By Niall Gartland
“He got hurt playing football very whole-heartedly. There’s a lot of other young people who died in tragic circumstances. The Omagh Bomb happened the following year and there’s still a lot of questions and hardship for their families. Our lad died doing what he was good at.”
– Michael McGirr
IT’S coming up to 25 years since Paul McGirr was fatally injured while playing a football match. The teenage forward – strong as an ox, a fitness fanatic and a crucial component of a now-celebrated Tyrone minor team – had kicked an early point in their Ulster Championship quarter-final clash against Armagh on June 15, 1997.
What happened next was an unimaginable tragedy that still seems to defy rational description all these years later.
In the process of scoring a goal, McGirr accidentally collided with the Armagh goalkeeper and was stretchered off the pitch. It only later became apparent that a major artery had severed from his liver, and he slipped away later that evening. The tribute published in the Ulster Herald the following Thursday was headlined simply: ‘Paul McGirr – a Tyrone footballer.’
His name has become intertwined with the story of Tyrone GAA. His manager Mickey Harte led the county to three All-Ireland titles, including their historic maiden victory in 2003. Many of his former teammates were at the coalface of those triumphs.
When his club, Dromore, won their first ever senior championship title in 2007, their captain Fabian O’Neill said that they were infused with the spirit of their fallen colleague. The same applied when his name reverberated around Croke Park when Peter Canavan delivered his winning speech in 2003. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t been forgotten.
McGirr grew up as the youngest of six children in Garvaghey. He played up to u-12 level with Errigal Ciaran (his brother Michael was a defensive stalwart who won an Ulster Club title in 1994) but transferred to Dromore in his early teenage years. As a childhood, it couldn’t have been more idyllic.
“He was the youngest, a spoilt child with a very lucky existence!”, said Michael. “We played football all the time. He was forward and I played in defence. It went on morning, noon and night, whenever we had a ball.
“He didn’t drink, he minded himself and went to the gym before you could spell the word. He was a bit like Kieran McGeeney I suppose, there was a single-mindedness about him.”
One of his former Dromore and Tyrone teammates, Kevin ‘Herbie’ O Brien, recalls his transfer to the tight-knit club, and how he was accepted ‘very quickly’ when they realised they had a talented footballer on their hands.
“Mickey was an accomplished full-back for Errigal, and I remember hearing whispers that Paul was a good footballer and might be coming to us. He was 13 or 14 when he came in. He very quickly established himself as one of our top men. He just had that style and swagger about him – he was a great footballer, right from day one.”
O’Brien continued: “Paul actually stayed at St Ciaran’s, Ballygawley, but he integrated easily – when he put on a Dromore jersey everything was forgiven! He later went to study Sports Studies in Fermanagh College and won an All-Ireland Vocationals title with the likes of Collie McCullagh and Liam O’Neill. Rory Gallagher was on that team as well.
“We were all mingling together at that stage – once he got in with those lads we all started socialising together. It wouldn’t have bothered Paul either way, he was always full of confidence.”
McGirr was drafted into the Tyrone minor panel by Mickey Harte in 1997. Mark Harte, another promising forward, already knew Paul from back in his Garvaghey days.
“Myself and Paul were the same age and I remember playing with him at Errigal when we were u-12. He never really changed much in terms of personality – he was full of talent, full of ability and very much the heart and soul of the group. He’d a quick wit and didn’t take himself too seriously in life, but he was a very dedicated footballer.
“He was great company to be in. If there was a group of lads, he’d have been in the middle and I’d have heard his laugh over the top of all the rest.
“Unfortunately from an Errigal perspective he moved to Dromore and transferred. We actually met them a couple of times in u-14 championships so that wasn’t an easy situation and I felt for him, but he was definitely very good company from an early age.”
Despite his innate confidence, McGirr wasn’t entirely convinced that he was going to make an impact with the Tyrone minors as his manager Mickey Harte kept him and the rest of the lads on their toes.
Michael McGirr said: “He just didn’t know what Mickey thought of him. He didn’t have any doubts about his own ability but he was concerned about being dropped. Mickey kept them all on the long finger, kept them all hungry and that was probably part of the secret of his success.”
He actually kept future Footballer of the Year Stephen O’Neill off the starting team, albeit he was a year older than the Clann na nGael man.
“In fairness, Stephen had a year left at minor level! That doesn’t mean that they’d have been at a par later in their career, but when you see Stephen’s collection of medals, you still think about what might have been. Paul was very dedicated to his football and in 1997 he scored a few points against Down in the preliminary round and then a goal and a point against Armagh, so he certainly had the potential.”
June 15, 1997. These were the days when minor games were played as curtain-raisers to blockbuster Ulster Championship clashes, and Kevin O’Brien couldn’t wait to represent his county in front of thousands of spectators at Healy Park.
The Dromore man still remembers the day’s events as if it were yesterday.
O’Brien said: “My dad gave us a lift to the game – myself, Paul and Joe Campbell. Paul was studying Sports Science and knew a bit about nutrition, I remember him coming out eating his pasta for breakfast in the morning. He was a bit ahead of the rest of us in that regard.
