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'Each morning, I pause here beside Michaela and pray'

Read an extract from Mickey Harte’s book ‘Devotion’.

Mickey Harte (file pic).
Mickey Harte (file pic).
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Devotion’ by Mickey Harte.

Age has turned me into an early riser. I wake on the dot at six and make my way quietly out of the bedroom.

Times past, I slept on as long as possible; I just relish the morning now.

Those days when I rise before the sun, a light from the corridor guides me through the house. Michaela’s room looks across from ours, still much the same as it was the night before her wedding. Just down from our door, her picture rests against the wall, lit from above.

She smiles down on me from that frame and I close my eyes, tripping through time. One look at Michaela takes me back to her brightest day. December 30, 2010: we paused outside the church and I could sense her glee. I like to remember her that way, the way she was on her wedding day.

Each morning, I pause here beside Michaela and pray. Then I slip down the stairs, out and into the car. Turn left at the bottom of the drive, then right onto the main road, heading for Ballygawley. Half a mile down, turn left, to reach the church in Ballymacilroy. Three minutes, door to door.

I change the car every couple of years but always the same registration plates: M11 CMA. C for Caela, MA for McAreavey. M11 gives the year.

On Sundays, the chapel is still warm from the heat of Saturday night Mass. I set down my prayer books and fix new candles on the altar if they have run low. Next, I turn to face the tabernacle. Then, I kneel, before blessing myself, preparing to expose the Blessed Sacrament. The next hour is spent in the presence of the Lord.

Time passes quickly while I pray, always thinking of people. I read different passages from various religious books, marking pages, taking notes. My heavy Tyrone jacket, padded and quilted, provides a much-needed layer of insulation in winter. Nature is all you can hear this early, the stream behind the church, its gently flowing water.

At 7am, my stopwatch beats to signal the hour. My mind settles: I feel at peace.

These mornings are special to me. For 200 years, people have prayed in St Malachy’s. I get a sense of all the believers who came before me. Every time I come here, I walk into history.

This hour of Eucharistic Adoration has become part of my daily routine these past few years.

First, I thank God. I feel grateful for being in His presence. I feel His mercy and love; those gifts coming to me from the host on the altar. The Eucharist is God, Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. No longer do I look on my belief as a story learned in childhood. My comprehension of this reality took years, and it has changed my life. If God is not there, our faith is in vain.

As the Catholic American author Flannery O’Connor once said: ‘If it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.’

Why did I not devote more of my life to Adoration in the past? I probably felt too busy. On reflection, I had plenty of time. The pattern of my days has developed gradually. Initially, I went once a week. After a while, I was going twice. Lent seemed a time when I should go every day. Then I thought: ‘Why not Advent as well?’

Those blocks made me realise how precious Adoration is, time spent in silence before the Lord. Now, my day is not the same without that hour.

But I am not here to make an impression; it is not a way for me to get good with God. All the years I spent without this morning retreat were my loss. Really, I am making up for lost time.

I can only be grateful, thinking on my life, the turns taken. Never have I seen myself as a victim. How can I explain these feelings? People rarely seem to get this far beyond grief. Logic cannot explain everything: many experiences in life defy reason. I think you have to go through this experience for yourself to truly understand.

Yet I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Every time there has been a loss in my life, I find some new gift.

And, when you weigh one side of the scales against the other, I still hold the balance. My faith has taught me to see the crosses as gifts.

Children change your life. Until the weans arrived, I was happy to sleep on. Once they were old enough to dress themselves, I enjoyed not having to rush out of bed. Youngsters fill a house with energy. As soon as you reach them in the morning – do their feeds, talk with them – a new world opens.

Our children, as I watched them grow and develop, gave me such a thrill. I have no memory of learning to walk and talk. We take those gifts for granted but when your own family embark on those first steps, discovering life’s essentials, the heart soars: they belong to you, you belong to them.

