PROBABLY the saddest and most surreal thing about this saddest and most surreal of weeks has been seeing Mickey Harte grieving and her not being by his side. Even though her very absence was the very reason he was in mourning, when you visited him in the family home, when you saw him on television, you were still nearly expecting Michaela herself to be there by his shoulder, offering comfort and support. She was always there before. When they lowered Cormac McAnallen down to his eternal rest; whenever a beloved relative passed away; whenever Tyrone lost something as trivial as a game of football and the footballers on the ditch would be baying for her daddy's head; she was there, his shadow and soulmate.
I first met Michaela while helping her father write Kicking Down Heaven's Door, a diary of Tyrone's breakthrough season of 2003. The first page of the book is a copy of the napkin she wrote upon the night after the 1997 All Ireland minor defeat to Laois, vowing and predicting that "we – Mickey and Michaela Harte" would win the 1998 All Ireland minor title, the 2000 All Ireland under-21 title and ultimately the 2003 All Ireland senior title. She was the last line in the book. And in between, her name and influence were there throughout as well.
We are not exaggerating or flattering Michaela when we say that, only for her, Tyrone would almost certainly be still awaiting their first senior All Ireland title; would not have the closure and inner peace that comes with having actually been there.
Because only for a man with the emotional intelligence of Mickey Harte at the helm, they'd hardly have made that monumental breakthrough, and only for Michaela, Mickey Harte wouldn't have stayed around after that minor All Ireland final defeat of '97. In the hours immediately after that game he had informed the players and county board that he was stepping down after seven years in the position. But when the team returned to Tyrone the following night, Brian McGuigan and Stephen O'Neill kept on to 13-year-old Michaela to keep on to her father and get him to change his mind. By the time the car pulled into the driveway in Glencull, he and Michaela had picked the starting 15 most likely to start in '98. By the time the house door had barely opened, Michaela was running upstairs and writing with a big yellow marker on the napkin she had cried into the previous night her famous vision and hope for the future.
It remains a remarkable document. One of Michaela's greatest qualities was that she was always wise beyond her years while retaining a child-like innocence in her adult years. She was only 13 when she wrote on that napkin. How many 23-year-olds, let alone 13-year-olds, even try to guess, let alone calculate or target, what they and their peers will be doing a year from now, let alone three or six years down the line?
She didn't just create the vision either; she drove it. A few days before the 2003 league final, her father wrote, "She has such faith in God and her own belief in this whole process that I'm nearly inclined to believe her at this stage." That's why, when that vision became a reality, there was no one else Harte wanted by his side, only Michaela and her kid brother Mattie.
It was a magical moment but the real fun for Michaela was in the journey. From the time she was seven, she would go to training every night with "Daddy". She would lay out the milk and biscuits for the boys, help her mother Marian fold the team jerseys, wind pieces of red and white wool together to create wristbands for each player, ask each player for a song for the team CD to be played on the team bus.
I can still see and hear her giggling in her parents' front room during the interview sessions for Kicking Down Heaven's Door. Mattie and Marian had joined us, as well as Michaela, to recall the eve of the 2003 league semi-finals, when Tyrone had stayed in the Citywest Hotel. The same hotel was also the base for Armagh, the then-reigning All Ireland champions who were playing in the other league semi-final. Out of mischief and curiosity, Michaela and Mattie decided to go beyond enemy lines and loiter around the Armagh team room where they got within earshot of Stevie McDonnell on his mobile to a loved one, telling her, much to his dissatisfaction, "That bloody Tyrone are staying here as well!" Michaela cracked up at that and at recounting it again, and the thought of how oblivious McDonnell was to how close by the Tyrone camp had been to his own.
Only months later, Michaela would be recognisable to McDonnell and the whole country, but she was so much more than a pretty face. Over the weekend her father and I were wrapping up the book, we got bogged down over a photograph of the 1997 minor team, unable to identify a fringe player in the back row. Mickey was completely stumped – who was that boy again? Then he had a brainwave. Michaela! Michaela would know! So out came his mobile, and he left her a message. An hour later his phone lit up and with it, his face. "Michaela!" he beamed quietly to me. And sure enough, even though she didn't have the photograph in front of her and even though she had been only 13 back in '97, she knew who the very boy was.
