Having been thrust into the public eye in the most awful circumstances imaginable, John McAreavey remains a man of immense faith and courage, writes Martin O’Brien
The two hours we had agreed for this rare and exclusive interview, requested by The Irish Catholic, just flew by. So, I was sorry when John McAreavey, husband to Tara, forthright witness to almighty God, admirer of Pope Francis, outspoken young businessman, sharp-shooting forward on the recently-promoted Tullylish GAA team, and unrelenting campaigner for justice for Michaela (née Harte), his late first wife, had to rush off from their home in Banbridge, Co Down to attend the annual meeting of his Gaelic football club a few miles away. The club is close to where his parents still live, at The Blue Road, Tullyish, “the home place,” he calls it.
The McAreaveys have lived in the area for 200 years. Evidently that sense of place is important and is bound up with his identity. “Please God, in the future Tara and I will be out that road in Tullylish,” he says at one point.
Hours earlier he returned from a business trip with his father and brother to the United States on behalf of the McAreavey family company, Clearhill, the Banbridge-based leisure vending equipment firm which employs 32 people with a turnover of £5m (€5.69m), operating more than 5,000 machines across 250 shopping centres throughout Ireland and Britain, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
John, a chartered accountant and a graduate in management from Queen’s University, Belfast is financial director of the company founded by Brendan, his father, the managing director, and brother of Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore.
His father is something of an entrepreneurial visionary who introduced the first children’s adventure playground to Ireland in the late 1980s, the ‘Indiana Land’ at Dundonald, on the outskirts of Belfast, which he sold after five years.
John recalls that sectarianism raised its ugly head and his dad’s Catholic business was not welcome by some in the area, and by the second year there were threats made to his father’s life and police warned him to check daily under his car.
“Dad told me he was all in at that stage, he had secured our home against the project and was resilient. He didn’t bow and kept his head down working away.”
John McAreavey is also co-founder (with Mickey Harte) and chairman of the Michaela Foundation, a volunteer-based charity established in 2011 which has already run summer camps for 5,500 young girls that keep alive Michaela’s memory and her values comprising fun, Faith, the Irish language, wellbeing and fashion.
Articulate, cogent, engaging, straight-talking, and conveying a sense of inner peace and joy – a million miles from the devastation of his darkest moment in Mauritius almost seven years ago – what is most striking about John is his awareness of the ever-presence of God in his life.
He communicates his faith without a hint of cloying piety or preachiness.
“I try to live my faith rather than operate within a framework of ‘ticking boxes.’ I try to understand what God is looking for me here. I believe he is looking for something in each of us.”
Asked to share a verse from the Bible that has particularly affected him he replies: “Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ This is how I feel about every aspect of my life.”
He is a young man – at just 33 several years younger than inaccurate reports in many newspapers – who takes nothing for granted.
“Every single week I am praying that God will keep me on the right path, for assistance to be the person that he wants me to be. That is a key prayer for me.”
You are not long in John’s company before you get a sense of his pursuit of excellence.
“I suppose whatever I want to do in life, whether it be as husband to Tara, businessman, footballer, I want to be the best that I can be. I am continually learning and open to developing. I read a lot, looking for extra inspiration.”
Quite uplifting is the feeling you get from John that with God’s grace, discipline and determination he has managed to rebuild his life following the devastation of the murder of Michaela on their honeymoon in January 2011, notwithstanding the painful, persistent and patient pursuit of justice that has yet to see anyone convicted and sentenced.
At the heart of John’s life and central to his future now is of course his wife, Tara (née Brennan), a native of Maynooth, Co. Kildare, also a chartered accountant, who he once described at Knock Shrine as the person who “has showed me the beauty of life again.”
Tara is a senior manager in Terex, the US manufacturing company, now working in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. He sees the hand of providence in their getting together. “Tara is the most generous person that I know – in terms of generosity of spirit she is unbelievable and when I see her doing things I see God living through her.”
He cites, as just one example, how during their courtship Tara introduced him to charity Team Hope’s Christmas Shoebox Appeal which delivers essential goods and toys to impoverished children worldwide and how he, in turn, has mobilised the Michaela Foundation to arrange the delivery of a couple of thousand shoe boxes each year.
“This was Tara’s inspiration and next month I will be visiting Belarus to deliver some of the boxes to schools there.”
