He saw enough funerals to appreciate from an early age just how earnest an occasion they were.
Unlike most children, the adjacent graveyard held no fear for him. But yesterday, on a perfectly still January afternoon he buried his daughter Michaela in a plot under the hill that dwarfs the hamlet, just yards away from his old family home. Never before had he stepped onto the holy ground with such bone-shaking trepidation.
It didn’t make sense to be saying a last goodbye to his beloved Michaela whom he gave away to John McAreavey in marriage in the same church 19 days previous.
But then in Mauritius the most righteous of lives was brought to the most unrighteous end.
He, his wife Marian, their three sons and his son-in-law John weren’t alone yesterday. That was something. Thousands from Ireland and beyond descended on Ballymacilroy to show how much Michaela meant to them.
The GAA family in Tyrone was also in mourning.
“For a lot of us, this is the worst thing that could have happened and in the worst possible way at the worst time in the worst place,” said Of One Belief founder and prominent Tyrone Gael Mark Conway. “From a Tyrone GAA perspective, it happened to the best of people. Michaela was very precious to everybody.”
Conway is aware there are some who aren’t completely familiar with just how much Michaela Harte did for Tyrone GAA, why so many have shared in grieving her death.
“She was the centre of it all and maybe that’s an argument some other people don’t agree with. Michaela Hartes are as important to the GAA as the best footballer that Tyrone or anybody else could ever produce.
“The phrase ‘fíor Gael’ is used often but Michaela Harte was a fíor Gael. The language, the culture, the games... they were all important to her and that’s why the GAA in Tyrone feel such a terrible loss.’’
Yesterday and the two-day wake over the weekend gave mourners a convincing example of just how excellent an operation Tyrone GAA is. Park and rides were set up around the Ballygawley hinterland. Crowds were diligently directed by stewards. Large screens were erected outside the small church. Refreshments and temporary toilet facilities were ready available to everyone. As people queued to sympathise with the Harte and McAreavey families at the graveside, Peter Canavan, wearing his Errigal Ciarán club jacket, acted as usher along with club-mates including Tyrone footballer Enda McGinley.
“There are 50 clubs in Tyrone and every one of them had at least four people volunteering here today,” said Conway. “Maybe it’s arrogant of us to say it but we like to think the GAA is well organised in our county.”
Talking about Harte’s future as manager might sound disrespectfully premature if the three-time All-Ireland winning manager hadn’t already given his wish for Tyrone to continue in the McKenna Cup as early as the evening of his daughter’s death. It’s the county’s wish he continues to lead them. It’s Conway’s hope Michaela’s spirit can inspire him and everyone associated with the GAA in the county.
“This puts the football into a very small place,” he noted. “The Michaela Hartes of this world don’t come along that often. It’s brilliant when you have them but when you lose them, it puts a dampener on everything.
“But at the same time life does go on and it’s vitally important that life goes on. Mickey’s in a position now we’d all hope to God never to be in. It would be our fervent hope and wish that Mickey will continue on as before.
“When other people were visited with similar disasters Mickey used to put it down as a challenge to all of us. He would say if someone belonging to you died and you want to do their memory justice then you should take two or three great things from their life and adapt them into your own. Michaela brought so much to the table. It’s up to the rest of us to keep it going, to take the torch she lit and to keep it going. It’s a fair challenge but we must embrace it.”
Yesterday’s congregation was a practical who’s who of the GAA. Dublin secretary John Costello and the Dublin management team of Pat Gilroy led a group of their players, as did Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke, his selector Donal Murtagh and captain Steven McDonnell. The Kernan family were also there to pay their respects as was Galway boss Tomás Ó Flatharta, Monaghan’s Seamus McEneaney and Derry footballers Kevin McCloy and Paddy Bradley.
The GPA were represented by chairman Dónal Óg Cusack and spokesperson Sean Potts while Limerick hurling manager Donal O’Grady, John O’Mahony TD, former GAA president Sean Quinn and former Wexford manager Liam Griffin were also in attendance. All recognised the excruciating significance of what had befallen the Harte and McAreavey families. Fundamentally they understood a most righteous GAA life had been cut most unrighteously short. Blue Monday has never been bluer.