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How NI international footballer Aaron Hughes and GAA star Owen Mulligan are teaming up to support their aunt's emotional fundraiser

Claire Hughes has enlisted the help of her nephews, football stalwart Aaron Hughes and Tyrone GAA legend Owen Mulligan, to raise money for two very deserving charities in Cookstown tomorrow evening. She tells Stephanie Bell it will be a way of remembering her sister and brother, who both died from cancer

GAA and Premier League football will share centre stage when two of Northern Ireland's biggest sports stars team up for a unique charity night tomorrow.

The special match-night out with Northern Ireland international Aaron Hughes and All-Ireland winner Owen Mulligan is being organised by Claire Hughes, who is related to both men through marriage.

Claire, who tragically lost a brother and sister to cancer, has enlisted the support of her famous nephews to help raise funds for Charis Cancer Care and The Hub in the family's home town of Cookstown.

The owner of Soiree Society, an award winning matchmaking agency, Claire also hopes that the night will see matches of different kind made.

"Cookstown is my home town and also the home town of Aaron and Owen," she says.

"Having lost two of my siblings to cancer, I wanted to give something back and I thought this event with my sporting nephews will raise much needed funds for local charities.

"It also tied in with my strategy to expand my matchmaking business further west.

"It is a common complaint that people from more rural locations outside greater Belfast often find it more difficult to meet a partner as there are fewer people and less places to go to meet an unattached like-minded person.

"My two nephews would tell you that the worst thing for them is having to sit on the bench during a match because they don't get the chance to win.

"The same goes for dating and finding a life partner, you need to get out there to make a match."

Host for the evening in the Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown is sports journalist Adrian Logan, who 20 years ago planted the seed for the idea with Claire when he remarked about her two nephews and the similarities and diversity between their chosen sports.

Aaron is a professional footballer who currently plays for Scottish Premiership side Heart of Midlothian as well as starring for Northern Ireland for over 15 years. With 110 international caps, he is Northern Ireland's most capped defender.

Owen 'Mugsy' Mulligan played for Cookstown Fr Rocks club and is a three times all-Ireland medallist for Tyrone and currently plays for Fulham GAA team in London.

Claire is proud of her nephews for breaking barriers by agreeing to come together and share the stage.

She says: "I have had a few people say I can't go to that as it will look like I am supporting the GAA. This event is about breaking down barriers. These are two young men who have been very successful in their careers and there are loads of similarities between them. They are giving of their time freely to support everyone in the community.

"It is designed to be a night to be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what foot you kick with. We've even had Michael O'Neill make a video for our social media asking people to support it.

"My two nephews are such well-known sports stars, brilliant at their individual sports and both have a real personality which I can't wait to share the insights into their sports with the crowd."

For Claire the event is about giving something back to her local community in memory of her sister and brother who both died from cancer.

Claire (58) is married to Derek (62), a paramedic, and has two children - Andrea (33), who is a chartered accountant, and Paul (30), a musician who plays with the McPeake band and his own band Top Floor.

She grew up in Cookstown, the youngest of 10 children.

The family first suffered heartache when her eldest sister Mary died from leukaemia in 1984 at the age of 42, leaving her husband and six children aged from seven to 18 years. Mary's death came at a time when cancer was still very much a taboo subject and survival rates were low.

It is only now over 20 years later that Mary's children are accessing support and counselling thanks to Charis Cancer Care.

Claire found out her sister was dying on the same day she was celebrating her birthday and news that she was expecting her first child.

In 2002, the family was again shattered when Claire's older brother Sean died aged 49 from lung cancer, leaving his wife and four children.

Claire says: "When Mary was ill, it was a time when few people talked about cancer, it was so dreaded as survival rates were so low. I remember how people actually talked about it in lowered voices and called it the big C, as if mentioning it by name would have in some way have made it contagious.

"Mary had battled leukaemia and had been in remission for a number of years but it came back. On my birthday on February 16, 1984 she told me she was very ill. I told her that I was pregnant with my first baby. Tragically she died less than a fortnight later on February 27.

"Then my brother Sean, who was just six years older than me, died at 49. While cancer was more openly talked about then due to medical research, increasing survival rates and health awareness campaigns, I can see in retrospect that people, including myself, still regarded it as a physical illness without really appreciating the impact it had on the mental well-being of the person and also how it impacted on the mental and physical well-being of their nearest and dearest.

"It has been more recently that I have become aware that there was little or no help available to my siblings' families in terms of helping them to come to terms with their grief or in fact having someone to talk to who didn't just want to change the subject.

"I became aware of the work of Charis Cancer Care in Cookstown through media coverage and it struck me that their focus was about living with cancer rather than dying.

"They provide help and support, not only for the patient but also for their family and carers. I asked my nieces and nephews if they had ever received counselling when their mum died and they had got no support. They are now in touch with Charis who will hopefully give them support which they need even after all these years."

Charis depends entirely on volunteers and donations to run the service. Demand is such that the charity has plans to expand its premises to almost double its present size.

Claire also chose The Hub in Cookstown to benefit from her event. The Hub is a social enterprise founded by Carol Doey, a local playwright who originally set it up as a venue for drama.

It has evolved into a vital part of the local community for all ages and works to help alleviate loneliness and increase mental and physical health awareness.

Claire says: "In my matchmaking business I come across a lot of people who admit to being lonely and can feel quite isolated after the loss of a partner.

"Carol is a character and has often been referred to as a cross between Mother Teresa and Mrs Brown! She also started opening the doors of the Hub some years ago on Christmas Day to offer free Christmas dinners to those who had no one else to share Christmas with.

"Her most recent exploit has been to inject new life into Cookstown by starting an annual Cookstown Festival and she works tirelessly on making Cookstown a great place to live, work and visit. Again they depend entirely on volunteers and fundraising events and charitable donations."

Tickets are still available for Claire's night, which also includes a performance from Irish magician Rodd Hogg.

There will be prize draws with signed Northern Ireland and Tyrone jerseys as well as sought after match tickets up for grabs.

Claire adds: "The night promises to be fun-filled, celebratory and great craic as well as an opportunity for everyone to ask questions and get to know more about both of the sports and both players and their teams."

The event is being held at the Glenavon House Hotel, Cookstown tomorrow night at 7.30pm. Tickets at £30 can be bought on the night or from www.soireesocietyni.co.uk/events

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