Asked how he and Tara met he prefaces by disclosing that “very early after Michaela died and at different times” both her father Mickey and her mother, Marian “sat me down and talked to me saying that one day they would really love me to meet somebody again.
“And at that time, it was very difficult to hear that, and I didn’t want to hear that, but it gives you an insight into the type of people they are. So, when my relationship with Tara developed it was nice having heard that.”
He is still struck by the love and support of the Harte family amidst their own grief and loss and delighted that they could attend the wedding last year.
John recalls that he met Tara for the first time within a week of the ‘Match for Michaela’ at Casement Park in Belfast on November 3, 2012, attended by almost 20,000 people including then First and deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness – and as it happens, this writer.
Organising the event was a big and exhausting undertaking and John and a few close friends went to Galway the next weekend for a short break.
“It was a Saturday night, November 10, 2012, just over five years ago now, when I got talking to Tara for the first time. Tara was the first girl that I had spoken to since Michaela. There was just something there, there was a spark there, it was completely innocent on both sides. We got on very well and she told me a bit about herself and vice versa and so we exchanged numbers.
“It blossomed from there,” he adds, but immediately suggests that he is not sure that “blossomed” is the right word. “It was actually very difficult for Tara and me for a while because both of us, together, had to work through our feelings, had to navigate unchartered waters, but we now know, thank God, that it was all worth it.”
He reflects that while it is normal for a young girl to dream of getting married, “no girl dreams about getting married to a young man who has been married before and whose wife has been tragically murdered. There is no guide to go by because nobody knows what it is like, but our guiding thing was our love and that is what prevailed.”
John recalls that he proposed to Tara in February 2015, more than two years after they first met, and telling his uncle, Bishop John McAreavey, who was at that time on a sabbatical in the Holy Land.
“Uncle John told me that he had shared the news with a French nun who had said that Tara was ‘a gift from God.’ I always remember that because that captures it perfectly.”
And it was uncle John who officiated at their marriage in St Martin of Tours Church, Culmullen, Co. Meath on September 3, 2016.
“We did the Camino [de Santiago] on our honeymoon, we did the ‘Portuguese way’ about 140km over six days. We chose it as it’s something we always wanted to do and thought it was a great opportunity to just spend time together walking and talking, which it absolutely was.
“We love to walk so it was a special trip. We also got to stay in nice hotels in each town, we were not backpacking! The impression it made on us was quite profound, in some ways it represented the journey we had to make to marriage, sometimes arduous and difficult, but truly worth it.”
John McAreavey, born in 1984, the third of four children of Brendan and Letitia McAreavey (née McCann) recalls a distinctively Catholic upbringing, with his uncle John, a priest and a professor in canon law at Maynooth to boot, to whom all the family were and are particularly close, being a significant influence.
John attended St Mary’s Primary School, Banbridge and later St Colman’s College, Newry where his uncle was once a pupil and subsequently a teacher.
He recalls the day in 1999 when it was announced that Pope St John Paul II had appointed his uncle Bishop of Dromore. “I was 15 and the principal, Canon [Liam] Stevenson, called me out of class and I wondered what I had done! He told me he was about to announce on the intercom that my uncle would be the new bishop.
“It was nice of him to tell me in advance, but I got some ribbing from my mates in school to the effect that as the bishop’s nephew I could now get away with anything! It was great craic. More seriously, of course our family were very proud of Uncle John.”
John recalls that it was at St Colman’s, “with its rich Catholic ethos, where my faith really began to develop, and every Lent I attended Mass daily in school”.
John started playing Gaelic football at the age of ten and also played for a local soccer team. He captained Tullylish until last year and still plays in the forwards, helping his side win the division three league title and promotion a few months ago.
He played senior intercounty for Down in 2008, and again in the 2011-12 season until he had to go to Mauritius for the murder trial.
“The GAA was hugely important to me and I was deeply passionate about it and becoming the best footballer I could be.”
That will “to be the best that I can be” is a personal credo and I was curious about how it may have been strengthened by the books that he reads.
He cites three books as having “the most profound impact on me”: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, the Harvard-educated Mormon management guru; The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, the Mexican spiritual teacher and Falling Upwards by the American Franciscan friar, Fr. Richard Rohr OFM.
