In a candid and moving interview the legendary Tyrone GAA manager tells Judith Cole why faith is always the extra player on his side
Just as tragedy is a test of faith, so is success. And Mickey Harte (55), who has had both in spades, has never wavered from the deeply held beliefs he’s lived by since childhood.
The manager of Tyrone GAA team is already a legend in his home county after leading the side to three all-Ireland titles in the space of six years. But the instant impression he gives when we meet to discuss his new autobiography is one of remarkable humility — and simply someone with a passion for his game.
So how did he come to write the book?
“A few companies asked me if I’d write it, they’re always looking for people to do books,” he laughs, as if it should be a surprise that they approached him.
The book, co written by Michael Foley, charts his life from growing up in a loving family in the townland of Glencull, training to be a teacher in Belfast, getting married and having four children, as well as his rise through the ranks of club GAA to the pinnacle of winning those three all-Irelands.
“Which of the titles was the best? Each is unique,” he says.
“The first, in 2003, was special because it was the first and because of what it meant to the people of Tyrone. Then in 2005 it was different because it was a real battle and struggle, yet we were still there at the end and were the only team to win having played 10 games.
“And in 2008 Down had beaten us in the Ulster Championship and we were said to be no-hopers yet we came back from that place of no hope and rose to the top.”
But apart from the battles on the pitch, there were real tragedies off it. The shocking, sudden deaths of young players Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen left a hole in Tyrone football that could never be filled.
McGirr was playing for Tyrone’s minor team (under-18) against Armagh on June 15, 1997, when he was fatally injured in an accidental collision on the pitch.
In his book Harte describes the dreadful series of events which followed — how on his way to hospital and despite his pain the young player kept asking his father where the ball had gone that he’d flicked it towards the net. And later, when the news came that he had not made it.
“It was an awful experience for all of us to have to go through,” he says. “It proved that things can happen in life that are very strange and difficult to understand. It made you realise there is a vulnerability about life no matter what age you are. And it helped us to develop this sense of family, being there for each other.”
Harte drew on his faith to find a way forward and help counsel McGirr’s team mates who were stunned by what had happened.
“The random nature of Paul’s death might shake some people’s beliefs,” he says. “But the strength I derived from my faith helped deepen my relationship with God and allowed me to begin to find a way to help the boys.”
He and Fr Gerard McAleer, who assisted in managing Tyrone minors, brought the boys together to talk and share their feelings, to help them realise that their grief was shared by others — and, he says, to recognise that life goes on however difficult that might seem.
Just seven years later Harte was plunged into a similar situation with the death of Cormac McAnallen. He’d spotted the player as a youngster and knew he was destined for great things on the sports field.
And when it came to choosing a captain for Tyrone seniors’ 2004 season, the year following their first all-Ireland victory, McAnallen was Harte’s first preference. He is pictured in Harte's book raising the McKenna Cup following the team’s win over Donegal in the final. Unbelievably, 10 days later, on March 2, 2004, he died at home of sudden cardiac arrest. Aged 24, he was a teacher and engaged to be married. Harte says he thinks about McAnallen every day.
“Cormac was dedicated to self improvement, dedicated to doing the best he could with the talents God had given him,” he says. “That was always evident in his play, in his approach to everything, his ability to be so focused and tuned in. And also to live an ordinary life. It wasn’t as if he wanted to be a robot. He was an ordinary guy who enjoyed life.”
Again, his faith spurred him on to inspire strength and leadership when it was needed most.
“What is there if you don’t have hope of a continued existence? It would be hopeless,” he says. “These young men’s lives have had a really positive impact on other young people who have done things or addressed things they may never have before.”
Through it all Harte’s deeply held faith has never wavered. He has never wondered ‘why could God let this happen?’ and seems puzzled that the question could even arise. Indeed, his faith is so central to his life that he’s been known to attend meetings held under the Charismatic Movement banner — he remembers one hall he attended as a student during the 1970s on Belfast’s Falls Road which drew people from all denominations who were simply seeking God amid the horror going on outside.
