GAA

The ties that bind: Pre-match events underpin the inextricable relationships between Tyrone and Derry

Mickey Harte
Unbreakable bonds: Mickey Harte on the line in Omagh during the McKenna Cup final. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

FOR all the noise that will be generated by what happens on the pitch in Celtic Park this weekend, so much of the good of what the GAA does for society will be evident in the lead-up to the game.

At 2pm, the families of Patsy Kelly and Sean Brown will lead a walk from Free Derry Corner to the ground.

Hundreds of rival supporters will join forces to support two families whose hopes of justice for their loved ones are being pushed closer to darkness by the impending weight of the UK government’s Legacy Act that will take hold on May 1, halting the legal proceedings.

They will turn right up Westland Street and head the 500 yards to the Lonemoor Road.

There, they will be met by a group of young students from Cookstown’s Holy Trinity College.

Sixteen of them are bound for Zambia in a few weeks’ time and will hold a bucket collection outside the ground to try and raise the last portion of the £25,000 they need to fund the trip.

It is the name of the Spirit of Paul McGirr charity that they are bound for Chainda in the city of Lusaka to help put the finishing touches to a new school, its handball wall and to impart some coaching and jiving lessons on the young citizens of one of the world’s poorest countries.

More than half of Zambians are considered to live in extreme poverty. The average wage is less than $2 per day. A third of people are malnourished. A third of children suffer from stunting, meaning they are too short for their age as a result of chronic malnutrition.

Six per cent of children die before they reach the age of five.

It is a cruel existence.

The two men driving it have very direct links to what will happen inside and outside Celtic Park this weekend.

Mark McGuigan is the RE teacher in Holy Trinity. He wanted to explore the idea of a charity trip abroad to give his students some perspective on life in the third world.

Mark is a Derry and multi-Ulster Club winning hurler with Slaughtneil in his own right but also the brother of Shane McGuigan.

Christine O'Donnell from O'Neills Sportswear presents Mr Mark McGuigan with a set of O'Neills tops for the Holy Trinity pupils to wear on their trip to Zambia. Mark is a colleague of Peter Canavan and brother of Derry forward Shane - whose girlfriend Claire is Canavan's daughter.
Christine O'Donnell from O'Neills Sportswear presents Mr Mark McGuigan with a set of O'Neills tops for the Holy Trinity pupils to wear on their trip to Zambia. Mark is a colleague of Peter Canavan and brother of Derry forward Shane - whose girlfriend Claire is Canavan's daughter. (Jason McCartan Photography)

He has driven this along with Tyrone legend Peter Canavan, who will be part of the 23-strong travelling party to Zambia in early March.

Canavan not only has two sons, Darragh and Ruairi, playing this weekend but his daughter Claire’s boyfriend is none other than Shane McGuigan.

The trip is in to continue with the work of Paul McGirr’s foundation.

The McGirrs had lived out behind Kelly’s Inn in Ballygawley until they moved to Dromore when Paul was 13.

He had been through St Ciaran’s school, out of which Pascal Canavan now teaches and regularly takes groups to Zambia for the charity, but was playing his football for Dromore by the time he made it on to the Tyrone minor side.

Mickey Harte’s lifelong association with Tyrone ought not to be the subject of too much trivialisation this week.

Once Canavan’s manager, the man he described from the Hogan Stand steps in 2003 as “the crucial link” in their ascension, he is now Shane McGuigan’s.

But he was Paul McGirr’s manager too, the man who helped carry his stretcher from the field that 1997 afternoon in Omagh when the 17-year-old lost his life after an accidental collision on the football field.

Harte knew Francie and Rita McGirr, knew their children. Paul had been a friend and team-mate of Harte’s son Mark.

“When you think back, young lads going out to play a game of football and you want them to be brave, you want them to be courageous, you want them to go for the ball. That was Paul’s only crime that day,” says Canavan.

“He was too brave getting his fist to a ball. It was a 50-50 challenge, two young lads going for a ball, that was it.

“You don’t expect that sort of an outcome. It’s very hard to comprehend at the time.

“Some of the lads that he played with, I’m sure, are still trying to come to terms with it.”Canavan had seen Paul stretchered off after punching home his goal and, like everyone else in the ground, presumed he had broken ribs.

