I N the large red-brick parochial house in Donaghmore, Fr Gerard McAleer is recounting the moment he heard of Michaela McAreavey's death. It is Friday morning and his phone rings constantly.
He has his duties as parish priest to attend to but on this week nothing is normal or routine or easily anticipated. People call to the door to sympathise. He goes on air to articulate, as best he can, the pain of a people shocked by an event that occurred on an island thousands of miles away and which, if a work of fiction, might be judged too outlandish.
"I was standing there," he motions, pointing to the range in the kitchen where he conducts his work, "and talking to a friend of mine . . . then the phone rings. And Mark, the oldest of the family, said, 'Fr Gerard, Mark here, how are you?' I says, 'not bad Mark, how are you? He says, 'I have awful news, bad news, tragic news, our Michaela, Michaela's dead'. You know, I waited a minute to get my breath and I said 'what happened?' He said, 'She's in her room and she's dead. She was found in the bathroom'. I said, 'was there an accident or something?' He said, 'we don't know'.
"He was just ringing around at that stage. And about ten minutes later, or less, Mickey's brother came to the door with his wife; they were on their way down to Ballygawley. They said, 'has anyone been on to you?' And I said, 'yes'. And they came in here and we started to ring round other family. That was as much as we knew at that time."
He remembers Mark being "remarkably composed" until his voice broke when he announced that his sister was dead. "Then, of course, my mind went into overdrive because I cleared my phone (of messages) because it was full the night before and I had one from Michaela. I felt bad about that. And it was just a very brief text to say how happy she was and so on. I had texted her before to thank her for the beautiful day at the wedding. I got into the car and went down to Ballygawley. The family were gathering and it was just total devastation."
Fr McAleer and the Hartes go back a long way. He started school in Omagh CBS in 1964 with Mickey's older brother Martin. "And at that time Peter Harte, their brother, was playing for Tyrone. And to have somebody in the class playing for Tyrone at the time was a big thing. Peter only died a couple of months ago from cancer. He was president of the Ulster Council as well and a potential GAA presidential candidate."
In the early 1970s, Fr McAleer's brother Colm and Mickey Harte attended the school and played football together. "It kinda went on from there. The relationship developed. I would have been in that house over the last 25 years a couple of times a week, not in recent times as much since I had to give up the football. Often till the late hours."
He baptised the two youngest of the Harte children, Michaela and Matthew, and he saw their only daughter grow up and they formed a close bond. "Michaela was born on the last day of the year, 1983. I baptised her in Dungannon because they lived there for a short time before they built a new house in Ballygawley. I baptised her on Sunday the 15th of January. I remember it was an awful day. I think the electricity went off in the chapel. It was just two weeks after her birth, she was the third child of the family Christened. Mickey and I took over the (Tyrone) minor team in 1991 and at that stage Michaela and Matthew would have been out to training with us and at all the matches, trials, and that went on till I gave up at the end of 1997. And then I saw her go to school and grow up, grow into a young girl and beautiful young woman."
Fr McAleer recently had a heart stent inserted and admits he comes from a family with a history of cardiac problems. Before going to hospital he confided in Mickey Harte. "Funny, I told Mickey that I was going into the hospital, first time ever in my life, and he was sworn to secrecy. About two days later I got a text from Michaela: 'Daddy told me. Just want to know how you are?'"
There is profound sympathy too in the GAA community for Michaela husband John McAreavey. In a photograph which appeared in recent days he is seen raising the cup after Tullylish won the Down intermediate football championship last October. This is the moment all Gaelic players aspire towards; the perfect end to a championship with the symbolic hoisting of the trophy declaring your side triumphant. In the background, among the clapping supporters, are Michaela and Bishop John McAreavey, who married the couple and is John's uncle. They are overjoyed.
This was arguably the proudest moment of John McAreavey's Gaelic career and his wife is there at close quarters, supportive, just as she has been so often beside her father during the great, and not so great, days that Tyrone football have been part of. Tullylish were outsiders when they faced neighbours and rivals Annaclone in the final. The victory was a significant milestone for the club and the experience was embellished with John McAreavey, a former Down senior player, winning the man-of-the-match accolade. This year the club will compete in the senior football championship but the events of the last week have imposed a dreadful burden on a community united in sorrow.
"He had the honour of being the first captain in 42 years to lift a senior championship trophy," says Tullylish chairman John McDermott, "so that was a big day in his life. Our last win was a junior title in 1968. It was a goal feast, 4-7 to 4-6, and a local derby. We won the semi-final by a point and the final by a point. I thought they showed great resolve and character to win. They were one point down in the semi-final and he (John) got the equaliser in injury-time and then set up the winning point."
On Friday night, they held a mass for John and the two families in the local church in Lawrencetown, the village where the couple had planned to set up home. "The church was packed to the rafters," says McDermott, "even some of the older members of the congregation can't remember the church being full like that before; we had to bring extra chairs in and people were nearly seated on the altar. It was an indication of how much they thought of Michaela."
McDermott and other club members and officers are due to attend the wake at the Harte family home in Glencull today. Tullylish has received messages of condolence from all over Ireland and from clubs in Co Down. "We have messages from Waterford, Galway, places like that; we have found it very heartening."
He is asked to describe John. "John is a lovely fella, he really is. He is club captain, it is a role he takes very seriously, he is very conscious that there is a responsibility and image to be portrayed, and he would look after himself well, watch his diet and demand that same level of commitment from his team-mates. He is also our assistant treasurer. John is not the type of fella who plays and then goes off home; he is actively involved in the administrative side."
As a player he describes him as "very good, strong, in great physical condition -- really, a very brave, tenacious footballer, well capable of winning his own ball. He is an integral part of our team."
