to study at OUDE?

By 1986 I had by most measures enjoyed a life less ordinary. I had been living in London – employed as a recording artist by Stiff Records – and had basked in some minor glories as a musician/song-writer granted the proverbial ’fifteen minutes of fame’.

Before this I had been teaching in some of the most challenging schools in Belfast (including my own Alma Mater…quite a turn up for the books!).  Serious civil unrest was commonplace then and the experience afforded me a real baptism of fire that I would draw on throughout my career. It also reacquainted me with much of what I respected about teaching, literature and education in general.

I’d had a love affair with the dreaming spires ever since reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ but never believed for a moment that someone from a council housing estate in West Belfast could gain entry to an Oxford College. However, the need to secure a teaching qualification in order to further my career in education was now apparent. And emboldened by my small successes in the music industry and the classrooms of inner city Belfast, I sought out and applied to the PGCE programme at OUDE. It is testament to the department’s accessibility and welcome that I found a home there.

What is your favourite memory from your time at OUDE?

What immediately comes to mind is the camaraderie shared by colleagues on the programme. We were all I think, a little in awe of the institution and in most cases had come to it by circuitous routes. Whilst we mostly belonged to different colleges, there was definitely a shared bond regarding the task in hand (be it last minute lesson plans or staff room politics!)

I had been assigned to Peers School, Littlemore for the practice training aspect of my studies and this seemed quite a natural fit for me. Challenging yes…but also offering that unique reward when a previously surly class of teenagers ‘get it’. That moment of revelation and engagement when ‘tough’ kids find the courage to open up to poetry, drama or literature.

Who in your professional life has inspired you?

I think we all can remember a significant teacher or lecturer who has had a pivotal influence on our lives at a key time. Whilst I will be forever in the debt of three school teachers, (George Chambers, Primary; Dennis Russell & Noel Stevenson; Post-Primary) it was a number of key individuals during my time at Oxford, who acted as a catalyst to developing notions of professional integrity and further study.

Chris Davis was someone who I instantly warmed to at Norham Gardens. As the lecturer who was responsible for my subject area and also the staff member who interviewed me for the course, Chris was the guy who I most looked up to and indeed even wanted to emulate. He was the cool, ‘right on’ educator who least seemed like an authority figure.

The Rev. Dr. John Barton at St Cross College was someone who could not have been more supportive and welcoming to me. Both in his pastoral role and as a scholar, John proved a quiet inspiration in word and deed. He was instrumental to me pursuing my M.Sc. by research at OUDE, into the moral and ethical ramifications of a religiously segregated schooling system in Northern Ireland.

Finally, the late Geoffrey Joachim and the much missed Mary Cadman, Dean of English and Secretary to the Warden, respectively, at Kingham Hill School, Oxfordshire. The warmth and encouragement they extended to a fledgling teacher far from home will never be forgotten.

Looking back at your professional achievements, what are you most proud of?

I tend to think that your proudest professional achievement is your next one. BA, to Masters, to PhD. Higher education can do that to you!

I seem to have had a number of significant goals or staging posts throughout my career and these have rendered me most proud at that given time.

I am proud of the books that I have published. But that of course is rendered de rigueur after a while for any career academic.

I am perhaps particularly proud of the songs that I have recorded and the fact that they play some small role in the canon of work from that period, dealing as they do with ‘the troubles’ and representing protest songs promoting conflict resolution.

Most recently, I have been pleased to complete my first novel and am keen to continue with my creative writing.

In the final analysis however, as a failed 11+ student from a troubled Belfast comprehensive there was some solace to be had. It was found in the herculean efforts of a talented and committed generation of young English and History teachers who earned their spurs in this toughest of learning environments.

I am proud to have made them proud.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education?

I come from a generation where education really did mean social mobility. And where meritocracy- despite all of its obvious limitations – really could deliver meaningful change to a person’s life chances, if the system could be traversed.

Additionally, I benefitted from an education system that provided grants and supports which made it possible for students from working class backgrounds to access a ‘life-long learning’ opportunity, largely free from debt and financial obligation.

Much has changed in the education system since those days and not always for the better.

Nevertheless, an education remains a gift that is lightly carried.

To impart knowledge, training and a critical consciousness to others – and to influence their perceptions and appreciation accordingly- remains a genuinely rewarding and crucially important task.

In the classroom or the lecture theatre, with young minds or with ‘Second chance learners’, no other profession allows you this glorious opportunity to nourish intellectual growth.

To be an educator in my eyes is still to be a liberator.

Dr Paul Burgess
Senior Lecturer
School of Applied Social Studies
University College Cork
T/P 0035321 4902785