An uplifting night under Belfast floodlights
GAA: Ulster 2-12 Donegal 1-12: On an uplifting night, the sight of 27 illuminated Chinese lanterns, one for every year of Michaela McAreavey’s life, being released into the brisk night air was one of the lasting images from a hugely inspirational ‘Match for Michaela’.
It was a night when 18,662 people came to Casement Park, not to watch a Gaelic football match, but to contribute to the sense of celebration and show support for the Harte and McAreavey families.
A night deemed so significant that it attracted Ulster’s director of rugby David Humphreys and First Minister Peter Robinson to visit Casement Park for the first time.
Humphreys brought his son, James, with him to the west Belfast venue and his presence was a symbol of how Michaela’s death had resonated across all communities in the North, as well as demonstrating the strengthening links between the GAA and Ulster Rugby.
“We’ve watched a number of games down in Croke Park but this is the first time James and I have been to Casement Park,” said Humphreys.
“I thoroughly enjoy watching the sport. It’s a sport I’d have loved to have played. The actual game itself tonight is largely irrelevant but it’s just a fantastic evening, and we’re delighted to be here to come along and show support for the Harte and McAreavey family.
“Sport has been touched by tragedy and Mickey was very supportive of us with the Spence family tragedy. So we’re delighted to come along here and represent Ulster Rugby and show our support on what is a fantastic occasion.”
Night of celebration
The families had wanted the night to be a celebration of Michaela’s life and it certainly was that. There was music, singing, dancing and general tomfoolery from MC Hector Ó hEochagáin. TV personalities such as Eamonn Holmes and Ardal O’Hanlon had taped messages of support shown on the big screen, while previously unreleased photographs of Michaela were printed in the souvenir booklet on sale on the evening. In it, family and friends contributed their personal reflections about Michaela; they wrote about how she influenced so many lives during her 27 years on this earth and how she continues to leave such a positive legacy in the 22 months since her murder.
Her father, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, said he worried during the week about the inclement weather but somehow knew that on the night, Michaela would make sure the rain stayed away.
Clearly emotional while speaking on the pitch at half-time, he said: “It is most uplifting to see the energy in the crowd, how early they came and how excited they are to be here.”
“It gives us a sense of hope and a sense of how something good can come out of something horrible. This [money raised] is going to give us the opportunity to espouse the values which Michaela lived by.”
There are plans for a Michaela Centre to be built in her home parish of Glencull and far from Saturday night being the culmination of something, her husband John McAreavey made it clear that it was only the beginning. “We have got big plans for the Michaela Centre and we’re going to be rolling out the Michaela camps across the country next year,” added Harte.
“This night was absolutely wonderful, I couldn’t have expected it to be any better. I hope everyone had a good night.”
The two teams did their best to make the match competitive. Ulster won by 2-12 to 1-12, with Donegal without a host of regulars. Joe Kernan’s Ulster selection was clearly more in the mood for combat, and led 1-6 to 0-4 at half-time.
The personal duel between Tyrone’s Martin Penrose and Donegal ’keeper Paul Durcan was enjoyable. Durcan had denied Penrose a match-winning goal in injury-time of the Ulster semi-final this year.
Penrose was intent on a small measure of revenge on Saturday night, beating Durcan after 15 minutes when an attempt at a point kindly dropped into the far corner of the net.
Durcan made a spectacular save from Penrose in the second-half, but he could do nothing about Darren Hughes’s goal in the 63rd minute.
Penrose was named man-of-the-match after scoring 1-3, though the award could easily have done to Paddy McBrearty who hit 1-5 in the second-half.
Ulster held on, but the result was irrelevant on a night which will hopefully will prove to be a source of comfort to Michaela’s family.