After the seniors had beaten Armagh by virtue of a Mattie McGleenan goal on a day when Canavan kicked five points, they were in Grant’s Restaurant for their meal when news filtered through that Paul had lost his life.

He had died and was buried in his Tyrone kit.

“The sight of him lying on clean hospital sheets in his Tyrone strip, his grieving family at his side, is a sight that will live with me forever,” Mickey Harte recalled in his book, Presence Is The Only Thing.

Paul McGirr’s elder brother Mickey is the same age as Peter Canavan. They’ve been lifelong friends, were team-mates when Errigal Ciaran won their first ever county title in 1993 and backed it up with the Ulster crown the following year. Mickey McGirr was full-back, Peter Canavan was full-forward.

Niall Muldoon and Brian Lavery on behalf of Tyrone GAA presents jerseys to the Holy Trinity College group travelling to Zambia in March. The jerseys will be used by pupils attending the Tyrone School Zambia in Lusaka.
Niall Muldoon and Brian Lavery on behalf of Tyrone GAA presents jerseys to the Holy Trinity College group travelling to Zambia in March. The jerseys will be used by pupils attending the Tyrone School Zambia in Lusaka. (Jason McCartan Photography)

Now Mickey heads up his late brother’s foundation.

Their work in Zambia largely takes place in the Chainda district.

Their first project was St Theresa’s Community Centre. They built a primary school of the same that opened in 2018 and houses over 200 children.

In between, they constructed the first special needs school in the area, where children are fed daily and any mobility equipment needed is provided to them free of charge, and a pre-school for orphaned kids.

“You only have to listen to Mickey speak about the project and the passion he has for it,” says Canavan.

“Absolutely it will not bring Paul back, but I think it has been really uplifting for the family to see the charity they set up, how well it has been supported and most importantly how many people it has benefitted and how many lives it has enriched in his name.

“A lot of people have given a lot of time and money to it, back and forward numerous times to help out to get the school up and running, and it’s obvious the charity is held in very high esteem.

“That’s been very rewarding and I’m sure it’s uplifted the spirit of the McGirrs.

“Who doesn’t know about Paul McGirr in GAA circles? You have the [U16 Ulster Club] tournament in his name as well, but the Spirit of Paul McGirr, the fact that it can be difficult to maintain charities and keep an interest in them, that hasn’t been the case for this.

“Be it schools or clubs, there’s been various schools and clubs that have gone out or set up fundraising initiatives. I’d say that has certainly been a source of comfort for the McGirr family.”

The Holy Trinity pupils that will fly out in early March will help put the finishing touches to the construction of a new secondary school that will be able to cater for around 400 children.

Covid held it up but they’re almost at the finishing line.

Mickey McGirr and his daughter will go out along with them. So too will Chloe Curran, a member of the Errigal Ladies team that won the Tyrone title last year and current technology teacher in the school.

Tyrone minor Paul McGirr in action hours before he died in June 1997
Tyrone minor Paul McGirr in action hours before he died in June 1997 Tyrone minor Paul McGirr in action hours before he died in June 1997

Peter Canavan’s two daughters have both been out before but he hasn’t.

He’s been in the thick of the jiving lessons taken by the aptly-named former Tyrone hurler Chris Cross.

When they arrive, they will paint or clean or do whatever’s left to be done at the new school and teach the kids of Chainda to dance and to play handball.

For two hours from 3.45pm on Sunday afternoon, community relations will be suspended and all the earlier goodwill forgotten.

Mickey Harte will be the main actor in the sideshow. His time in Tyrone began with the inheritance of a team ready to win an All-Ireland and then history turned on him when he departed and left the stage set for Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan to claim the fourth title the autumn after.

His unlikely inheritance of a Derry side that edges towards that dream means this is the only game anyone will be talking about this week.

Tyrone people may not forgive him his new job easily, but nor should they forget all that he’s done and seen.

* A bucket collection will be held outside Celtic Park to help raise funds for the Holy Trinity Cookstown students that will travel to Zambia in March to help with the Spirit of Paul McGirr charity’s construction of a new school.