Neil Loughran: When sport shines a light on the darkest of days

The last week has offered several reminders of how remarkable resilience in the face of incredible grief can only be admired...

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Stephen McAlorum regularly visits the grave of his younger sister Megan and mother Margaret. Picture by Hugh Russell
Stephen McAlorum regularly visits the grave of his younger sister Megan and mother Margaret. Picture by Hugh Russell Stephen McAlorum regularly visits the grave of his younger sister Megan and mother Margaret. Picture by Hugh Russell
“Now, he’s nothing. He’s nothing to me. He doesn’t come into my head any more - I wouldn’t let him live in my head. The biggest thing for us is that our Megan’s not here no more, that’s what matters to us. Forgive my language, but fuck him...”

JAW tightening, lips quivering, anger enveloped Stephen McAlorum’s reddened eyes as those words were spat out in the front room of his west Belfast home. This was April 2019, the 15th anniversary of the brutal murder of his younger sister just days away.

Megan McAlorum’s death, and the horrific manner of it, left a community sick to its stomach.

On Easter Sunday the 16-year-old had met up with friends at the Hunting Lodge after finishing a shift at the Glenowen Inn. They later got into a taxi but Megan decided to visit a friend at a local fast food outlet.

At around 2am, while walking home, she got into a car driven by Thomas Purcell, also 16. He lived at a nearby Traveller site, and was known to Megan and her friends.

Twelve hours later Megan McAlorum’s body was discovered on a desolate stretch of land in a forest half a mile from the Glenside Road in Dunmurry. Such were the extent of her injuries, Megan’s coffin remained closed when she came home.

How does a family ever manage to move on from something like that? The short answer is they don’t. As he spoke a decade-and-a-half down the line, Stephen McAlorum’s pain remained every bit as raw.

The last thing he wanted to do was to delve back into the detail of such a harrowing part of his and his family’s life, but he felt he had to – for Megan, and for his late mother.

Before she passed away in 2017, Margaret McAlorum campaigned tirelessly on Megan’s behalf. She didn’t want her daughter’s death to be in vain. With Thomas Purcell’s jail term up for review, the family agreed it was time to speak up for Megan again.

Stephen McAlorum did so in the most dignified manner imaginable. Yet, outlining the horror of how his sister’s murder had taken place, no detail was to be spared, no matter how painful it was to recount.

He wanted to paint Purcell as the monster he was.

“My mummy never really got over it; she talked about Megan every day – constantly.

“Our Megan’s room hasn’t changed one bit – not one bit of wallpaper, not any clothes… there’s a TV sitting in there that must be 30 year old. Nothing will be touched in it.”

Stephen McAlorum during his playing days
Stephen McAlorum was part of the Glentoran side that defeated Cliftonville in the 2009 Irish Cup final. Picture by Pacemaker

Purcell was eventually released from prison in 2021, having seen a previous parole application fail as he was deemed unsafe to be released into the community. Last weekend, it was reported that Thomas Purcell had died following a traffic collision in England.

The McAlorum family haven’t been out of my thoughts since. All we can hope is that this brings some sort of peace, even though they will always shoulder the sorrow of Megan’s passing.

What is striking about people like Stephen McAlorum is the strength they are able to summon, not just to go on, but to ultimately channel that hurt into something positive; something that enhances their lives and the lives of others, while also honouring the memory of those lost.

Just last week Laochra Gael featured the story of former Tyrone midfielder Kevin Hughes.

The Killeeshil man suffered incredible personal loss, losing his brother, Paul, and sister, Helen, to accidents on the A4 road in 1997 and 2001. His minor inter-county team-mate Paul McGirr also passed away in June 1997 after an on-field collision, while Tyrone captain Cormac McAnallen died in 2004 from sudden adult death syndrome.

Days after the death of his brother, Kevin Hughes – watched by his grieving family – produced a tour de force as Tyrone swept to an All-Ireland minor semi-final replay victory over Kerry. To you and I, it is almost beyond comprehension that someone could perform to such a standard while dealing with such unimaginable grief.

“If it was Paul’s decision, he would’ve wanted me to play, so from that sense it was an easy enough decision to make.

“I just remember seeing the smiles on my brothers’ and sister’s faces... that was enough for me. After that, it was just a case of ‘right, I can keep doing this, bring happiness for whatever small short space of time for my family’.

“That was the driving force for me.”

Last weekend we saw young Niall Devlin line out for the Red Hands as they secured their Division One status with victory over Monaghan. Just a week earlier his older brother Caolan had been laid to rest, having died in a road accident on the A5, between Omagh and Ballygawley.

Sport can provide an outlet, a renewed purpose even, in the most difficult of times, yet the resilience required to step out of that darkness should never be taken for granted.

A moment of support and encouragement between Padraig Hampsey and Mattie Donnelly for Niall Devlin 7 before taking on Monaghan during the National Football League Division 1 match played at Healy Park, Omagh on Saturday 16th March 2024. Caolan Devlin, the older brother of Niall was killed in a car crash on the A5 just a few days ago. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Niall Devlin played for Tyrone last Saturday, just a week after older brother Caolan had been laid to rest. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

Stephen McAlorum went off the rails for a few years after Megan’s death. During that time, football was the furthest thing from his mind.

But he knew what it meant to his father, Frankie, to watch him play. Travelling to training, going to games; it was, and always had been, their thing.

And so he started playing with Donegal Celtic, started to love the game again. And then Frankie Alorum made a rare request – asking his son to bring home an Irish Cup medal.

Soon the tigerish midfielder was bound for Glentoran, always with his father’s words rumbling about the back of his head.

In his first year at the Oval, Glentoran reached the 2013 Irish Cup final, beating Cliftonville 3-1 in the final. Frankie McAlorum’s birthday was the following month and, as a memento, his son had the medal and a shirt signed by all the Glentoran players framed and presented as a gift.

But it doesn’t hang on the wall in the living room, or at the bottom of the stairs. It rests where it always has, and where it always will.

“It’s in our Megan’s room,” he said, “just sits there.

“And that’s where it’ll stay.”