Last kiss for Michaela
Widower John's touching tribute to his slain bride on a day of unbearable pain
Less than three weeks after they exchanged vows promising to love one another for the rest of their lives, Michaela McAreavey's grief-stricken husband John gently kisses her coffin in a moment of unbearable sorrow.
Flanked by the Harte and McAreavey families, as well as players from Tyrone GAA, John helped carry his tragic wife's coffin to St Malachy's Church in Ballymacilroy, which had witnessed the joy of their wedding day and was now bearing witness to their great sorrow.
The picturesque setting of St Malachy's Church is just one mile from her family home on the Glencull Road in Ballygawley where she lived with her parents Mickey and Marian.
Following her exotic honeymoon, "home" for Michaela (27) was expected to be the new house she had purchased with her husband John McAreavey in Banbridge. They had planned to move in next week. Instead, her devastated widower brought his wife's body back home in a casket.
Having bade goodbye in private, they emerged from Michaela's home in the quiet country road to escort the remains to the church. The cortege, as it came into view over the brow of the hill, was an arresting sight.
Faces taut and grey, John McAreavey and Mickey Harte wrapped arms around one another as they carried the coffin, helped by Michaela's brothers Mark, Michael and Mattie. In the mourning car sat a distraught Marian, her face a picture of grief and bewilderment.
On either side, members of Tyrone and Errigal Ciaran football teams provided a guard of honour, marching slowly alongside the coffin. When the procession arrived at Michaela's old school St Malachy's, it halted. Gently stroking the coffin, John McAreavey planted one last loving kiss on his wife's casket before easing it into a flower-covered hearse.
Appearing shrunken, a shadow of the GAA giant who has long been a familiar face on TV screens, Mickey Harte grasped the arm of his son-in-law, and together they continued on their journey towards the church.
Lining the route to the doors was another tribute to the slain bride, this time a guard of honour by her form class in St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon and the members of John McAreavey's GAA club Tullylish.
There to meet the cortege was Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, John's uncle who had married the couple.
The little church was filled to capacity, as were the marquees that had been erected outside in the car parks. In a measure of the nationwide outpouring of grief that has followed Michaela's brutal death, mourners had travelled from all over the country to sympathise. Some were recognisable by their GAA jackets, representing clubs from all over Ireland. Others needed no introduction, including President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin, the Catholic primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady, GAA president Christy Cooney and the North's deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
As the Mass got under way, Michaela's brothers and new family gathered for the Offertory Procession. Her sister-in-law Claire brought up a cherished photograph taken of the Harte and McAreavey families on the day of the wedding. Her brother Michael offered the rosary beads while Mark carried the fainne, the emblem of those who speak the Irish language. Youngest brother Matthew carried the Pioneer pin, the badge also proudly sported by Mickey Harte yesterday. As the Ulster Rose in the Rose of Tralee contest in 2004, Michaela had become a recognisable figure in her own right, and her sister-in-law brought up a single rose, the simple symbol of love and beauty.
Finally, her brother-in-law Brian brought up tea and biscuits, prompting Bishop McAreavey to remark "anyone who knows Michaela well doesn't need an explanation".
Bishop McAreavey spoke of Michaela's famous closeness to her father -- but pointed out the close bond she had with her mother, too.
Yesterday, Michaela's parents faced the hardest of tasks as they exited the church to bury their only daughter. Before the cortege moved down the aisle for the final time, John McAreavey was enveloped in an embrace from President McAleese. Faces crumpling in despair, the Harte and McAreavey families then walked the short distance to the hillside graveyard.