Outside of my own father, Mickey Harte has probably influenced me more than anyone I know, but it's striking how much of a reference point even Michaela has been in my own day-to-day life. Only the week before last she twice came to the forefront of my mind. The first was when I was talking to a team up the country about the power of having some targets and committing them to ink, as I relayed the story of her famous napkin and vision.
The other was at home. We have a little girl and gem of our own now, a three-and-a-half-year-old bundle of joy called Aimee, and while she repeatedly cuddles me and tells me that I'm her "favourite daddy in the whole world", it's her mother Ann Marie that she invariably wants to comb her hair, wants to bring her to bed, wants to drive home with whenever we've taken separate cars to some place. It happened again just a couple of days before the awful news from Mauritius. Dad here volunteered to get her ready for bed and read her her goodnight stories when Aimee again made it clear that she wanted "Mommy to do it!" I could only laugh, and declare to my wife, "She's no Michaela Harte anyway!"
Michaela was the ultimate daddy's girl. She was so much like Marian and loved Marian but she was so her Daddy's girl. They were so alike – kind, thoughtful, wholesome, intelligent. There was a ruthless streak to her too when it came to football. I remember meeting her outside the gates in Clones after the 2005 Ulster semi-final replay, when Tyrone had put Cavan to the sword, destroying them by 15 points. I joked to her that couldn't Tyrone have eased up, for the sake of Marty McElkennon at least (the Cavan manager who both her father and I would have known well)? Michaela shook the head. In the drawn game the previous week a Cavan player had blackguarded Sean Cavanagh, the Moy man coming off the field with spit running down his face. Cavan had a beating coming to them after that, she said, so no mercy for them or Marty. I could only smile. She was her father's daughter alright, though whether she got that streak from him or he got it from her, I don't know.
These past few days I've tried to take the advice Mickey has given a lot of grieving people through the years – remember the one you mourn for how they lived more than the fact or manner of their passing – and for the most part I've tried to abide by it here. But the manner of her passing is just so hard to shake, for everyone who has known her, or everyone who felt like they knew her, and that is everyone I know.
What makes it all the more surreal is that it happened in Mauritius.
Only six weeks ago I had the good fortune to spend a week there and it was simply the trip of a lifetime. The beaches, the weather, the hospitality, the luxury; as I wrote in this paper last week, it was just paradise on earth. I had stayed in a different five-star resort to where Michaela was, but one run by the same hotel chain, and the service was virtually faultless. There wasn't a place on earth that, you'd have felt, could be better or safer. The people over there seemed so friendly, so genuine; still are, 99.9999 percent of them. If you want to go to the bathroom, they'll almost escort you there. The first day I spent there, I didn't bother with the use or rent of the safety locker, so trusting was I of the staff and locals, until one of them only reinforced the point by insisting I avail of one.
Michaela was just as trusting. That was her, only seeing the good in people, and so she left her wallet out, in full view of staff, not out of negligence, more out of trust. That's what people are struggling to get their heads around, the sheer randomness of it all, the sheer senselessness of it all. For it to happen to anyone. For it to happen to anyone we knew. And for it to happen to someone like that.
For no husband, especially one as devoted and as admired as John McAreavey, should discover what he discovered in his honeymoon apartment last Monday. No father, especially one as decent and God-loving and God-fearing as Mickey Harte, should have to pick up a phone and learn while in his house all alone that his daughter has died, then have to drive 15 miles by himself to relay the awful news to his wife who faints in his arms. No mother, especially one as gentle and as loving as Marian Harte, and no brother, especially brothers like Mark and Michael and Mattie, should ever find themselves being called out of their work to be informed of that dreadful, shocking news. No family should find themselves hoping, praying to their God, that their beloved one passed away by natural causes, just like Cormac did that time, as unnatural as that was too.
But above all, no person, let alone one as wholesome and God-loving and God-fearing as Michaela McAreavey née Harte, should be killed for simply going back up to her room to get a biscuit straight from her apartment fridge to have with her tea with John.
Here was the one young woman we knew who lived life right, who did virtually everything right, hailing from the one family more than any we knew who always tried to do the best by people and the best by their God, and yet this was her and their reward. It makes no sense.
John is right in saying she was an angel, but where was her guardian angel, to steer her from entering that room?
We can only hope she's seen and entered heaven's door. If she hasn't, nobody has. How she died was all wrong but how she lived was just right.
That's the comfort and legacy she leaves us all with.
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