He also attended a meeting hall in Dungannon just across the road from his house where one night a woman quoted Romans chapter 12 verses 7-13 which teaches that everyone should use their own gifts as given to them by God. Harte says that that passage has in large part formed his outlook on life — and that over the years he has figured out that his role is as communicator, sharing with people whether in the dressing room, corporate event or church.
“It’s strange how things happen,” he says. “The Charismatic meetings were alien to me because their way of worship wasn’t how we were brought up, but it was an interesting departure which enhanced my whole outlook on my faith.”
For an insight into the origin of Harte’s faith there is no need to look further than his parents. At the very mention of his mother, he smiles and talks of the enormous influence she had — not only on him and his six brothers and two sisters, but on many within their rural community.
“She was a lovely, lovely woman,” he says softly. “The strapline of the book ‘Presence is the only thing’ was inspired by her, her presence, her presence in the home.
“The beauty of it was that so many people thought so much of her and she scarcely left the house. She had this attraction of gentleness, a caring nature. People regularly called at our house and she gave them great respect. She raised their self esteem by just listening and not passing judgement.”
In his book Harte writes about how his mother ‘left everything in the hands of God’ and that his parents were never angry with God or felt they’d been hard done by.
“Although I was brought up in a traditional Irish Catholic home I’ve always said that that wouldn’t have been enough,” he says. “If that was all there was it would have been very empty. It was what my parents did with it that counted. They were there for people, they were good listeners, kind and helpful.
“As my older brothers and sisters grew up they fell into that pattern so it was easy for me, as the youngest, to do likewise. Things like my father becoming a Pioneer (member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association) meant I became a Pioneer too, as the rest of the family did. It was just automatic — we didn’t ask questions and my father didn’t demand it of us.”
The death of Harte’s father in 1990 was the first time he experienced the loss of a close family member. He, his wife Marian and their children were coming to the end of their drive back home to Tyrone from holiday when he saw a man leaning at the ditch at the side of the road.
To his shock it was his father, who’d been walking home from the shops. Mickey knelt down and spoke to him, and just seconds later he died.
“It took me a long time to get over the shock,” he says. “I remember it so well, the children singing in the car, excited about getting home again and seeing grandpa and grandma. But I always thought it was a blessing too that I was the one who came across him, three hours after we’d begun our journey home from the west of Ireland. It was incredible how the timing worked out like that.”
Harte, who is a trained teacher and now a technical director of sports recruitment company Sporttracker Jobs, moved to west Belfast in his late teens to study. It was the early 1970s when the Troubles were at their height. He shared digs with two other students on the Whiterock Road and has fond memories of their landlady, Mrs Morgan, who’d make them tea and toast with a triangle of cheese.
“She had a great fire going every night with a lot of slack and coal, there was something really special about it,” he says.
And while he observed a ‘naked and bitter hostility’ between Protestants and Catholics, and towards the police and Army, he says he determined to survive that period without any scars of bitterness.
“In the countryside things were more subtle,” he says. “While we didn’t have a lot of contact with people in the country we didn’t have this naked animosity towards anybody. We were lucky in that the primary school I went to was an integrated school before integrated schools ever existed because a number of Protestant families attended and we knew them to speak to. We didn’t mix regularly because your company didn’t take you to the same places but you’d meet on the street and greet each other.”
And does he envisage a time when bitterness will be so much a thing of the past that Protestants will freely be part of GAA if they so wish?
“I really do hope so,” says. “I think it’s a slow process like all these things when people have been in the different camps for so long. But because rugby and soccer have been played at Croke Park, people from the non-nationalist community have been there so it makes it a better and warmer environment for them. It does take time but there’s enough good will there to continue to work on it.”
Harte: Presence is the Only Thing, Poolbeg Press, £15.99