The Belfast Telegraph sports awards ceremony last Monday evening was, as ever, a unique gathering.
Across the banqueting room there were many famous sporting sons and daughters of Ulster, diverse in their upbringing and background, all sharing the distinction of having experienced achievement for themselves and for the land of their birth.
Young up and coming soccer, rugby and gaelic players rubbed shoulders with legendary figures from earlier times.
There was a bespectacled Barry McQuigan, whom I recall interviewing 25 years ago and whose late parents once showed me around the humble white-washed outhouse in the border town of Clones where he trained in troubled times. There was Dr Jack Kyle, 85 years old, an iconic figure surrounded by today's young generation of Ulster rugby players. There was Pat Jennings, another impeccable sporting ambassador for Northern Ireland.
There also were the administrators, the unsung backroom people and the families and friends of new sporting heroes who had achieved national and international recognition.
At my table sat members of Tony McCoy's family from Moneyglass, his proud mother and four sisters. Close by were the equally proud parents of Graeme McDowell from north Antrim. A sense of united community pride was palpable as McCoy and McDowell and the other winners were warmly applauded.
Sadly the news of Michaela McAreavey's murder cast a shadow over the ceremony. Many in the audience would have recalled, as I did, her father Mickey Harte, when he was saluted at an earlier awards dinner for his remarkable achievements in gaelic games. As we have learnt in the past week, Michaela played a significant supporting role. The GAA was a major part of her life and that of her grieving husband John.
As a boy growing up in Co Tyrone, the local GAA ground in my home town of Dungannon may as well have been on another planet.
I came from the other side of the track and by accident of birth kicked with a different foot. One Sunday afternoon curiosity got the better of a school friend and me. Instead of aimlessly wandering around our home town, we decided to go in the direction of O'Neill Park, where Tyrone were playing and to where the entire nationalist and Catholic population of the county seemed to be travelling to watch a gaelic match against Down.
We were just in time for the pre-match parade but we were edgy and uncomfortable, wondering if someone would recognise us as belonging to another world.
It is but one small indicator of the gulf between our communities that, long before the final whistle blew, we had sneaked nervously out of the ground. Whatever sense of adventure we had felt in going to the gaelic match soon deserted us. We were so worried someone would find out that we made a boyhood pact never to reveal where our Sunday walk had taken us.
Many years later, at the Belfast Telegraph annual awards, I found myself proudly shaking the hand of Mickey Harte surrounded by his victorious Tyrone team. As we conversed, my mind flashed back to that boyhood afternoon.
Thankfully, times have changed for the better. We have moved on immeasurably from those days as evident again last week when the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Norman Hamilton had a cordial meeting with the GAA hierarchy for the first time and joined with them in prayer on hearing the news of Michaela McAreavey's death.
The outpouring of grief across this community is reminiscent of the atmosphere of sadness and sympathy when Gordon Wilson lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing.
As with Marie Wilson, the murder of Michaela has put life and death in brutal perspective for families everywhere. Only those who have had personal experience of losing a loved one can truly fathom the sense of heartbreak.
The terrible tragedy which unfolded in a faraway honeymoon hotel has united the thoughts of people from very different backgrounds across this province.
Sport has its divisions, rivalry and competitiveness but it also has a unique emotional capacity to unite us particularly in grief and in tragedy. We have seen this demonstrated movingly in the passing of George Best, Joey Dunlop and Alex Higgins and most recently in the silent tribute by Rangers and Celtic fans, players and officials marking the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox disaster.
In life Michaela McAreavey was an exemplary young woman who was a credit to her upbringing and to the community in Tyrone in which she played such an impressive role. In death, she has brought many people in this society together to grieve with her family. That, in itself, is a legacy to be cherished, no matter from what side of the track we have come.
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