“I hope it is useful to people, that is what I really hope,” Mickey Harte says on the publication of his memoir Devotion, an account of what has been a turbulent and often heart-wrenching decade for the Ballygawley man and his family.
“I lived through the darkness and learned how to move away” are the stark words on the back of the book. It’s a coda for the shocking murder of Harte’s daughter Michaela McAreavey while on her honeymoon with John McAreavey in Mauritius in January 2011
That tragedy, while Ireland was still in a post-Christmas slumber, was a reminder that the country is a village: the outpouring of sympathy was national. There followed a protracted trial of two resort employees and their controversial acquittal, an ongoing quest for justice and, as chronicled here, the family’s attempts to fight their way through seasons of bewilderment.
A strong Catholic faith, which Harte has always openly espoused, runs through the narrative. His daughter had been an ardent supporter of the Tyrone senior football team since he became manager in 2003, the year they won the first of three senior All-Ireland titles in six years. Father and daughter were fast friends.
He stayed on as manager after the tragedy, the team winning two further Ulster titles and reaching the All-Ireland final of 2018. Harte coached the side through a serious cancer diagnosis, turning up for games when he should really have been in bed.
Harte’s 30-year involvement with Tyrone came to an end last November when he sat in a car in the dark with team captain Mattie Donnelly for 90 minutes during a county board meeting in Garvaghey, waiting for a text that never arrived.
He was always one to keep moving and was soon appointed Louth manager. He watched Tyrone win its fourth All-Ireland last September. “I’d a good seat in the Hogan Stand and enjoyed every minute of it.”
Harte now has more time to play golf and knocks down kilometres on a time-battered treadmill in the shed. Apart from an early morning daily visit to the local chapel, he doesn’t really know where the day will take him.
The room in which he is sitting for this interview, talking into a laptop screen, is filled with sunlight. More often than not, the house is teeming with grandchildren. It is, he says, a good time for his wife, Marian, and himself. And the publication of this book marks the end of a project that was intense and revelatory.
“It was an organic evolution of a conversation,” he says of the collaboration with the Kildare journalist Brendan Coffey. It began with a casual chat; they sparked, a sense of trust and friendship developed, and over the course of several years they talked about Harte’s life through the prism of the past decade.
The book is told in Harte’s words but also includes short, piercing first-person accounts of the days after Michaela’s death from her brothers and husband.
“It was enlightening for me, too, the way Brendan dealt with this and had these interviews with our sons and with John,” Harte says now.
“That, I suppose, told a tale for me that was very valuable because we had never sat down and had that individual in-depth conversation with each other. You felt you knew what was going on in everybody’s mind but you didn’t see it through their eyes.”
Although the subject matter of the book is harrowing in places, one of its achievements is to present a rounded memory of Michaela Harte, later Michaela McAreavey: kind, mischievous, a chatterbox, into glamour, a sister who could offer sound advice to her brothers and also drive them up the walls; a young woman who, in high-octane Celtic Tiger Ireland, was completely unfazed by the fact that her values and beliefs were not always in step with those of broader society.
“Aye. She was loyal to the faith she believed in and grew up in. And she held fast to the traditions and standards of the church as she saw it. She was that kind of person. And that made me very proud of her. I liked her single-mindedness. I liked her ability to say: the right thing is more important than the popular thing in her eyes.”
I learned a lot from Michaela’s life in the things she liked. She loved older people. She loved her granny and grandad
Marian and Mickey Harte had three boys and one girl. Although a broken finger as a child ended Michaela’s interest in playing Gaelic football, she began accompanying her father to team training when she was a kid and never lost the habit. It was their thing long before he became senior manager.
The Hartes raised their children in an orthodox Catholic tradition. It was and remains a central element of how they live. Throughout his new book, Harte remembers how his daughter practised her faith .
“Did I learn anything? Well, maybe not from her faith. I learned a lot from Michaela’s life in the things she liked. She loved older people. She loved her granny and grandad. She was attracted to older people – to stewards at gates at games, say, maybe because she could work her way past all of them with her charm and get to places she couldn’t otherwise get to.
“And she had an equal love for children. Young children would gravitate to her, and she would be all over them. So she had a love for both age groups. I noticed the connection with the grandparents, the sheer love she had for them, and learning and hearing from things of theirs back in the day. More so with Marian’s because my parents died when she was young.
“And I noticed the sheer love between a grandparent and grandchild. And she taught me that – I am that grandparent now.”
Her death naturally asked different questions of how each of the family relied upon and practised their faith. His son Mattie had begun to ask himself serious questions in the aftermath: it seemed as if he might be on the verge of quitting religion. Instead, he took a dive into the doctrine and experienced what is described as a profound spiritual crossing.
