Belfast Telegraph

Mickey Harte's wise words remind us sport is not a matter of life and death

By Alf McCreary

In the past, the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland would not have watched a GAA game, never mind a Croke Park final. Gaelic games were regarded as part of a Catholic, Irish nationalist culture, but this has changed. As a paid-up member of the Presbyterian Church, I have watched several All-Ireland finals, and this year's were riveting.

Limerick just about deserved their one-point victory in the wonderful hurling final, and a gallant Tyrone were just not good enough to beat a slick Dublin team that has now won the Sam Maguire four years in a row.

There we have another paradox. Sam Maguire, after whom the GAA football trophy is named, was born in west Cork in 1877, a member of the Church of Ireland.

Much as I enjoyed this year's encounter between Tyrone and Dublin, remarks made the following day by Tyrone manager Mickey Harte really caught my attention.

He acknowledged the deep hurt of the fans whose team came back to the north empty-handed, but he also gave them a timely reminder that sport was not really a "life-and-death issue".

The manager also revealed before the game that he had been diagnosed with cancer in 2015 but had since been given the all-clear.

"Thank God things came good again," he said. "With prayer and medicine and everything, I'm back and well again. In the journey of life, you meet many things, and it's great to have the power and strength and the grace of God to live and deal with (them)."

Mr Harte - clearly a man of faith - suffered an immense tragedy when his daughter, Michaela, was murdered on her honeymoon in 2011.

He touched on this when he referred to the sense of loss felt by Tyrone supporters after the defeat by Dublin.

"While it may be life and death in words, in real terms it's not," Mr Harte said. "There are things that are more important than that.

"I would have probably been more heartbroken about this (defeat) if life had been different in our case, but the fact that I know something that's much, much worse than this, and never could be compared to this, then I feel hurt about this, but it's not like the real hurt of loss."

There was another tragedy at the weekend when Joanne Tracey, a mother of three children, died in a car accident on her way back from the Croke Park final, which again puts everything else into perspective.

I found Mr Harte's words deeply impressive, as well as being a timely reminder that we all treat some things as important as life and death, though they are not remotely like the real thing.

This harks back to the fanatical Liverpool football club manager Bill Shankly who, when asked if the next game was a matter of life and death, replied: "It's much more important than that."

It sounds funny, but sport has almost become a matter of life and death for too many people.

In this age of unbelief, it has become the new religion, with successful sportsmen and women being given the aura of something approaching gods - until they start losing.

Does it really matter who wins Wimbledon, or The Open, or the Premier League, or, indeed, the All-Ireland GAA finals?

There is always another time for competition.

Sadly, however, for far too many, there is no more time.

If you are walking near Belfast City Hall, please pause to look at the large number of shrouded figures exhibited near the War Memorial.

The exhibition, entitled Shrouds of the Somme, is in remembrance of the men from the Ulster and Irish regiments who died at the Somme during the First World War - one of the bloodiest and most senseless episodes in history.

Did they really die to pave the way for the mess that is Europe today, or for the Ireland that was partitioned and is still divided in so many ways?

So often it takes suffering and death to make us place things in perspective.

We are indebted to people like Mickey Harte and others for helping help us to do so.

Belfast Telegraph

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