Mickey Harte tells us how there is much more to life than football

Mickey Harte at the launch of the GAA's Healthy Clubs initiative
Mickey Harte at the launch of the GAA's Healthy Clubs initiative

Gaelic football is no longer a matter of life and death for legendary Tyrone GAA boss Mickey Harte.

No other manager in the history of the GAA has been touched more by tragedy.

His only daughter, Michaela, was murdered in her hotel bedroom on her honeymoon with John McAreavey in Mauritius in January 2011. After a seven-week trial the following year, two hotel workers were found not guilty of her murder.

In March 2004,  the then Tyrone captain Cormac McAnallen died suddenly at the age of 24, while in 1997 Paul McGirr, a member of the Tyrone minor team managed by Harte, died after sustaining injuries in an accidental collision in an Ulster championship game.

Harte, who has been named by the GAA as an ambassador for their Healthy Clubs project, acknowledged that these tragedies have given him a different perspective on the game.

“Football was the be-all and end-all when I first became a manager and in many ways you still have to have that concept in your head. But when you look at it in the cold light of day, you say yes it is very important and it would be great to achieve all these things, but life is so much more than that,” says Harte.

“Defeats make you sick, but only for a while. They get you in the core for a short time and you reflect on losses with a lot of disappointment for many weeks and months to come. But it pales into insignificance when you see some of the things you have to deal with in your life.”

Harte acknowledges that for many Tyrone fans the fortunes of the county team are still a matter of life and death and he remains mindful of this reality.

“I still have to live in the real world. While it’s not life and death for me, that isn’t the way it is for others. I know for people who go and see our games, and for the die-hard supporters, it is a life and death situation. But it’s not for me, particularly.

Now beginning his 15th season as the county’s senior team manager, he is one of only seven GAA football bosses who have coached their teams to three or more All-Ireland senior wins.

Tyrone won the Sam Maguire Cup for the first time in 2003 in Harte’s first season in charge and were crowned champions again in 2005 and 2008.

The county minor team won an All-Ireland in 1998 when Harte was team boss, while he managed the Tyrone U-21s to All-Ireland wins in 2000 and 2001.

Now, though, he’s absorbed in a new challenge away from the field of play.

Harte believes that GAA clubs are uniquely positioned to play a leading role, not just in the sporting life of their local communities, but in promoting a range of other health-related initiatives.

“The GAA is about community; it is about been part of something bigger than yourself and not feeling isolated,” says Harte.

“Unfortunately, in modern society lots of people of various ages feel left out of the hub of society. They lead individual lives – not through any fault of her own – but almost by accident.

“I can only reflect on the 50s and 60s and that when I was growing up in rural Ireland people looked out for each other. I think the Healthy Clubs project is instilling this ethos into the community again.”

Michaela Harte with Mickey

Sponsored by Irish Life, 16 clubs were involved in Phase 1 of the project. Now 60 clubs – at least one in each county – are involved in Phase 2, which involves a range of campaigns addressing issues like smoke-free clubs, emotional well-being and mental fitness, physical activity for non-playing members, engaging older community members, youth development, gambling, drug and alcohol awareness, heart health, suicide awareness and blood donation.

Harte believes that it’s crucial for people to start connecting face-to-face again. 

“Even though people were never better connected electronically, they 
don’t see each other face-to-face. There is sense of belonging – that sense of being part of something bigger than yourself.”

He believes that the initiative has the potential to play a role in helping people overcome the stigma attached to mental health issues and address the country’s spiralling rates of suicide and self-harm.

“In the modern world people can feel isolated and alone. They might feel they have nobody to turn to and while they might be connected to loads of people all over the place, they can’t connect with anybody who will feel for them and feel their pain.

“We have to try and understand why the rates of suicide and self-harm are on the increase. We can’t just accept that it will go on. What we have to say is ‘how can we take action to make the situation 

“One of the key ways of doing that is the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle and being part of a community, being part of something more than yourself. This is what the whole concept of the Healthy Clubs project is all about.”

Even though Harte’s primary focus will remain on guiding the fortunes of Tyrone, he is excited by his involvement in this project.

“This is the real and most honest challenge of all – can you be part of making somebody’s life better by getting involved in something they are doing. That’s the most fulfilling thing of all to be part of.

“Trophies and titles are wonderful to win, but this is about trying to create a better, healthier society. 

“We want to see people with better mental health than they might have if we didn’t have this project in place. So I think this is very much a win-win situation,” says Harte.

Further details of the project will be available at four provincial venues during the spring at the following venues and dates: Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence (near Ballyhaunis, County Mayo), February 4; Nemo Rangers GAA club, Cork, February 18; Croke Park, March 11th, Ulster University, Jordanstown, Belfast,  April 1st.  

The other ambassadors for the project are Dublin All-Ireland medallist Philly McMahon, Kilkenny hurler Michael Fennelly and retired Cork camogie star Anna Geary.