GAA Football

I will always pursue justice for Michaela - but the tragedy can't define me: John McAreavey

John McAreavey at his home in Banbridge Picture: Hugh Russell

JOHN McAreavey greets you with a beaming smile as he opens the front door of his beautiful home just outside Banbridge. We’ve never met before.

You imagine the Tullylish man could be doing a dozen other things with his time on this cool Thursday evening rather than an interview.

He could be watching his beloved Manchester United and their Europa League joust with AC Milan. Or spending time with his wife Tara, or nursing baby James.

In the living area, baby James is happily hanging off his mother’s right arm, as she carries the mandatory muslin cloth in her left hand.

James is five months old and bright as a button, and deeply curious of this visitor.

It's hard to know how we got here but we’re talking about the fall-out from Oprah Winfrey’s big interview with Harry and Meghan.

John fixes a couple of coffees and we retire to another room. There's a huge flat screen TV hanging on the white wall - a room made to watch 'live' sports.

A couple of days earlier, you type ‘John McAreavey’ into the Irish News photographic library and the system tells you it has 515 images.

The first and most recent picture that flashes up on screen is one of baby James curled up in his mother’s arms with his doting father.

It appeared on John’s Twitter account last December. It’s a stunningly happy image.

The digital library allows you to flick to the oldest image on the system of John.

Up pops a close-up of Michaela Harte and radiant smile on her wedding day.

You keep flicking through the images. John and Michaela in the chapel grounds. A picture of happiness.

There’s a beautiful one of father and daughter outside the chapel. Mickey’s biting on his bottom lip. Probably as proud as the day Michaela was born. Prouder even.

You keep flicking and flicking. The more you flick through the archives, the more you watch a life – lives – fall apart.

This library, these indelible images are a life’s journey: from a perfect day on December 30 2010, outside the tiny chapel in Glencull - to the jaded, hellish sun of Mauritius.

Photographers. Camera crews. Journalists. Police. Outside the courthouse. And then back in Glencull again.

The funeral cortege. The solemn, grey faces lining country roads and more pristine images of Michaela flash by.

It's important to keep flicking through the 515 archived images because you need to view the entire arc. The Michaela Foundation and all its good works. The great and the good at the ‘Match for Michaela’.

Mickey Harte lending a helping hand at the umpteenth photo call to promote the charity in memory of his daughter and John’s late wife.

The archives become laced with hope and laughter. There’s a brilliant one of John and Mickey sharing a great moment at the 2017 marathon charity football match which raised over £70,000 for Cancer Focus.

There’s another of the Tullylish captain on the main steps of Pairc Esler in the autumn of 2010 with the intermediate championship above his head. The never-ending victory speech and the guttural roars at pitch-side.

You’ll also find one of him among the Down substitutes on a grey day in Newry around 2012.

There are more images of Mauritius. The usual drill. More flash bulbs. More journalists. More mayhem. Police. Lawyers. John. Mark Harte. Two families’ insatiable pursuit of justice to catch the killers of Michaela.

Years trip by with every click of a button, and more light emerges.

Orla McIntyre and John holding the corners of a sky blue T-shirt with the words: ‘Put your best foot forward’.

The Michaela Foundation is some tribute, a life-changer for so many young women throughout the last decade.

Keep flicking and Tara appears on life’s arc.

“She’s a very selfless person,” says John.

“She’s remarkably strong and resilient, even more than she knows. I feel very, very blessed in life that I have Tara. And to see her now, she was just made to be a mother.

“To know that she is James’s mother and that he’s well protected is beautiful.”

John McAreavey and his wife Tara with their newborn son James Picture: John McAreavey/Twitter

THERE’S an instant retro feel to ‘Hey Candy’. John scrolls through his mobile phone and up pops the colourful, emblematic images of the future.

“Hopefully this is what will happen,” John explains. “You’ll be sitting on Twitter; you’ll see an advert ‘Hey Candy’. If you like Pick ‘n’ Mix candy, a ‘Hey Candy’ chocolate bar or a ‘Hey Candy’ soft drink... You think it looks good, you buy it and we ship it to you the next day.

“You get to the end of the week and some people celebrate it with a glass of wine or a beer; some people like to celebrate with candy or chocolate, so there’s a place for that.

