Belfast Telegraph

Michaela McAreavey foundation will always be tinged with sadness but we believe in God's plan

By Declan Bogue

Mark Harte, son of Tyrone manager Mickey, tells of his grief for his murdered sister and how his family takes strength from the charity set up in her name.

Mark Harte isn't given to doing media interviews, but the growing evidence of his managerial abilities may change that for him in the near future. Along with co-manager and fellow Errigal Ciaran man Adrian O'Donnell, he led the neighbouring parish of Pomeroy Plunketts to victory in the Ulster Intermediate final against Donaghmoyne.

For those without a passing interest in Gaelic games, Mark Harte is the son of Tyrone manager Mickey and the brother of Michaela, who was tragically murdered while on honeymoon with her husband, John McAreavey, in January 2011.

Watching him on television while he attended the murder trial in Mauritius - initially intended to last 10 days but dragging on for eight weeks only for the suspects to be cleared - was to witness a man in a living hell.

Next month, it will be six years since that appalling day. But life has not moved on for her family - it has just gone on.

In the meantime, they remember their sister, daughter and former wife with The Michaela Foundation, a series of summer camps that promotes the values dear to her.

Young girls can learn about the five core values of the Irish language, faith, fun, wellbeing and fashion.

"It's always tinged with sadness because you realise that it wouldn't be there in an ideal world, where things are different," Mark says now. 

"But none of us live in an ideal world. You go with it and make the best of it you can - and we fully intend to do that - to keep the memory alive and as strong as you can.

"It's not the same as if Michaela was here, but everybody is getting something out of it. I get something out of it and I know my family gets something out of it.

"But the big thing is that the people who come to the camp really enjoy it. They go away better people."

Mark is reluctant to revisit those dreadful days in 2011 when Michaela was murdered on honeymoon and in 2012 when two hotel workers accused of her murder were acquitted.

It was he who went to Mauritius with John McAreavey's father, Brendan, and brother Brian to bring his sister's body back home to Northern Ireland and who later returned to the island to sit through the harrowing trial.

His most public comments on the tragedy came in an Irish language documentary screened in 2013 when he spoke candidly about the difficulties of the trial, but stressed his commitment to representing his family.

He said: "Things happen in this life that we don't understand, that we will never understand. But what choice do we have? Stop everything? Stop enjoying things, stop taking part? That's not how we are. We'll get on with it."

He also revealed that he leaned on Michaela's faith to help him cope with her death. Quoting her belief in "God's plan", he said: "We have to believe this is part of that." Mark also told the documentary team: "I remember her in my prayers every morning".

Now he is hugely supportive of the body set up in Michaela's name.

As a charity, there are few with the ambition of the Michaela Foundation. They really know how to capture the imagination.

In 2012, they staged the Match for Michaela, when then All-Ireland champions Donegal took on a rest-of-Ulster select in Casement Park, attracting more than 18,000 spectators.

This January, they aim to break world records by staging a 24-hour Gaelic football match between teams from the Michaela Foundation and their charity partner for the event, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.

It's a typically brave and imaginative project, and one that Mark is delighted with. "First and foremost, it's for two massive charities," he says. "One that is extremely close to us and another that... every family in the country is touched by cancer in some way as well, unfortunately.

"We would like to think it would be a mixture of high-profile and people who want to come and participate as well.

"Hopefully, it will be all-inclusive and an opportunity for some people to go onto a Gaelic field with some of their heroes where they may not have had an opportunity to do that before."

As a member of the charity's central committee, Mark continues to be amazed by the work the core team involved in the day-to-day running of the foundation gets through.

"Their work is incredible," he says. "We started off with a fairly small vision - to test the water with the ideals that Michaela lived her life by - to see if that would resonate with people.

"Overnight, we realised that not only does it resonate, but people want as much of it as they can get. It is very healthy and opposed to many of the football camps there are, which do unbelievable work in terms of the skills. But this is more open to people with other skills.

"You can be a brilliant musician or a brilliant linguist, trying to find out more about your faith, the whole idea of friendship and that.

"It opens up a load of doors to people who maybe don't get a chance because they are not very talented footballers.

"We want to give it as broad a footing as we can, and it has developed and grown massively over the last couple of years to where it is in every province of Ireland and growing into every county, hopefully, before not too long.

"When I go to the camps, I see the joy that others have. Young girls coming together on a Monday, quiet as a mouse because they don't know each other, and then on a Friday they are friends and already asking when it is on next year."

It comes as no surprise that a marathon match is in the works when you consider the achievements and longevity of Mark's father, Mickey, in Tyrone football.

Next year will be his 27th consecutive year involved in taking a Tyrone team, from when he started with the minor squad in 1991. And through it all, he always involved his family, who would happily come along to watch training and travel on the team bus.

"I just get the feeling that it wouldn't have mattered if it was Errigal reserves or Errigal ladies or whatever," says Mark of his father. "He is just the type of person who gives everything he has to whatever he is doing.

"Every single place he went, if it was a game with three people at it or an All-Ireland final, myself and my brothers and my sister just grew up in a house where that was just the done thing.

"We didn't know any different, but we loved every minute of it... up at the front of the bus with your heroes. That stands out in my mind. We were very fortunate in the household we were brought up in. But again, I don't see it any different than any other household in the breadth of the country where the GAA was the staple diet.

"Okay, we might have been more high-profile in certain years rather than others, but it was all about family at the end of the day."

Anyone keeping an eye on the Tyrone travelling party as they arrive at games now will still see that connection. Mark's brother, Michael, is the team physio, while last season Mark himself was part of the backroom team and could be seen delivering last-minute tactical instructions to substitutes coming in for the closing stages of their Ulster final win over Donegal.

Some also can legitimately raise the question if he himself retired from county football too early, walking away from the scene at the end of 2005 after Tyrone landed their second All-Ireland.

An intelligent playmaker with accuracy from free-kicks, he believes he made the right decision, which couldn't have been easy with his father as manager.

"In my mind, I was good enough to be on the county squad, without doubt," Mark explains.

"But I was playing at a time when Tyrone were at their peak. If I am being honest about my own ability, I felt there were days when I was certainly good enough to start on the Tyrone team, and there were days when I wasn't.

"For me, when I weighed everything up, I realised that I wanted to be playing football and I wanted to be playing in the best years of my career, week-in, week-out."

He also maintains that the discussion in his family home is not always around Tyrone and football.

"There is a healthy balance there," Mark says. "You can put football into context and we have had to do that as a family. That's the reality.

"It has given us serious enjoyment, it has given us serious pride and days of extreme highs, days of extreme lows.

"I think everybody's football journey is a bit like that - wins and losses, grieving or whatever it is.

"Our house is no different than anyone else's. Football is openly discussed, but there is a time to discuss it and there is a time to get on with real life as well. Hopefully, we have that balance right."

Away from football, he is a massive fan of comedy shows, and The Office in particular is almost memorised by now.

"We are big fans of The Office in our house, all the children were - it was a notion that someone took," Mark laughs.

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