“When he got injured, I was at the far end end of the pitch but there was nothing to suggest from the medical team that it was anything urgent. I remember his mother Rita coming onto the field so I started to think it was a bit more serious. I’ve visions of her and our doctor, Seamus Cassidy, rushing him off the field.
“We’d a club minor championship match the following week and in my head all I was thinking was ‘that man’s gone for next week.’
“I heard after the game that he had a punctured lung and I thought ‘well that’s not so bad’, but I decided against going for a post-match meal. I told Mickey ‘I’m going to go see Paul with Joe’ but Mickey said ‘just leave it for now, go and get your dinner.’ I saw Mickey talking to our doctor so I spoke to him again and he said ‘you can’t go out, he’s getting a procedure done, don’t concern yourself’ and I understand that he had to say that to me.
“Later we were driving into Dromore and I remember there were pockets of people around the main street. One of the McCanns was unwell, and Pat McCusker said something about one of the McCanns dying. We pulled up to Breslin’s shop at that stage, Breslin’s was a big gathering area for us boys, there were a few arcade games in the back.
“I remember we got out of the car with big smiles on us and a couple of lads hanging around got up and walked away.
“Gerry McCullagh, Collie’s brother, just looked at me and said ‘did you not hear?’ I said ‘what are you talking about?’ He said ‘Jesus did you not hear?’ And I said ‘hear what?’. He told me Paul’s died. The McCullaghs love taking the hand but I knew he wouldn’t go that far. I remember another lad just grabbed me and gave me a hug and I knew it was true, but in a way I was still in a state of denial.
“When I headed to the county hospital I remember my Dad meeting Mickey (Harte) at the doors. Mickey was in floods of tears and informed him that Paul had died.
“Myself, my brother and my Dad went to Paul’s house later in the evening. The championship show was on BBC and there was no music, no nothing, just a photograph of Paul.
“That’s when it really hit home that this man’s gone. They did a tribute to him and used that famous silhouette photo of Paul. It just showed me the fragility of life. Twelve hours previously we were the most excited 18-year-olds. Playing football was all we ever wanted to do, it was all we ever spoke about. I vividly remember almost every moment of that day.”
At worst, Mark Harte assumed that Paul had sustained a broken rib. He recalls the moment he heard the terrible news, and says it’s still hard to make sense of it all.
“I’d a few boys in the car with me after the game, we’d arranged to meet up with everyone in Cookstown. Stephen Donnelly and Cormac McGinley were in the car with me, and the traffic was so heavy we decided to go the back way over the mountain through Garvaghey.
“I remember meeting a clubman Johnny McGirr, who was coming along the road and pulled in alongside us and put the window down.
“He was always very jovial and I knew by his face that something was wrong. I remember saying ‘were you at the match’ and Johnny’s replay was ‘did you hear about Paul?’. I said ‘I know he’s got a bad blow but he’s away to hospital’. Johnny’s reply to me was ‘Paul’s dead’. I remember after Johnny drove on we sat in the car for quite a while and didn’t know what to do.
“We thought the best thing was to drive to Stephen Donnelly’s house because Cuthbert was a Tyrone stalwart and would know the story. When Cuthbert came through the door, I knew right away that it was true by his face, he was devastated.
“We made our way down to the hospital, a few lads like Declan McCrossan and Aidy Ball had already arrived and were in floods of tears sitting in the car. I went to the room and all his family were there. Paul was there and he was fully kitted out in his Tyrone gear. It was then that the reality of what had happened really hit home.
“Even 25 years on, it’s hard to believe it happened. It’s a lot to take in at any age, but it’s particularly different when you’re young cubs playing football, it’s the last thing you expect. Your immediate feelings were for the family, you weren’t thinking much about yourself.”
Paul’s brother Michael admits he was concerned from the very start as he wasn’t the type to feign injury, but it didn’t enter his head that it could possibly be life-threatening.
“He didn’t go down for no reason, he wasn’t a bluffer. Within seven minutes of leaving the pitch, he was in Accident and Emergency. The stewards who were in charge of Healy Park were excellent.
“My dad was in the ambulance and Paul came round a bit and asked my Dad where the ball ended up, and my dad said ‘you scored a great goal.’
“We were waiting for the consultant to come into the hospital and it took a while. I suppose everyone initially thought he had a broken rib or two, they didn’t think it was as lethal as it was.
“But the problem was that an artery was severed where it meets the livery and the nurses were carrying blood to him from the blood bank constantly.
“When the consultant finally got there to have a look at him, he decided to ring his mate in east Down, a liver specialist. It was ridiculous and of course he didn’t get there in time. There’s no point getting angry about it but it wasn’t very joined up.”
That said, McGirr is remarkably philosophical about his brother’s death and points to the tragic car accident in Garvaghey last Christmas, where three young lads lost their lives and another was seriously injured.
“We have no monopoly on grief or the death of young people before their time. There’s nothing special about us really. A lot of families have received very hard knocks and I’m minded of the four lads in Garvaghey.
“Many young people have lost their lives and there are plenty of parents and siblings who have a lot of awkward questions they’d love answered. We were very lucky to have Paul for 18 years. He was a brilliant, positive influence on everybody and had a fantastic group of friends.”