Tyrone GAA has been traumatised by this latest loss which follows in the wake of a number of other tragedies which Mickey Harte and his family were affected by. Fourteen years ago this summer, Paul McGirr died not far away in Omagh after an accidental collision with the Armagh goalkeeper in the Ulster minor football championship. The day he died, Mark Harte, Michaela's brother, was playing in the same Tyrone forward line. They also played together on the Errigal Ciarán under 12 team.
The day McGirr died Mickey Harte went to Tyrone county hospital along with Fr Gerard McAleer, having managed the earlier victory. They were totally unprepared for what followed. "I remember we met a fella coming down the stairs," recalls Fr McAleer, "one of the drivers who took some of the lads to training, he opened his mouth and he started crying. He said 'he is gone'. 'Gone where?' we asked, we thought he might have been removed to Belfast. He said, 'he is dead'."
Fr McAleer strives to explain why this latest bereavement has had the impact it does. Michaela wasn't an inter-county player like Paul McGirr, or Cormac McAnallen, who lost his life at 24 in 2004. But she was so closely identified with the Tyrone team on match days that it is impossible to overlook her place in the narrative. "The tragedies Tyrone have had," says Fr McAleer. "Paul McGirr's death in 1997. Kevin Hughes' brother in '97, killed in a car accident, later his sister killed in a car accident, Cormac's death in 2004. I thought when I went out and announced that (Cormac's death) at Mass here it could not get any worse. I suppose people are thinking with this Tyrone team is there some kind of a jinx attached to them? And Mickey is a high-profile individual and well respected. The family are well known as a very upright and honourable family. Faith plays a very important part in their lives and faith is tested at times like this.
"I also think there is a lot of support from cross-community -- the fact that Linfield had a minute's silence and Rangers sent a text or email or something like that, expressing their sympathy, and from the different political parties across the north.
"At this stage it's very, very hard to say, and Mickey made this point the other night, that anything good can come out of this. Something good came out of all the others. It's very hard to see that. But I think when you have people from the Protestant community and other faiths, and other political parties, praying and offering their sympathy -- that is something that might not have happened ten years ago."
Yesterday, the First Minister and DUP MLA Peter Robinson called to extend his sympathy; he walked into a house that is GAA to the core. Earlier in the week, Tom Elliott, the Official Unionist Party leader, who caused a stir when he said he would never attend a GAA game last year, also called there to pay his respects. Those visits reflect how the tragedy has melted community divisions.
The chairman of Tyrone County Board, Ciarán McLaughlin, says with validity: "At the end of the day this has transcended the boundaries of what we are supposed to be as human beings." And of Tom Elliott's visit, he observes. "He has decided and felt the need to show his support to the Harte family and the McAreavey family. That can only be applauded. And that is only one example if you are talking of cross-community."
Michaela didn't play Gaelic football to any notable level but her passion for the game was genuine and, like her father, she saw no distinction between the sport she loved and the life she lived. "She was fanatical about football, she kept the papers and cut out everything about them. That helped form a good relationship between herself and her dad too, they had so much in common," as Fr McAleer puts it. "And she was so accepted among the players. I never heard or been aware of any player saying, 'what is she hanging around for?'"
The Tyrone team has continued in Mickey Harte's absence, as he expressly wished, and when Fr McAleer rang Brian Dooher's home to ask him to do a reading at the funeral Mass tomorrow his wife told him he had just left for training. The chairman of Errigal Ciarán, Cathal McAnenly, summed up local feelings. "The area is totally devastated, shocked, it's very hard to come to terms with it. I suppose in the last few days people were just rallying around to prepare for the return of Michaela." He called to the Harte home on Monday. "It is not a visit you want to make and not one that should have to be made."
All three of Mickey Harte's sons play football with Errigal Ciarán, where Mark is the club PRO. "It should never ever have happened," says McAnenly. "She went out to start off the happiest time in her life and to see that happen is incomprehensible. I would hope that the support they get from family members, neighbours and GAA members throughout Ireland will be some level of comfort to them in their grief. But it's going to be very, very difficult."
Tyrone GAA chairman Ciarán McLaughlin was estimating a crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 mourners at the funeral tomorrow. Yesterday and today, at the public wake, they were expecting to filter 200 sympathisers through the family home each hour where Michaela's remains were resting. She was laid out in her wedding dress. "I said to Mickey that he will see, he will know most likely, but he will see for himself what he and Michaela and the Harte family mean to people.
"I think the scale of Cormac's funeral was immense. I think in the intervening period Mickey has touched on so many other lives. Yes, the GAA absolutely but also other sections of the community. I was in Leitrim last year at the removal of Philly McGuinness' remains and Mickey went down the following week to talk to the club and that was one example of how he was able to touch upon people and relate experiences he has had himself.
"We set up the onsite book of condolences on Wednesday evening about half six and had a quick look there at 12 today (Friday) and there were over 1,000 messages on it at that stage. And that is only that one. The emails we have been getting, you could see from those how he has been in places we never knew about. If someone needed help he went and assisted that club or family or school. There are so many different ones."
How Mickey Harte responds to this is not a question lightly considered. The notion of him not at some point returning to manage the team which his daughter adored is hard to buy, however. "This (Tyrone) team is reaching the end of an era and it's time to build a new team and that is a challenge for him and he certainly thrives on a challenge," says Fr McAleer. "He may need it as a therapy as well. Can I see him coming back? He will make an almighty effort and I know of few people who would be as well equipped to deal with this as Mickey Harte. I am not saying it is going to be easy."
Sunday Indo Sport