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'He's a bit of a guardian angel:' A brother's promise and keeping the spirit of Tyrone's Paul McGirr alive

Michael McGirr talks to The42 about his brother Paul who passed away after playing a game for the Tyrone minors in 1997.

THE PROMISE

McGirr Paul McGirr. Source: Oliver McVeigh

WHEN THE TYRONE minor football team were striving to win silverware during the 1997 season, a promise was made between two brothers.

Dromore’s Paul McGirr was a regular face in the Tyrone half-forward line and his older brother Michael told him he would wait until they qualified for a final before taking his place in the stands to watch the team play.

He previously saw his brother play in a final when he was on the Fermanagh College team that won the All-Ireland Vocational Schools title, but this was a new team and a new challenge.

And this was their routine.

It wasn’t that he lacked faith in what his brother and his teammates were trying to achieve. In fact, the older of the two McGirr siblings was something of a mentor for Paul at home.

While manager Mickey Harte and Father Gerard McAleer were concentrating on plotting a path to glory, Michael was ensuring that his baby brother — and the youngest of the six McGirr children — was maintaining a good lifestyle off the pitch.

Paul was already attuned to this kind of living as he was studying a Sports and Leisure course in Enniskillen at the time. He was regularly availing of the gym facilities and exploring all the benefits of good nutrition. 

For Michael’s part, he was encouraging his brother to continue making those good choices at home, while also ensuring that he didn’t intrude on the work being done by the Tyrone management team.

“I would have been chatting to him,” McGirr tells The42, ”I would be watching his preparation and making sure he wasn’t doing anything that I thought wouldn’t have been right.

“And then I let him off to his own thoughts to focus on whatever messages or instructions Mickey had given him. You can’t have two masters so I’d leave the thing to Mickey and just make sure he was getting sleep and getting water into him and that he wasn’t eating rubbish.

I’d speak to him after the match when everything was done and dusted, that was the normal thing and go through what he thought of his performance.”

Sport always played a prominent role in the McGirr household. The big concrete yard was their field of play where Michael was a defender and Paul was a forward.

Both boys played with the Errigal Ciarán club up to the U12 grade before the family relocated from their home in Garvaghy, Ballygawley to Dromore where their father Francis had purchased a farm.

Michael continued playing with Errigal Ciarán while Paul transferred to their new local club as he was unable to drive.

Paul flourished through the grades with Dromore and the pair played against each other once in a pre-season tournament at a time when Michael’s time as a senior was coming to an end and Paul’s career was just beginning.

The youngster was equally proficient off both feet and from playing in that concrete yard with his older siblings and cousins, he learned how to fight for possession against tough opponents from a young age.

He was always very brave,” Michael recalls.

“He was always hanging around with lads who played football. It was football before school, football at lunch-time and football after school. It was the way it was for him, he’d a very lucky existence.

“He would take it very seriously during the match and the build-up. He was into nutrition and things like that.”

Mickey Harte Mickey Harte. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Harte was Paul’s PE teacher at school and when the pair began working together with the rest of the Tyrone minors, Paul had no trouble buying into a philosophy that their county could compete for Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

But Paul was rattled by self-doubt during that ’97 season, and he confessed to his older brother that he feared his days on the starting team were numbered.

Paul was living in fear of his life that Mickey would drop him,” Michael recalls.

“Stephen O’Neill went on to win Player of the Year and won a few All-Stars, and Paul was keeping him off the team.

“He was always afraid that Mickey would drop him.”

One in 10 million

Tyrone Rita and Francis McGirr. Source: TG4

We saw the goal and we saw Paul going down and he didn’t get up again – Rita McGirr, ‘Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond’ documentary.

On 15 June that year, Tyrone were due to face Armagh in the Ulster championship. It was a home tie in Omagh but the deal between the McGirr brothers was still in place.

Michael spoke to Paul before the match and then turned his attention to work on the farm until the pair would meet again later to review the game and assess Paul’s performance.

That was their routine.

During the aforementioned Tyrone documentary, Brian McGuigan recalls that game where he delivered a pass into his teammate Richard Thornton, who in turn fed the ball across to McGirr near the goalmouth.

A race for possession ensued between McGirr and the Armagh keeper and McGirr made contact with the ball first to help it into the net for a goal, having already scored a point in the early stages of the game.

As McGirr’s mother Rita explained in the programme, her son simply did not get back up after colliding with the goalkeeper.