The following weeks and months were a blur but Mark Harte says they were “forced to grow up very quickly.” A grievance counsellor was brought in, partially to assuage their fears that this could happen again, and they embarked on a memorable run to the All-Ireland final. They lost to Laois, but the foundations had been put in place for the greatest era in the county’s history.
“I remember we spent nearly every moment we could down in Paul’s house for the wake,” said Harte.
“I’m not sure if we were much use but there was safety in numbers in terms of us being together and trying to get our heads around what was going on.
“At the funeral itself, we walked in order, I was number 13 and there was a space in front of me for Paul as he wore number 12. The Armagh team was there to a man and they formed a guard of honour as well.
“I remember it was discussed in quite a lot of detail back at home. My father was the manager, and my brothers and sister Michaela came to the training sessions, so we were fully involved with the whole thing.
“One of the best things that happened was that a local counsellor Niall McCullagh was called in to speak to the panel. We met in Cookstown the following week and we were assured that this was a freak accident. Dr Seamus Cassidy was there too and it was good to have some sensible heads to talk us through the freak nature of what happened.”
Harte continued: “There was a depth of togetherness forged after what happened to Paul. It really bonded us, you don’t normally go through those emotions at that age. You had to grow up very quickly in terms of the challenges that life offers.”
As Tyrone got ready to field against Monaghan in the Ulster Championship semi-final, captain Declan McCrossan felt they should do something outside of the norm in memory of Paul.
“We were ready to run out and our captain Declan McCrossan said to my father, ‘is it okay if we walk out slowly today?’ The normal charge out from a team didn’t happen. We walked from the old Clones dug-out in a slow steady line and that was a very powerful, striking image. We were paying our respects to Paul and then getting ourselves ready for a match.”
The players were again forced to deal with bereavement as Kevin Hughes lost his brother in a car accident in the lead-up to an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry later in the campaign. They claimed a famous victory in a game which has assumed legendary status in the county, but there was no fairytale ending as they lost the final to Laois.
Harte said: “When we got off the bus at the roundabout after the All-Ireland final, there was a finality. Some of us would be back next year but it would be a new team. A very tragic chapter had drawn to an end but there were some magical days as well. It was tinged with grief and sadness but a lot of my best football memories were from those changing rooms. Everyone was in it together and when that ended, there was a realisation that those days could be over.
“But there was great character in that team and we came back three years later to win the All-Ireland U-21 title. That was a serious lift to everyone involved, especially lads like myself who missed out on the 1998 minor win as we were overage. It really gelled everyone together and there’s a lasting legacy that we’re very proud of.”
Kevin O’Brien, meanwhile, said the grieving process only began in earnest for himself personally when the group went their separate ways after losing the All-Ireland final.
“I remember Mickey trying to tell us that we couldn’t make this a crusade for Paul, that it can’t be like that. I didn’t understand why he said that – it was very difficult for me not to want to do it for Paul. It was part of my motivation, but Mickey was smart and knew it would put too much pressure on us.
“At least we went on that journey and shared some brilliant moments, like the famous semi-final where we beat Kerry after extra-time.
“I felt the grieving process only really started after we were beaten by Laois and I imagine a lot of the other lads would say the same. We kept Paul’s spirit with us the whole way that year and when we lost the final it was extremely difficult.”
A number of initiatives and projects have also been established to celebrate Paul’s memory. Dromore have run a tournament in where u-16 champions from each Ulster county compete for the Paul McGirr trophy, while the Spirit of Paul McGirr charity has done astounding work in improving the lives of impoverished Zambians by throwing their weight behind a community development project.
Michael McGirr said: “We’re building a new secondary school at the moment which will be opened at Christmas time. It’s called the Tyrone School Zambia and it will cater for 400 kids. I should also mention we’ve a wing for metal work and woodwork, dedicated to Kevin McCartan, who died in a car accident 22 years ago at the Ballygawley Roundabout. The ‘Friends of Kevy” raised funds of £40,000 for that.”
“We started it up on the tenth anniversary of Paul’s death and we’ve already completed a primary school, special needs school and a pre-school At the time a garden of remembrance was mooted but it didn’t really appeal to me. We thought we’d do something vibrant and knock a bit of craic out of this. I’ve seen the difference it’s made to people’s lives, I don’t know what the community would be like without it.
“I know Paul’s death grabs headlines but it’s the future that’s important as well. We’re always happy to have more volunteers. It isn’t like Trocaire or Concern where you have to come over for six months or a year, you can come over for a fortnight during your holidays, sight-see a bit and go home. We’ve really good facilities, we organise transport and food and we’re about 20 minutes from an international airport.”
When the clock strikes on the 25th anniversary of Paul McGirr’s untimely passing next month, GAA fans across Tyrone and Ireland will pause to remember the precocious young minor footballer who died doing what he loves.
But one thing can be guaranteed– between the impact he had on his friends, family and the footballing fortunes of the county, not to mention the charity named in his honour, he’s left a lasting legacy that will endure for decades to come.