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A community unites in grief as Michaela reaches journey's end

RAIN teemed down and wind howled but visitors came in a steady stream to the Harte family home yesterday to pay their respects to the young bride Michaela who was murdered on her honeymoon in Mauritius.

So many people were expected to mourn her passing that the community of her native Ballygawley, in Co Tyrone, had galvanised itself into action.

Neighbours, friends, parishioners, even strangers moved by the tragedy, came together to smooth the path for throngs of sympathisers and mourners due to descend on the Harte's family home this weekend -- the road to which was closed to all but friends and family. Outside the village, signs directed visitors to designated car parks on the outskirts of Ballygawley. Stewards in yellow jackets ushered them on to specially commissioned shuttle buses that brought them the short distance to Glencull Road where tragic Michaela lay in repose inside the family home.

A huge marquee had been erected in the garden and another in a field across the road. At St Malachy's Chapel, where Michaela wed John McAreavey less than two weeks ago, workmen laboured in the driving rain to erect marquees needed to accommodate the throngs expected to attend her funeral tomorrow.

Another marquee was in the process of being erected at the school nearby -- this one for the media hordes expected to descend on the town to document the tragic event. Journalists watched from a distance, gently kept at bay by the stewards.

Some of the stewards were GAA members, others were parishioners -- all of them had volunteered to give up their weekend to stand out in the driving rain, their contribution to the enormous community effort that has gone into Michaela's funeral.

That support is a tribute not just to Michaela but to her family, her father -- legendary Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte -- his wife Marian and Michaela's three brothers, Martin, Matthew and Michael and her new husband, John.

Fr Brian Hackett, a priest in Ballygawley and family friend, said the community has struggled to comprehend the unforeseen and senseless death after she disturbed two hotel employees stealing from her hotel bedroom.

Police in Mauritius said that she was strangled and her body dumped in the bath. "Everybody is just shocked. The whole area is shocked. No one knows what to say to one another.... This has affected everybody," said Fr Hackett.

The longest, darkest week in the lives of the Harte and McAreavey families came to a close with the return of Michaela's body from Mauritius on Friday.

Her tortuous journey home began on Thursday night. John McAreavey, his brother, his brother-in-law, and his father, attended a short service at Legends -- the hotel where Michaela died -- before escorting her body to the airport, accompanied by the Irish Ambassador to South Africa, Brendan McMahon who was in Mauritius to assist them. Their flight arrived at Heathrow Airport on Friday morning from where her remains were transferred to George Best Airport in Belfast.

The funeral cortege left for Ballygawley, where a guard of honour by the local GAA club, accompanied her on the last stretch home to Glencull Road. There her devastated parents waited both to greet and to mourn their beloved daughter.

The Harte and McAreavey families issued a statement on Friday asking for "privacy". "The distance from Mauritius has only increased our sense of isolation and separation from our beloved Michaela and her husband, John.

"Now as two heartbroken and devastated families together, we can share our grief and our love for Michaela and provide support and comfort to John."

And Michaela's home-coming was a private occasion for the family, marked by a service in St Malachy's, after which she would be waked at home over the weekend.

But the desire to reach out to the Hartes and the McAreaveys was so keen that people travelled from far and wide to offer sympathies.

A mourner who called to the Harte's home later on Friday night said that the house was "thronged" with people flocking to offer their sympathies. The pain evident in the house that night was "beyond belief", he said.

A litany of politicians, senior clergy, business people and prominent sporting figures are among those expected at Michaela's funeral tomorrow. They include Cardinal Sean Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, who is expected to call to Michaela's family beforehand.

The funeral mass will be concelebrated by Bishop John McAreavey, the uncle of Michaela's husband, John. President Mary McAleese is expected to attend in person, having already contacted the Harte and McAreavey families last week to offer her sympathies. Taoiseach Brian Cowen, is expected to be represented by his aide-de-campe. Others expected to attend include Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister. Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, also paid his respects to the two bereaved families this weekend.

Margaret Ritchie, the leader of the SDLP, was expected to attend with Tommy Gallagher, the MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They are due to call to Michaela's family home today. Dr Karl Mootoosamy, the director of the Mauritius Tourist Board, was also in Ireland to attend Michaela's funeral service.

Sunday Independent