First, we had Mark, then Michael. Having a girl after two boys was another exploration of life as a parent: different toys, different clothes, different strokes. Michaela was wild talkative from a very young age. She was inquisitive by nature. You would never be idle with Michaela. She made for great company. Mattie, our youngest, took after her.

I still speak with her now. These mornings in Ballymacilroy, I sense her presence. I loved Michaela so much when she was with us, but now I can connect with her any time. I hope and pray that she is in heaven, more alive than we are. She has become a spiritual presence for me. Michaela is there for me whenever I think of her.

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I visit the graves on match days, after my hour of Adoration. The graveyard lies behind the church, across the lane. From there, I can see into my original family home just below.

Whatever resilience I possess comes from my father, Peter. He took life as it came, a stoic man but far from humourless. I remember him teasing the women who looked after the church. They were meticulous about their work and the pews would be gleaming, slick with polish.

‘It’s that well done,’ he used to say, ‘I’d need a seatbelt to sit in it.’

Daddy never used bad language, which was the way for most of his generation. Naturally, he could get annoyed, but his temperament always remained fairly level. Family was hugely important for him. Every year, on St Stephen’s Day, he visited his brothers and sisters. They all lived within about a 15-mile radius, around Pomeroy and Donaghmore. Paddy, my eldest brother, used to take him. Daddy rode a motorcycle at one stage, but he never drove. There was no car about our house until Pete, the second eldest, finished university. He had a Vauxhall Cresta, I think.

Daddy worked with the local council, labouring on the roads, doing work that machinery takes care of nowadays. I look a bit like him. He was slightly taller than me and always stood very straight, especially for a photograph.

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My father introduced all of us boys to football, though I never heard if he played much himself. I have no memory of my parents coming to matches. My mother, Mary, looked after the club jerseys, but she hardly ever left the house.

Daddy took great pride in his children. We could sense that warmth from him, but nobody spoke much about their feelings back then. I never told my parents how much they meant to me: speaking about those things would have only embarrassed them. Typical Irish, you might say, but sometimes I think their way was better. We can be too dramatic these days, everything over the top.

My father lived a very disciplined life: up at the same time, meals by the clock, Rosary every night. He led by example; both of my parents did. Their lives were simple, orderly. If I achieved something, I knew it would make them happy.

One time, when I was about seven, I felt these awful pains in my stomach and the doctor had to be called. Turned out my intestine was tied in a knot and I needed an operation. The thought of going to hospital petrified me. What was an operation? I thought I might fall through the sky.

I spent three weeks in hospital, six stitches running down my side, like the laces on an old football. I was so scared the day the stitches came out, I pleaded with Mummy to stay with me. That connection seems natural to me, but I know I was blessed to grow up in a loving home. Not everyone gets that lucky.

I never saw my father overcome. Some siblings died before him, but he took those losses with quiet grace, treating them as another part of life’s cycle. Two of my brothers are gone more than 10 years now.

As my family breaks up, faith helps me through: I can accept life as it unfolds, the same way my father did.

The walk through the graveyard first takes me past my parents. Beside them, my brother Paddy, the eldest. Beside him, Veronica, my middle sister. I never knew Veronica:
she died on January 27, 1948, the day after she was born.

It took me several years to fully appreciate this precious little baby, whom I never knew, as my older sister. Why, I am not exactly sure. She was a beautiful soul, sacred, a gift to my parents. Some might ask, what is in a life?

She lived for one day but that does not diminish her as a person, as a daughter or as my sister. All life is to be celebrated and cherished. So many do not get the chance these days. I am thankful that I have a saint in heaven who has been praying for her little brother all these years.

A pathway runs up the middle, taking me towards Pete. The row behind him leads to Michaela: her precious smile greets me again. The same photograph we keep in our hallway adorns her headstone.

Even now, people leave gifts. I picked up a sliotar recently, signed by a family from Wexford. These gestures still amaze me.

I stand for a short while, say a prayer and wish her well. Then I bless myself and walk back out, ready to face the day about to break.

‘Devotion’ by Mickey Harte with Brendan Coffey is published by Harper Collins Ireland. More info here.

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