He says Rohr’s book “allows for humble growth in an age when ego can destroy people, in my view.”
John, an avid Manchester United fan, accompanied by Tara, saw them lose the recent derby at Old Trafford, so it’s not surprising he has also learned from Sir Alex Ferguson’s book Leading (described by the Financial Times as “a case study in leadership”).
He adds: “I listen to the Tim Ferriss’ [US entrepreneur] weekly podcast where he interviews and deconstructs world-class performers in a multitude of fields, this is enjoyable and insightful. I am also very active on Twitter [@john_mcareavey has nearly 12,000 followers] and follow lots of inspiring individuals such as Seth Godin [the US author].”
I wonder how easy it is, in the cutthroat world of business, to keep true to an ethical compass.
John is emphatic: “At Clearhill, I find that our family values transfer to the values we have in business. I believe that when people do business with us, they deal with us as people, not as a corporation. Therefore, we present our own individual brand values as a selling point. Integrity and treating people with respect are paramount.
“As a family business, people know that we aren’t in it for a quick buck, we are here for the long haul and that helps develop trust.”
Over the past few years John has been invited to contribute to numerous retreats, novenas and religious gatherings all over Ireland, most notably Fr Brian D’Arcy’s ‘Novena of Hope’ at The Graan, Co. Fermanagh, the Year of Mercy event at Knock and Clonard Novena in Belfast.
I asked him to sum up his key message at such events. “I suppose it is that we are not alone when we are tackling all the problems that weigh us down. And the sooner we realise that we can hand these things over to God for him to take control of that aspect of our lives, the sooner the burden of that cross on our shoulders is dropped off.”
He adds emphatically: “I really and truly believe that because that is the experience which I felt”.
He continues: “Big issues for me over the past few years have been around healing and forgiveness and I have to ask what does that mean to me? I have asked myself how I am able to sit here and not be a person consumed by hate, anger and vengeance.
“I believe that God has taught me to be able to say to myself ‘John, you are not the type of person who is going to hate because there is too much love in you to hate.
“And where does love come from? Love comes from God. That is the principle of the message, that you have this spiritual being, God, with you all the time, throughout your life, through the good and the bad. It makes life more comforting because we are all going to suffer through life, that is just part of how life is, and you are not going to get through it on your own.”
Remarking on the march of secularism and the decline in organised religion John McAreavey says: “You can impact on that by being a living witness, you can go out and you can live your life the way God wants you to live it and I think that is the greatest inspiration of all.”
John is a strong believer in greater lay involvement in the running of the Church, suggesting that the balance of power between the clerics and the laity needs changed.
He would be pleased if the theological commission set up by Pope Francis gave the green light for the ordination of women deacons. Asked for his views on the ordination of women priests, in the light of the Church’s teaching, he replies: “Obviously the Church’s teaching is that it doesn’t have the power to ordain women so it’s something that doesn’t look like changing. However, I would support the ordination of women if they were to take the same vows as male priests. Not all women are here on earth to procreate, which means they can fully serve God to the same extent a male priest can.
“I can certainly see female deacons soon and this could ultimately lead to female priests,” he says.
Businessman that he is, and believer, he sees “an opportunity” even in these times of great trial for the Church for a catechesis that would be more appealing to young people, stressing “this is what you get, this is what you get” rather than “you need to do this, you need to do this”.
And what you get, he insists, “is a sense of protection and love from God that is completely unconditional”.
He is a great admirer of Pope Francis: “He is such a gift, exactly what we Catholics require at this time. He is a beacon of light who can talk to people on terms that they can relate. He is a leader opening his arms to everybody.”
Not surprisingly, given everything that has happened, the great unresolved issue in John’s life is the search for justice for Michaela.
John will never forget the horror of finding his bride dead on their honeymoon in circumstances that have been widely-reported, having to break the news to his father and his father-in-law, and his “awful” treatment by the police.
Less well-reported has been the love and support John received in the immediate aftermath of the murder from Church figures in Mauritius including Irish sisters from the Loreto Institute Mauritius, and from the Bishop of Port Louis Maurice Piat CSSp, later created a cardinal by Pope Francis.
“They were all wonderful. I remember asking one of the nuns why did this happen, and I remember her saying that God gives people free will and this unfortunately leads to people making decisions and that brought a great sense of comfort in the worst conditions imaginable. The sisters visited me, comforting me the day after Michaela was murdered before my brother Brian, and Mark, Michaela’s brother, arrived the following day. For that I will always be grateful.”
