John McAreavey: 'To be at the stage where I am now is a wonderful thing... I'm so happy'
John McAreavey has known heartbreak and horror, but considers himself blessed, he tells Emily Hourican
'You play the card you're dealt and you make the best out of it." So says John McAreavey, footballer, businessman, widower, newly-wed, ambassador for Team Hope and founder of the Michaela Foundation.
It's the kind of thing sports people say - one of the cliches of the field. Yet, in John's case, there is so very much that lies beneath the banality of the phrase, and his "making the best" has been so very extraordinary that the phrase itself seems transformed.
When John, who played Gaelic football for Down, married 28-year-old Michaela Harte, daughter of Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, in 2011, he was set to play the card of loving husband. However, within days of the wedding he was caught up in a terrible tragedy when Michaela was murdered in the couple's hotel room while on honeymoon in Mauritius. John has lived through trauma of a type most of us will never understand, including a botched murder trial in which the two accused men walked free, and dwindling hope of any conviction. Yet today, five years later, he seems to be a man at peace, one with a purpose: a man who has taken loss, and the loss of love, and turned it, somehow, into good. He is an example of faith and optimism, a triumph of hope over despair.
Last weekend, John, who is now 34, married Tara Brennan - who he describes as "an incredibly special person" - with the blessing of family and friends, including Michaela's parents. It is in part thanks to Tara, who is from Kildare, that John is today launching the Team Hope Shoebox Appeal.
This a simple initiative where shoeboxes are decorated and packed with Christmas gifts in Ireland and delivered by Team Hope to children in need across eastern Europe, Africa and some of the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the 18 years since it was set up, Team Hope has delivered more than 18 million shoeboxes to children who have no idea the world cares for them until they receive these beautifully packaged gifts. This year, Team Hope aims to deliver 240,000 shoeboxes.
There is no more potent message than hope, described by Emily Dickinson as "the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul". It is something that John knows much about.
"Tara, she came into my life when you just didn't know that was going to be a possibility," he says. "To be able to be at a stage where I am now is a wonderful thing. I don't know if I could have done what Tara has done. I come with a lot of baggage, I suppose, but she's an incredibly special person and to be married to her now is something that fills me with pride and that I'm so happy about."
But, he is quick to note, being happy does not mean forgetting. "We're always talking about moving forward and that's what you do, you move forward, and that doesn't mean that you move on - I hear that term, but how do you move on from something? It's almost like, 'I'm done with that now', and that doesn't happen. You move forward and you bring your experiences with you. It just becomes another part of your life and you accept where your life is and you move forward with that, and thankfully Tara is there to move forward with me. We'll always be striving. We do as best we can."
So how did John get involved with Team Hope? "I'd probably heard about it but didn't pay much attention and then last year, Tara, she was doing it, and I just thought it was a fantastic idea. She got about six boxes together and I did it with her. I just loved the idea.
"I remember seeing on Facebook a classroom full of young kids opening these boxes. You know what Christmas Day is like for our kids, or when we were kids, and that was just multiplied. They couldn't contain themselves, and I just love seeing that in kids - that excitement. I suppose I was hooked."
Read more: Summer camps will give us all hope – Harte
And so, John got the Michaela Foundation involved, and over the summer 500 boxes were packed during the foundation's summer camps.
"We work in a similar enough area in that we work with kids," says John, "although our work is more with young girls. The values that we promote through the Michaela Foundation, it's very much a Christian message, the idea of looking out for others, that giving is receiving, and I just thought this was a lovely idea. You can give money to a charity and you don't know exactly where it's going to go. People like to see where their money is going. This is such an affordable thing for people to do, and they know that the toys, the toothpaste, are actually going to be used by another person. They can directly impact someone's life."
The Michaela Foundation runs various initiatives, including grants for third-level students, but is probably best-known for its summer camps aimed at girls aged 11 to 13. The foundation was set up in memory of Michaela and has raised funds with the help of sporting heroes including Brian O'Driscoll, Henry Shefflin and Martin O'Neill and celebrities including Ardal O'Hanlon and Patrick Kielty.
"When we set out at the start, we were creating a legacy," says John. "We wanted to commemorate the values that Michaela had and that we, her family and friends, had. I thought the 11 to 13 age group for girls was going to be a very formative period for them. Many are moving from primary to secondary education. They are trying to find themselves, establish who they are. I was thinking, if you could get them at that age, try to promote our mess- ages, it'll give them another option. The idea was to bring those core values that we have, and they are values that were very important to Michaela herself - fun, faith, fashion, Irish and well-being. These are the pillars and we arrange activities around those."
The camps, run by volunteers aged from 17 to 22, have been operating for five years now, during which time they have worked with more than 5,000 girls from all backgrounds, building confidence, self-esteem and communication skills as well as simply providing fun. "That's something I'm really proud of," says John. "I'm an accountant, so I like to be able to quantify things!"
The idea for the foundation came from Michaela's father, Mickey Harte, and is a most perfect example of the very human desire to create good from bad, to take tragedy and make something out of it.
"Mickey was the one who said we should really do something," says John. "Once we had established we wanted to do something, I was really enthused about that, and I suppose it gave us the avenue to give a little bit back.
"I felt, and our families felt, that we received so much goodwill from people at that time, a lot of people's prayers and support - it has a tangible effect on you. It can carry you along at a stage when you need to be carried. The thought that people were praying for you and deeply supporting you was very warming, and it allowed me to, I suppose, go into auto-pilot for a little while until things became maybe a little bit less raw and you could start to open up your eyes a little bit. What would you rather be doing with your spare time?"
That said, and despite his conviction, John admits to having to fight the occasional doubt. "Sometimes there's something that says, 'Do you want to be always doing this?' You'd be wondering, are people thinking, 'That fella's putting himself out there and talking about these things', but that's a negative analysis and you need to quiet those noises because you know you're doing a good thing."
This knowledge - that he is doing good - is what keeps John engaged, despite the fact that, as he admits, "it's energy- sapping at times".
"I partly run our company with my brother and father - we have a leisure vending company, photo booths, that sort of equipment, across England and Ireland," he says. "It's busy, and growing, and then you've got the Michaela Foundation as well, and I still try and play football, and I get asked to speak at a lot of church-based events. It's energy-sapping, but I'm always reminded of how I felt at a certain stage.
"I can remember the way I felt about things, and I can remember being in a really dark place, and if I could impact somebody, share some of my experience, say, 'You know what, it might be like that now, but it won't always be like that', who am I to not share that mess-age? I almost feel a responsibility to share that. People talk to you afterwards, they send you letters and messages and you see that people are struggling with things. In my case it was a very complicated thing, a very traumatic thing, but everybody's going to have challenges. Somebody sharing their own experience gives other people a bit of hope that they'll be able to pull through. That would be my motivation."
It's an odd thing that people who seemingly have all they could want are often prey to sneaking discontent, while those who have suffered much can believe themselves lucky. John is one of the latter.
"I always feel so blessed," he says. "Whenever I talk to people and they say, 'This fella, he always talks about being blessed, and yet he's had to contend with all that he's had to contend with', but because of the faith I have, I do."
Through that faith, John has determined character. Thanks to the women he has loved - first Michaela, whose life inspired the foundation, and now Tara, who introduced him to the Shoebox Appeal - John has indeed been blessed and known the best.
Team Hope Shoebox Appeal: www.teamhope.ie/christmas-shoebox-appeal
The Michaela Foundation: www.michaelafoundation.com