Updated: 13/07/12 : 05:22:48
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Hartes' Trip To The Stars Took Off In Sligo Town

A Special Report

SLIGO TOWN of an Autumn day is hardly the place you'd expect to start the most epic story in modern Irish sport.

Not just sport either; this story contains ingredients, in equal measure too, of multiple triumphs and multiple tragedies.

That day in October 2001 was the first and last time that an All Ireland GAA Football Final would be played in Sligo town, on Cairns Road.

The winning captain who made his way in our direction in the Markievicz Park that sleepy late Saturday afternoon to collect the Under 21 All Ireland title was unknown to me. Within a short time his name would burn and burn into the memory cells of an entire Irish generation, north and south united.

He was Cormac McAnallen.

Inside two years McAnallen made his way into another stand to receive another Cup, the Hogan Stand at Croke Park, The Sam Maguire.

By the time the same Sunday in September came around 12 months later, McAnallen was buried beneath the clay as his comrades received The Sam again, this time in HIS honour.

You usually 'collect' any cups as football captain but you 'receive' The Sam, much as you would use only that sole word to say you 'receive' Holy Communion.

Each time Tyrone received The Sam.....Michaela Harte was there in a central way. She was a constant in their every journey, in their trips to her family home, there on the phone and in the car. She cried tears, literally, for that 2001 team before it earned its right to be in Sligo that Saturday.

She stood out among 83,000 people in Croke Park, the photo is an irish icon, standing beside her father's side in his hour of unbridled glory. Michaela had foreseen it to the extent that she wrote those (impossible) dreams down on a napkin -- dates, teams, titles -- recorded in detail in her father's autobiography. The true story of her prophecy is the stuff of a fabled princess in a faraway land.

 The testimony and evidence on terra firma was how Mickey doted on his daughter Michaela in a way that seemed to have a greater and deeper quantum than his relationship with his team players (a) individually (b) collectively. She was an unmistakably ESSENTIAL element of the team which won All Irelands.

One By One

You can hear your own heartbeat as you re-read the chapter in Mickey Harte's book where he recalls, as if he was speaking in a court of law which cared about such detail as Truth, of how he heard of the death of Cormac McAnallen.

The undertaker rang him at home at 4.30am. Mickey Harte let the hammers of the horror hours he heard, of the illness and death in just one night thump him -- and him alone -- before he could tell anyone else. He recalls then how, just before morning he woke his family, one by one, to tell them the awful news -- son Mark, daughter Michaela. She was distraught.

Randomness of Life

The Hartes had each and all seen such sudden death touch their (football) lives before: Paul McGirr got injured during a game and shipped 20 pints of transfused blood before losing his life and being buried in a Tyrone no 12 shirt. His son Mark wore no 13 in the same squad.

Left: Markievicz Park- Sligo

Mickey Harte wondered about such randomness and chance Life's acts. 'Blood bonds' isnt an idle phrase in the making of the great teams he made.

Switch back to that day in Sligo town, October 2001. Their opponents Mayo learned first hand how Mickey Harte AND his emerging team had a special, special way in acknowledging the immensity of each individual death of a loved one.

The Mayo manager that afternoon was a famous former player, Army officer and now RTE match commentator, Kevin McStay. Harte's book recalls: ''Word had reached us in the weeks before the game that his mother had recently passed away.''

''We had all signed a condolence card and made sure he received it,'' Harte wrote.

He added 18 words of hindsight which would become unbearable prophecy in the decade of Glory ahead stained by the deaths of McAnallen and Michaela. Mickey Harte said in his book of that condolence card to the Mayo man: ''Of all the teams in the country, we knew what that support from the wider GAA family meant.''

The final in Sligo turned into a battle, Mickey Harte recalled: ''The hits and the intensity were savage that day''!

Majestic Ball

A host of new names strode Markievicz Park, Stephen O'Neill, Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes, Owen Mulligan, Cormac Hughes, Conor Gormley, Ryan Mellon. Cormac McAnallen. Soon, and for a long time, they would become household names.

Tyrone won three All Ireland senior football titles and lost another narrowly in the first decade of the 21st century. Yet if Sligo seniors had not famously knocked out Tyrone in Croke Park in 2002, Mickey Harte might not have got the chance to become Tyrone's manager.

Michaela Harte and her husband John McAreavey might never have been known to us, too. Death, like Love, knows no season. Experience learns us that neither of them has rhyme nor reason, We might never have heard Peter Robinson, leader of a society marked by the stain of Cain, teach us new truths - about each other -- and offer a balm above and beyond politics, in simple words and profound phrases as he spoke about the death of Michela.

''Mugsy,'' Mulligan, in later years would feed a majestic ball to his school master Peter Canavan, the movement measured like a metronome, timeframed into two or three seconds, and then it hit the net in an All Ireland Final. The ounce-perfect sweetness of it is a byword for 'best practice.'

Tyrone won three All Ireland senior football titles and lost another narrowly in the first decade of this 21st century. Mickey Harte earned the stature of a triple Nobel Prize winner.

He was an engineer working with human souls who had seen, and had noted, how Tragedy had time and time and time again seeped and squawked its ugliness into the steel of his squad.

Steel. Steel. Steel. One word repeated three times and BELOVED of Mickey Harte as he built unbeatable teams for Croke Park Finals. 'Steel. Steel. Steel.' It's there on page 164 of his own book.

Change just one letter in that one word, steel, and you see emerge the shadow of darkness, of what we call Devil, what this greatest of teams recognise, again, as the Darkness unplanned.