LAST summer at the Athletic Grounds, Tyrone and Armagh fans stood together in the 27th minute to remember Michaela McAreavey.
Michaela was just 27 when she was murdered on her honeymoon in Mauritius and among the supporters who stood and clapped thinking of her and her grieving family was Natalie McNally.
Armagh supporters love a pitch invasion and, after the Orchardmen got one over on the auld enemy in that All-Ireland Qualifier, the McNally family basked in the glow of victory amid a sea of orange and white.
Happy in each other’s company and enjoying the occasion, June 5th 2022 was a day to remember, a precious memory they’ll always hold dear.
Tomorrow the McNallys will be back at the Athletic Grounds for Armagh’s Division One match against Mayo but it will be a total contrast to that day just a few months’ ago. Natalie, their beloved daughter and sister, has been taken from them and these words can’t come close to describing what the impact of her loss will have on her heartbroken family. The 32-year-old was murdered in her Lurgan home on December 18. She was 15 weeks’ pregnant with baby boy Dean.
A heinous crime, it has shocked the Lurgan community and the country and tomorrow the GAA community will stand again hoping to provide a little comfort for the McNally family.
Natalie’s brothers Niall, Brendan and Declan and her parents Bernie and Noel have been invited to the game as honoured guests of the Armagh County Board and applause will ring around the Athletic Grounds after 32 minutes.
It’s a well-meant gesture; a show of solidarity and the McNally family does appreciate it.
“It means the world to us,” said Natalie’s brother Niall this week.
“I remember last year I was organising the tickets for the Armagh-Tyrone game and then I realised: ‘I forgot about Natalie!’ It completely slipped my mind but I got her one in the end and we were able to enjoy that day.
“It was a great day and we hope for better days ahead. Unfortunately Natalie won’t be there to enjoy them with us and that’s the sad reality of it. We just hope that we can carry her message with us to Armagh matches in the future and we have plans to do that. We’re getting a flag made with her face on it to bring to every match and help to spread the word.”
NATALIE’S dad Noel played his football with the Wolfe Tone’s club in Derrymacash and the McNally family also have close ties with the St Peter’s club in Lurgan which used their facilities to help host a recent vigil in the town.
Down through the years, Armagh matches near or far have been days’ out for the family who have followed the Orchard County through thick and thin.
“We would have gone to all the games whether it was in buses or car-loads,” Niall explained.
“Last year we all went by train to the Galway match (All-Ireland quarter-final) in Croke Park. Natalie worked for Translink and she sorted out getting the tickets for our family, and our wider family, for the train.
“When Armagh played Dublin at Croke Park in the League last year, she was the one who explained to Translink that they should put on special trains that night and, good enough, they did. That’s what she really thought of the Armagh fans – she knew how big the support was and she knew the team needed it and she was able to relay that message to Translink and get that train sorted for them.”
The landscape has changed dramatically since we spoke last Tuesday. Later that day, the police re-arrested Stephen McCullagh and he was charged with the murder on Thursday.
Tomorrow’s show of solidarity at the Athletic Grounds will also raise awareness of the McNally family’s campaign to end violence against women.
“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of tears and it’ll be emotional,” said Niall.
“We hope that what happens at the Athletic Grounds will help with our campaign to end violence against women, we hope it will spread the word about that.
“That’s what Sunday is about, it’s not just about us getting our justice; it’s about ending violence against women and girls. Natalie was big into her activism and I think she would be proud of us for carrying on this message so it’s about keeping the word out there and helping to put an end to this.
“Hopefully it’ll help spread the word about what happened to Natalie and keep it out there because that’s what we really want - we need to keep it in the public eye and everything helps.
“There’s so much interest in Armagh, they have such a reach and so the message will spread further and, with the game on TG4, the whole of Ireland will be able to pick up on it.”
WHEN his phone rang at 5.30 on the morning of December 19, Niall knew immediately that something was very wrong. His dad was on the other end of the line but he couldn’t bring himself to repeat the words that had broken his heart.
“It was the worst news imaginable,” said Niall.
“You know when you get a half-five phonecall it’s not good news. He wouldn’t tell me what had happened at the start and I had to shout it out of him to tell me what had happened – he wouldn’t even tell me who it had happened to. Then my mum shouted it out…
“I screamed, I just screamed. They wouldn’t have needed to be on the phone to hear me at the moment, they would have heard me even though I live about five miles away from them. It was absolutely devastating, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through it.
“We hope it will never happen again but the sad reality is that it’s still happening but the hope is that in future it’ll happen less.”
The family have had many restless nights in the six weeks’ since and there are more ahead. A trial is looming now and that will mean long days of uncertainty.
“We’re still trying to get into a bit of a routine and get some sleep but it is hard,” said Niall.
“It’s hard to get over that this happened to someone so precious to us. It’s hard to switch off.”
AT a time like this, everyday things that once seemed so important get put into perspective. Stacked against the McNally family’s loss, sport seems so trivial but as former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi once put it: “Football is the most important of the least important things”.
The Armagh and Mayo faithful will offer their support tomorrow in the hope that it brings some comfort to the family and the McNallys’ beloved Everton have already shown their solidarity.
“We’re all big Everton fans,” Niall explained.
“My dad has been an Everton fan all his life and he passed it on to all of us unfortunately.
“They reached out to us as well. My dad loves Seamus Coleman and we were in Clones last summer when Armagh beat Donegal and we heard he was there. When the game over, the fans went onto the pitch and we tried to get over to see if we could find him in the stand but I think he made an early exit that day - as you would if you were a Donegal fan.
“We usually go over a few times a season, we go to away matches as well, so it is a big part of our lives and we’re grateful for what they did and what they’re continuing to do.”
THE murder of Natalie McNally has shaken the close-knit community of Lurgan to the core. That something so brutal could happen to one of their own, to a young women with her life in front of her… Doors that might once have been left open are now locked and people fear for the safety of themselves and their nearest and dearest.
“We are still very fearful here as a community in Lurgan,” said Niall.
“We’ve all stepped up our security measures and we’re all still frightened. I get messages every day from people telling me about how scared they are and how they want answers so they can sleep easier at night.
“We do hope that that day is coming soon so we can put our fears to rest and get back to some sort of normality. I don’t think life will ever be the same for me but for the other people in the Lurgan community I do hope that one day soon that their lives will go back to normal.”
You wonder how he finds the strength to think of others at this time. His world has changed utterly but for now Niall remains totally focussed on standing tall for his family and seeking justice for his sister and the nephew he will never get to know.
“The strength I have found is coming from Natalie,” he says.
“She was a very strong independent person. I was probably too reliant on others before all this but I’m trying to be strong for her and for my family now.
“We’re all trying to be strong. I don’t really care about myself right now, I want to do this for Natalie and Dean and my mum and dad and that’s where we’re getting all our strength from.”
Tomorrow we’ll stand and clap, thinking of Natalie, wishing she was there with us, hoping this never happens again…