Mickey Harte is one of those larger than life characters who will go down in GAA folklore alongside the likes of Mick O’Dywer, Sean Boylan and Brian Cody – men who lived for those All-Ireland Sundays in the summer. Clones, Croker, Thurles, or even just an empty field, was where these master tacticians and leaders did battle. However, Harte is somewhat different to his fellow legends.
His exploits on the pitch pale in comparison to his strength off of it. Despite great personal tragedy and the inevitable pain of passing years, Harte’s faith remained steadfast – anchoring the man amidst the most testing of times. King Solomon says “A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up” (Proverbs 24:16). No matter the turmoil and pains of life, the man of faith shall rise each time. King Solomon could quite easily have been prophetically referring to the life of Mickey Harte.
In January 2011, the darkest of days visited themselves upon Harte and his family. His beloved daughter Michaela McAreavy was found strangled to death in her hotel bathroom whilst she was on honeymoon with her husband. The daughter whom so many of the Irish people remember from pictures side by side with her father on the days of Tyrone’s greatest glories was stolen from us. Michaela was buried at home in her native Tyrone. It is hard to believe but worse was to come.
In an effort to protect its tourist trade, Mauritius were more concerned with protecting the reputation of its tourist trade and did no meaningful investigation. A bunked trial took place which has meant that to this day, over a decade after her murder, there is still no justice for the Harte and McAreavy families. It has gotten to the point where the First & Deputy First Ministers of the North of Ireland have written to the President Mauritius calling for them do something to actually deliver justice.
Leaning on faith and family, Harte’s strength shone through even through those most dark of days. Despite his own devastating personal loss, he continued to thank God for the strength to endure:
“Even now, nine grandchildren, it’s such a gift since Michaela died we have had nine grandchildren. God’s never indebted to us. I am just so blessed. I feel that the grace of God has been given to me along with the challenges, I have been given the grace to deal with it. I kind of put that down to Michaela as well. That she was so close to me at night times, and I feel she is still close to me. This is not a thing you can describe, it’s not something tangible, but it’s an innate feeling I have that we are not apart. We are together still.”
Around the time of Michaela’s murder, Harte lost his two brothers: Paddy and Peter Harte – compounding the grief of Harte and his family. Leaning on faith and family once more, Harte like Solomon’s righteous man rose from falling down once again. As manager of the Red Hands, Harte and his Tyrone squad also tragically lost two of its team members Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen – rocking the people of Tyrone to the core again and again.
During this time of incalculable loss and grief, another murder took place – one that cast the North’s minds back to the most painful days in its history. Harte, despite his own loss, stood up as if to say that the hands of time will not be turned back to those days.
Ronan Kerr was a Catholic and a passionate supporter of Harte’s own Tyrone team. At a time when serious effort was being put in to recruit Catholics to the PSNI, Kerr joined. Republican dissidents who refused to abandon the gun targeted PSNI officers, and the 2nd April 2011, car-bombed the police car of Constable Kerr outside of his home – murdering him. The North – in almost one voice – cried out in pain at this sectarian act of terror.
Despite the loss of three close family members, Mickey Harte rose to the challenge facing the North and came to symbolise the opposition of the GAA and the Catholic community to any return to violence. Donning his Tyrone anorak, Harte helped to carry the coffin of the murdered Kerr, trying to use his own grief, his own suffering, his own faith to help others in their time of need.
Throughout this whole time, Harte continued to coach the Tyrone team who despite the ageing of their county’s own golden generation – continued to battle upstarts in Ulster like Jim McGuinness’s Donegal and Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan. Then in 2015, Harte received one of those dreaded – all too common – phone calls that he had bladder cancer. Thankfully, Harte battled through and recovered – all the while continuing to coach the Red Hands no less. In true Harte fashion, he placed his thanks in the works of God: “With prayer and medicine and everything, it’s possible and I’m back and well again.”
In addition to his continued strength in his personal life, Harte campaigned and fought for those Christian values that had sustained him throughout his life. During the 8th Amendment referendum, Harte fought hard for the right to life of the unborn and called on society as a whole to cherish and protect the most vulnerable in our society – the unborn child. In Tom Landry-like fashion, he has been very vocal on his Christian beliefs and values be it, and encouraging pride in one’s Catholic faith:
“Why should we not be as proud of our Catholic faith as we are of our club colours? As Catholics we are part of the biggest team in the world and we should be proud of that. We should be able to say who I am and this is what I believe. In a game there are all sorts of little battles within it. It’s the same in life. Life gives you some challenges and with the help of God you manage it.”
From cancer, to the loss of loved ones, to lost All-Irelands, Harte has been knocked down so many times – but has never been broken in person or in faith. Like Solomon’s righteous man, he rose up each and every time. I, for one, idolised Mickey Harte and his Tyrone teams but I can safely say this GAA Legend is a greater man off the field, than on it.