“Paul would never fake an injury or pretend to be injured so whenever he went down, you knew it was serious,” says Michael. “He went down solidly and didn’t roll around.

My mother was in the stand and she went to the gate and told the steward that it was her son on the pitch. The steward let her in and she helped to carry him off.

“And then I met my father around the back of the stand near the ambulance and they made their way to hospital with him.

We thought it was broken ribs. The injury that it was was one in 10 million or something.”

Michael followed on, knowing that the nature of Paul’s injury was serious but didn’t have many more details at the time.

Along with his parents, his uncle was at the hospital when he arrived although he can’t quite remember if his sisters were there too.

He walked into the room where his 18-year-old brother was lying out on the bed, still wearing the Tyrone jersey he wore while scoring that 1-1 against Armagh.

The Tyrone team 21/9/1997 The Tyrone minor team before the 1997 All-Ireland final. Source: INPHO

“He regained consciousness in the ambulance and he summoned up the courage to ask where the ball went or where did it stop. My Dad told him it was a goal and he slumped in the bed. And those were the last words that he spoke.

“I didn’t know he had passed on. He was sitting in his jersey in the bed.

I gave him a hug and he released a bit of a groan in my ear, there was a bit of air in his lungs but I just gave him a hug. I couldn’t believe it really. A very dear price.”

The shocking news of McGirr’s death spread across the country in the days that followed and well known GAA figures including Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh travelled to Tyrone to pay their respects.

The McGirr family has come to appreciate those gestures over the years and Michael believes that the Tyrone fans felt duty-bound to mark his passing and thank Paul for the vital contribution he made to the county at such a young age.

“We were trying to keep it low-key but I suppose Tyrone supporters felt Paul was doing a job for them.

He was representing them and doing his best for them and was injured in the line of duty and they felt an ownership of that.

“They weren’t going to let that go unmarked.”

Coping

McGirr began attending the Tyrone games after his brother’s death and the county board helped out with tickets to ensure the family continued to feel part of the team’s journey for the remainder of their championship campaign.

Tragedy struck again later in the year when midfielder Kevin Hughes lost his brother Paul in a car accident leading up to their All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry.

The players were forced to deal with bereavement once again but they prevailed against the Kingdom to set-up an All-Ireland decider against a strong Laois outfit.

Gavin Devlin of Tyrone is tackled by Laois' Michael Clancy Tyrone's Gavin Devlin in possession during the 1998 All-Ireland minor final against Laois. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Defeat was the unfortunate outcome for Tyrone on that occasion but they avenged for that loss the following year against the same opposition, and the McGirr family supported them all the way to victory.

“You never wanted it to end without success for the panel,” says McGirr.

“You didn’t want them to think that they had failed and thank God they don’t think that. They’re a hugely successful bunch of people.

“I was there in ’97 when they were beaten and it might have ended there if they won. But because they were beaten the project took a little bit longer and they were still winning things by the time they were 28 or 29 which was brilliant. 

“Mickey and the county board arranged bereavement counselling.

They were focused on what was important. It wasn’t a crusade for Paul or Paul Hughes, [it was about] being the best you could be for yourself and everything else would fall into place.

In the documentary about the Tyrone footballers, McGirr’s then teammate Mark Harte admitted that he felt guilty for refocusing his mind on the Armagh match after McGirr had been stretchered off, while McGuigan says that he had ‘sleepless nights’ worrying that he might suffer a similar fate the next time he went back out onto the football pitch.

Kevin Hughes, Mark Harte and Brian McGuigan Kevin Hughes, Mark Harte and Brian McGuigan at the launch of the documentary ‘Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond.’ Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

McGuigan also confessed in an interview with Off The Ball that he and a few others ignored Harte’s request to visit McGirr in hospital after the game as they wanted to go and enjoy their night out with a view to visiting their teammate at a later time.

At that stage, they still believed that McGirr had sustained a rib injury and that his condition was not too serious.

While they were coming to terms with what happened to their teammate, McGirr explains how he left the players to deal with the grief in their own way.

“I didn’t intrude on their private thoughts at that stage. It wasn’t going to help my case and it wasn’t going to bring Paul back to me.

“They were in the zone there for 10 years and they were trying to win their own battles and be the best they could be. It’s only when they retire that they can relax and speak about things.

“We always met them, they always came to anniversary masses and other functions. If you saw them at a football match or a wedding, you would have a chat but whenever you’re a semi-professional footballer you have to focus on the next game or the next training session.