Harte speaks as openly and naturally about Catholicism as he does Gaelic football. But he smiles at the idea that he might judge how others do or don’t practice.
“It would be no business of mine to judge anybody else in what they do with their faith. I would see it as a faith handed on to me from previous generations who probably weren’t as questioning as today. But there is probably a lot to be said for the way they believed even if it wasn’t a searching belief, if you like. And I would think that because some people throw that out as archaic, they haven’t replaced it with much of substance. That’s an issue, I feel.
“And I never could see that if you are a Catholic and there are certain things the Catholic faith teaches, why would you be considered sort of rare because you do that?”
Because certain people within the church did certain things that weren’t right… does that destroy all the good work that went on? There has to be a sense of balance
He nods at the obvious response: that if the visit of Pope John Paul in 1979 was the high-water mark of mass-movement Catholicism, the litany of abuse scandals and the gradual erosion of influence has seen a big retreat.
“Is there not a slight sense of imbalance there?” he reasons. “That because certain people within the church did certain things that weren’t right and weren’t good… does that destroy all the good work that went on? There has to be a sense of balance.
“I think that far and away the people in religious life are very good people who have a serious impact on people’s lives. It is so easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To say these things went on – so is the get-out clause not living your faith because someone did it in a poor fashion? That does a great disservice to the great number of really good priests and religious who have been part of our lives.”
There has always been a radical aspect to Harte’s public profile. His first All-Ireland-winning Tyrone team was sensationally confrontational in its antic, chaotic style, which sent the sport itself in a different direction.
Feted as an innovative manager, Harte was a gifted footballer whose Tyrone career was sabotaged by an internal club row that opened a chasm within the community. A full decade of friendships frosted over, and the Ballygawley community was effectively locked out of official football in the 1980s. The only reason it was patched up was because the elders realised that the juvenile Peter Canavan was a once-in-a-century proposition – that it would be immoral not to have him playing for Tyrone.
Harte has never regretted a second of that standoff because, as he outlines, he believes he was doing the right thing on principle. It’s his first and only arbiter. He has broken from convention, such as his appearance at a rally for Seán Quinn in 2012. He is completely indifferent to the court of public opinion in expressing his beliefs, Catholic or otherwise.
His standoff with RTÉ, which has parallels with the club football row, is now a decade long, and Harte is adamant that he won’t speak or deal with the Irish state broadcaster again. Ever.
Until 2010, his relationship with RTÉ was cordial if unremarkable. In that year, he sent a private letter to the director general and board chairman to protest what he felt was a demotion in the games assigned to Brian Carthy, the Gaelic Games correspondent for RTÉ Radio.
Carthy was and remains a popular and highly-regarded figure on the GAA circuit, and other managers voiced the same concerns. Harte heard nothing back for over a week. Some kind of conciliation was then reached through Tyrone county board officials but, shortly after that, the contents of the letter appeared in a national newspaper. RTÉ denied that it was responsible for the leak. Harte cannot believe this is the case.
“That’s fair to say. From where it landed anyway, whether it was the individuals it was sent to, I’m not prepared to say that. But it was sent as a private and confidential correspondence. And someone got a good look at it.”
The point of no return occurred in the summer of 2011. An ill-devised sketch lampooned Harte for attending the Dalai Lama conference in Limerick with his son-in-law. The sketch closed with the playing of Pretty Little Girl from Omagh, which the family felt was grossly insensitive.
While he refused to communicate with RTÉ, he emphasises that he never stopped the Tyrone players from doing so. “They were supporting me, which I really respected. But I never stopped the players from talking.”
It appears that at an institutional level they were saying we have to put manners on this boy because otherwise he is going to cause us bother. That is how it appeared to me
His belief remains that the breakdown originated in the letter of support he sent, and he rejects the idea that having made his point, it might be easier to just let it go.
“Naw, there is a time to do that and a way to do that,” he says. “And when that time and that way passes, it isn’t there anymore. It appears that at an institutional level they were saying we have to put manners on this boy because otherwise he is going to cause us bother. That is how it appeared to me.”
These are the two sides of Harte. He is utterly rigid on points of principle yet completely adaptable in unexpected ways. Somehow, there is plenty of laughter in a book dealing with such weighty subjects.
He never visited Mauritius. Their son Mark volunteered to fly out in the nightmarish aftermath and attended the trial. But he says he would, in theory, like to ask the two men charged with his daughter’s death if it had been worth it, just to cover up a thieving ring. His hope would be that they would at