Two hotel workers, Sandip Moneea and Avinash Treebhoowoon, were acquitted of Michaela’s murder after a seven-week trial in the summer of 2012. John has no doubt that the trial amounted to a miscarriage of justice.
“I will be as clear as I can be, Martin. The two people that were acquitted of Michaela’s murder are the two people that murdered Michaela.
“No reasonable, unbiased person could have sat through that trial and come to any other conclusion than that those men were responsible.”
John is anxious to dismiss some ill-informed media comment that somehow, he had sat on his hands for five years after the 2012 murder trial and then arrived out of the blue for almost a week in Mauritius last April, with his sister Claire and Mark Harte.
“This is totally untrue. During all that period myself and my sister had been pushing government officials, police and legal authorities to get a move on and retained a solicitor out there, at personal expense, to keep pushing and pushing to get justice for Michaela.”
He reports with satisfaction that his efforts since the trial have resulted in Mauritian law being changed so that “persons previously acquitted may be re-tried if fresh and compelling evidence is brought forward.”
“We also secured the help of detectives from the PSNI who visited Mauritius to assist with the investigation,” John says.
However, by 2016, his solicitor in Mauritius, “a very good man with very good contacts” advised that “this isn’t going anywhere” and so he decided to embark on the trip last April during which they met the Prime Minister of Mauritius, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police, to demand action.
“Essentially, what we wanted to do was to start banging on doors and rattling cages and making clear that we are not going to give up until we get the right outcome. The visit also gave the three of us the opportunity to reflect together, for the first time, on the seven-week trial which was a sheer horror”.
While in Mauritius John announced a new appeal for information supported by an award of two million Mauritian rupees (£44,000), which is reportedly twice the average yearly salary on the island.
He says, “a lot has happened” since his return from Mauritius.
A new police investigation has been launched into the murder of Michaela. New information has been forthcoming, promisingly, from people who have no interest in the reward. And after five years of no regular communications, he receives monthly reports into the progress of the investigation which he cannot discuss publicly.
He says he will not hesitate to return to Mauritius if further pressure has to be applied “but I am prepared to give the Mauritian authorities time and space to do what they have to do. “Huge mistakes were made the first-time round and the authorities have a responsibility to put that right,” he says.
John, who describes himself as “a nationalist” is dismayed by plans for Brexit and by the collapse of the Good Friday institutions and ensuing political deadlock.
As a businessman with interests throughout the islands of Ireland and Britain he sees economic contraction in shopping centres in both islands and refers to Brexit as “as an absolute nightmare.”
On Twitter earlier this month he said it is “pathetic that the DUP claim to represent the interests of Northern Ireland, quite clearly they don’t” and he remains critical of Arlene Foster for not standing aside over the “cash for ash” scandal.
“Am I confident? I am not as confident as I was two years ago. In the past number of years, since the tragedy, I have met many brilliant, good and genuine people and one of those was Martin McGuinness whom I got to know quite well. He was obviously a huge figure in Northern Ireland and I don’t think we would be in this situation if he was still here.”
He describes demands for an Irish Language Act and civil marriage for gays as being “very reasonable in terms of equality” and adds: “I feel that if two people love each other and want that cemented by God’s blessing, who am I to judge?”
John McAreavey recalls that in June 2012 he was in Mauritius for the trial when he saw on his phone the historic picture of “Martin McGuinness shaking the Queen’s hand”.
“That was very symbolic and at that time you could see a bright future but in the space of five years that positivity has evaporated, which is hugely disappointing.”
John McAreavey, still so young, is the nearest thing to the personification of positivity that you can imagine.
He is nothing if not forward-looking and realistic enough to know that he cannot just simply ‘move on’ but he has, apparently, learned to control whether his tragic experience will inspire him to be a better person or just weigh him down.
Having been involuntarily thrust into the public eye in the most awful circumstances imaginable he appears to have handled his fate with discipline and maturity and with an openness to the grace of God and the gift of Tara, that is an example to all.
At one point, he asked philosophically, “What is it, then, that I want to be and what is my identity? One that you shouldn’t feel sorry for, but one who is known for very positive things.”