“My brother Brian and I are passionate about delivering a good service. I support local in every way, but I am a big Amazon fan, and the lengths that they go to provide a good service to the customer is the benchmark.”

John McAreavey lives in the present – and this is how ideas take flight. Energy and entrepreneurial spirit.

For the last decade John, a trained chartered accountant, has been part of the family business – Clearhill - who are experts in retail entertainment.

If you’re a parent, then at some point your child has probably been on one of their shopping mall rides or they’ve dropped a coin or two into their toy or sweet vendors.

Before their father Brendan captured the shopping centre market, the family used to work the traditional carnival stalls the length and breadth of the country.

“From a young age we were out working on the stalls, talking to people, trying to encourage them to play our games. It was a great way to see Ireland.

“My dad was very much an entrepreneur even before it became a snazzy term. We’d different shops in Newcastle, selling rock and candy.

“You put your coin in for gumballs, hard candy, chocolate, capsules that contain wee toys or bouncy balls. The revenue was always very, very consistent when other categories were up and down…

“But you have to be prepared to pivot and realign,” he says. “We’re prepared to work really, really hard.”

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FOR as long as he can remember football was all he cared about. He dreamed of playing for Down and lifting the Sam Maguire, just like Paddy O’Rourke and DJ Kane.

After spending his formative years with Aghaderg, he moved to Tullylish in his teens.

“The drive was to play county football and to win an All-Ireland. That was it,” he says.

“Coming through St Colman’s was just the best thing. Ray Morgan and Pete McGrath were huge influences. I played MacRory there for three years.”

Aidan Carr was arguably the pick of the bunch at Colman’s at the turn of the ‘Noughties’ alongside the likes of Eoin McCartan and Dan McCartan.

John played a good chunk of his football at left wing-back but his accuracy saw him push to centre and three-quarters.

Athletically strong and a sweet left boot, he was playing senior football at 15.

“I was serious about my football. I absolutely loved it.

“But I never really got to the levels I wanted to get to. Most of my career at Tullylish was spent in Division Two and Division Three.”

He played under Ross Carr during his minor days and when the Clonduff man took the senior reins at the back end of 2007, John didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone.

“I just called Ross and said: ‘Listen, I’d love an opportunity and would you keep me in mind?’ Ross gave me an opportunity and thankfully I stayed for the whole year.”

His senior debut couldn’t have gone any better. He kicked 2-3 in a Dr McKenna Cup match against Donegal “and barely kicked a ball after that” (laughing).

When James McCartan took over Down, John registered his interest with the new manager.

He was scoring heavily for Tullylish and impressed in trials for the 2010 season.

He kept being asked back, but when it came to selecting the National League panel, he was cut.

“I was devastated not to make that panel that year because I was in flying form.

“I called James after it… I wanted feedback as I obviously hadn’t done something that the manager could use. He told me I was so close but just lost out when the management team voted on who made the squad.

“I’ve always believed you should ask people. You have to take ownership. If you want something and believe you’re good enough, then put your hand up. You can’t be sitting about waiting on a phone call all the time. That was my belief.”

He was slightly in awe of some of the Down boys around that era. Dan Gordon. Benny Coulter. Danny Hughes. He was a big fan of Ronan Sexton – “just the way he trained and carried himself, he was diminutive but a brilliant player.”

He would later win a place on McCartan’s panel but remained on the cusp. He still carries regrets that he didn’t make more of an impression at county level.

“I suppose I was like any new player coming into the panel; you were respectful of all the players and you were looking to observe, absorb and learn everything, but it was probably to my detriment.

“Maybe I should have been a bit nastier when the opportunities arose during training.”

He describes his attempts at staking a claim in the Down set-up a "failure".

“Well, it is failure. I didn’t feature. You always hear that it’s tougher being from a smaller club – and that is true because you don’t get the exposure.”

All the while the club was his salvation. More than once, the people of Tullylish raised him up when he fell down.

In October 2010, they edged out neighbours Annaclone in a memorable final in Newry [4-7 to 4-6] to claim their first-ever Intermediate crown.

He never got to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup or the Sam Maguire but that intermediate title may as well have been – a club, he says, that has more than its fair share of salt of the earth kind.