I suppose the general public would go to a wake or a funeral and then get on with their lives but the players didn’t do that. They would have always taken time to chat to us and make us part of whatever they were at.

“They were always mature to speak to the public and speak to us in public and have a yarn and catch up on what we were doing.

“And they would still talk about the loss but that conversation would end up with all of us in tears so we probably didn’t go that way too long.

We were keeping the thing alive rather than standing around crying, which was never far away for years.”

Keeping his spirit alive

In the aftermath of his death, different projects have been initiated to celebrate the memory of Paul McGirr.

His Dromore teammates came up with the idea of running a tournament in which the U16 Champions from each Ulster county compete for the Paul McGirr trophy.

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The final of last year’s tournament was streamed live on Facebook and attracted some 13,000 views, according to McGirr.

‘The Spirit of Paul McGirr’ charity was established on the 10th anniversary of Paul’s passing which focuses on doing volunteer work in Africa and improving the lives of people living in Zambia. 

“We got involved with a priest and threw our weight behind a community development project in Zambia in a compound,” McGirr explains.

“About 100 Irish people have gone out to work there between tradesmen, students and teachers.

 ”I don’t know how many kids we’ve helped, but I think every day we support 70 kids with special needs and orphans. They get some kind of education and physio.

“And those who are too ill to come to school are looked after in their own homes. That costs a lot of money to run but we’ve tremendous goodwill from people in Tyrone.

“We go out there every year for about a fortnight or a month, normally in March or April after the rainy season is over.

“You actually get a start on your tan,” he laughs. “You could be three weeks ahead of everyone in Tyrone.”

Cormac McAnallen Cormac McAnallen. Source: INPHO

Guardian Angel

That group of Tyrone players have encountered much tragedy over the years since they started out as minors.

All-Ireland winning defender Cormac McAnallen passed away suddenly in 2004, and Mickey Harte’s daughter Michaela was later killed on her honeymoon in Mauritius in 2011.

As teenagers, the players also had to carry the heartache of the horrific Omagh bombing that claimed the lives of 29 people and two unborn children just weeks before Tyrone’s victory in the 1998 All-Ireland minor final.

But however much those events might have tested their resolve, they never fractured the unity forged between the players. They rallied through each traumatic chapter as a collective unit and found refuge in each other.

Harte has often remarked on how staying involved with the Tyrone team helped alleviate some of the pain he suffered after Michaela’s death.

Mickey Harte with his son Matthew and daughter Michaela Mickey Harte along with Michaela and Matthhew Harte after winning the 2003 All-Ireland final. Source: INPHO

Perhaps that impenetrable bond is part of why McGirr believed Tyrone would win their third All-Ireland title in 2008 despite their opponents Kerry carrying the favourites tag heading into that final.

“I had faith in them in ’08 because I knew the people on the pitch. Kevin Hughes played the best half hour of his career in the second half. He was outstanding.”

Maybe that spirit still exists in the current team as they head back to Croke Park again on All-Ireland final day after a 10-year absence.

Maybe new promises have been agreed to uphold an ethos which Harte refers to in the documentary, and which McGirr alludes to at different times during this interview.

Be the best footballer you can be, be the best person you can be in life.”

McGirr helped to get the documentary about the Tyrone footballers completed, and he has received several messages of praise and congratulations since it went to air on TG4 last Sunday night.

There was an advanced screening of the programme for some of the families and members of the squad ahead of the broadcast, and McGirr was happy to see that the portrayal of the Tyrone narrative was tasteful and accurate.

Some years back, the idea to erect a statute in Tyrone in honour of Paul McGirr was put forward but Michael declined to pursue it. 

He wanted to keep his brother’s memory alive by focusing on things that are vibrant, like seeing the people of Zambia learn skills and get an education with the help of ‘The Spirit Of Paul McGirr’ charity.

Provided he managed to stay injury-free, McGirr is confident that his brother would have been part of those Tyrone panels that went on to win U21 and senior All-Irelands as another decider beckons for the county again this weekend.

He thinks of him every hour that passes.

I suppose he’s a bit of a guardian angel, isn’t he? Whenever there’s some messing going on or some mischief in the group you would think he’d be in the middle of that.

“He was in the centre of the part or the centre of the fun. He was a conduit for laughter and good craic.” 

You can find out more information about the Paul McGirr tournament and ‘The Spirit of Paul McGirr’ charity here.

You can also watch ’Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond’ on the TG4 Player here.

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