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Tommy’s life had a triumvirate of values

— The late Tommy Burns’ life was rooted in his great love for football, his family and the Catholic Faith

By David Kerr

I was deeply honoured to be invited by Celtic FC to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Tommy Burns Supper. Yes, Tommy Burns Supper. The evening raised the roof at Celtic Park —as well as a considerable amount of money for the new Tommy Burns Lab at Glasgow’s Beatson Institute for cancer research. It also gave me and many others an occasion to reflect upon the life and legacy of the former Celtic player and manager who died of cancer almost four years ago aged 51.

It was the morning of May 15, 2008. I was in Manchester having covered the previous night’s UEFA Cup Final for BBC Scotland News. In the quiet suburb of Prestwich I had just attended an early Mass at the local Nazareth House. As I emerged out of the church and into the sunlight I switched on my mobile phone. It was then I received a solitary text carrying the desperately sad news: “Thomas Burns died this morning, Requiescat in Pace.”

I immediately phoned my news editor in Glasgow to ascertain if he was also across the news. “Morning boss, it is David here. I don’t know if you’ve heard but Tommy Burns……” And that was it. I could go no further. No matter how much I tried. I was so choked such that I could no longer speak.

But why? I did not know Tommy Burns particularly well. True, my first job in journalism as a 22-year-old had been to interview Tommy. Since then, however, I’d only met him on two or three occasions. Those infrequent encounters, however, had clearly left their mark. Hence this week’s Tommy Burns Supper has prompted me towards two conclusions.

Firstly, that Celtic FC is a remarkable club borne out of the faith, hope and charity of an immigrant people and that, for many, Tommy Burns was the embodiment and continuation of that exceptionally romantic Celtic history.

Founded in the winter of 1887 at St  Mary’s Church in the Calton, Celtic was an imaginative sporting venture launched to help alleviate the Victorian poverty of Glasgow’s east-end. Despite of its Catholic roots—or rather—because of its Catholic roots it has always been open to all regardless of creed, colour or race. Even its very name—coined by founder Br Walfrid—attempted to create a bridge between the immigrant Catholic-Irish and largely non-Catholic native Scots. There can be few institutions in this country with such noble origins.

Born in 1956, Tommy Burns was brought up at 46 Soho Street in the Calton within sight of Celtic Park. He was Baptised at St Mary’s Church and educated at the parochial school. Indeed it was one of Br Walfrid’s successors—Br Jerome—who first identified young Tommy’s talent with a ball.

“I am not ashamed or embarrassed to say that I would pray every night as a youngster for the chance to join the club that felt like a part of my very being,” Tommy said in his 1989 biography, Twists and Turns.

His prayers were answered and he went on to play 16 seasons with Celtic making 503 appearances, scoring 84 goals and winning eight caps for his country. He also managed the club for three years before returning several years later as a coach. Over and over, Tommy Burns (above) repeatedly showed loyalty to the Celtic support at a time— and in an industry—where it can often be a scarce commodity.

“Celtic never meant a means of making money to me,” he wrote. “If I had been given the choice of playing for any other club and winning 100 caps for Scotland it could not possibly have been better than simply being known as Tommy Burns of Celtic.”

This brings me to my second conclusion. Back in May 2008, I was also honoured to be asked by BBC Scotland News to report upon Tommy’s funeral. Again, we returned to St Mary’s Church. The hundreds who packed into the requiem Mass, though, were as nothing compared to the tens of thousands who took to the streets of Glasgow to offer a prayful final farewell. I do not believe, however, that they were solely drawn by Tommy Burns, the player or manager. Instead, they seemed to recognise and respond to Tommy Burns, the man.

Tommy had attempted to live his life in a way that seemed to draw affection and admiration from everybody he met—however briefly—including myself. And it was a life rooted in a great triumvirate of values which were—in reverse order —football, family and the Catholic Faith.

“It does not embarrass me to discuss my Faith in public because I’m not doing so to impress anyone or to have people think of me as what would be called a goody-goody,” he wrote in his biography. “I turn to God at every opportunity because I am not different from anybody else and because I accept that I am sufficiently frail to need His help and guidance more than most.”

This led him, he explained, to ‘go to Mass and take Holy Communion every morning,’ before going to Celtic Park or to return to the church later in the day ‘just to sit there for ten minutes and ask for God’s help.’

Indeed, he dedicated his biography to two women—his wife Rosemary ‘who was the making of Tommy Burns,’ and to ‘Our Blessed Lady,’ for ‘carrying me through all the hard times and keeping my feet on the ground on the many great times.’ It’s a dedication he simply signs as ‘your servant.’

In May last year I happened to meet Rosemary while she was on pilgrimage to Rome for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II. Together we were able to offer a prayer for Tommy at the new tomb of the Church’s latest beatus in St Peter’s Basilica.

As it happens, it was always one of Tommy Burns’ aspirations to meet Blessed Pope John Paul. I trust and pray that he has now fulfilled that ambition.

Comments - One Response

  1. Julie Cuzen says:

    A wonderful piece and I totally understand what you mean…Tommy touched so many lives and could reach across the divide and was respected by all.

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