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Michaela Harte

WITHIN months of that famous victory, John McAreavey got married to Michaela Harte and lost her in the most brutal of circumstances less than a fortnight later, murdered while the newly-weds honeymooned in Mauritius.

John’s life and the lives of the McAreaveys and Hartes shattered into a million pieces. Theirs was unimaginable grief. Still is, ten years on.

So where does a young man’s life go after such an unfathomable episode?

Mauritius became his hell on earth. When he came home, destined to return to the holiday island several times to pursue the truth, John stayed with the Hartes.

Mickey Harte was his father-in-law. Over time, that relationship evolved into a friendship.

“Michaela had such a strong relationship with her father but she had an equally strong relationship with her mother, Marian.

“Given the fact we both lost someone who was so close and precious to us, there was always that bond there between Mickey and me. We had to grieve together a lot.

“After Michaela died and I came home from Mauritius, I probably stayed up in Mickey’s for about two months. It’s just where I felt close to Michaela.

“And I suppose for them too, they probably felt close to Michaela through me. Mickey and me would have been up early every morning, sharing breakfast and talking.

“When you are going through something which is so hard and you know other people are as well, you want to protect them... So we would’ve spent a lot of time together talking about our feelings and just going through it.

“I think he trusted me a lot, trusted me in everything I was doing with the Michaela Foundation and the whole area of justice. I think we’ve always had a good, open relationship.”

John adds: “I think Mickey knows I deeply care about him. We became friends then which wouldn’t have been the case before. I’d always great respect for Mickey and drew energy from talking to him.”

John stepped out of work for the best part of 2011 and found the only time he escaped his own thoughts was on a football field with Tullylish.

“That’s where my mind was. It never drifted and it was the only thing that could keep me where I wanted to be for an hour-and-a-half. I got back onto the county panel too.

“But, whenever you’re in that grieving mode, anything that goes on in your life, it’s very, very hard to derive any joy from it. So you might have a bit of elation, a bit of a high, but after it, you crash.

“I got myself in great condition. I was very conscious of being active and healthy to look after my mental state. It allowed me to perform for my club, going out every week, playing well, until I came home.

“Like, I would have cried and thought: ‘What was the point of that?’

“At the stage I’d moved into the house in Lawrencetown that Michaela and I had bought – a stone’s throw from the football pitch. You closed the door and you were back to reality.

“They talk about the five stages [of grieving]. It certainly isn’t linear, is it? Having to navigate the shock of it all and how utterly tragic the whole thing was. Deal with the trauma of it. That was really, really tough.

“And then try to understand what is left for me as a person. Who am I now? What is my identity?

“And then having to worry about what was happening in Mauritius and the trial in 2012. That elongated the whole process.

“It was painful. It was really painful. And still is painful. But I was always of the opinion I wasn’t travelling this road on my own and I very much felt God was looking out for me and protecting me.

“I was always very sure that Michaela was with God. I know for some people they hear that, and say: ‘That’s good, but that wouldn’t help me.’

“I can understand why some people might feel like that but that’s just how I felt about it. It probably allowed me to move forward in life and maybe navigate that territory where things were just all over the place, where it was just darkness, just sad, just really sad for a long time.

“And then meeting Tara and trying to identify what these feelings are over here [gesturing with his hands] and what does that mean over here. It’s trying to rebuild your life.”

John and Tara Brennan got married in 2016. His life will probably always be framed by the terrible events of January 10 2011. But he doesn’t feel like a victim. Not in the slightest, he says.

And he will pursue justice for Michaela as long as he’s able to draw breath.

“There’s a lot of beautiful things in my life. I’m a very fortunate person,” he says.

“There’s a lot of people far worse off than me. I’ve got good friends, great family, a beautiful wife, a son, we’ve got the football club down the road.

“I never feel like a victim. Now, I don’t wake up in the morning and say I’m going to be Mr Positivity today but at the same time that awful tragedy should not be my life story.

“I’m not prepared to let that be my overarching story. There’s too much positivity and love and hope that won’t be overshadowed. Michaela lost her life. Am I to lose mine too?”

Life’s arc sweeps across endless blue skies, with the silhouette of John, Tara and baby James.

Soaring. Endlessly soaring.

John McAreavey has become a father for the first time Picture: Hugh Russell

 

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