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Mayo 2003: An Untold Story Of Unimaginable Tragedy And All-Ireland Triumph

Mayo 2003: An Untold Story Of Unimaginable Tragedy And All-Ireland Triumph

In the summer of 2003, an area which knew well the face of tragedy was haunted by it once again.

While travelling from her home in Kinuary outside Westport to see two of her sisters play for Mayo against Galway in a Connacht Championship game, Aisling McGing was involved in a fatal car crash.

She was just 18.

The previous year had been a momentous one for the McGing family. Aisling McGing, Sharon McGing and Michelle McGing had all been part of the Mayo panel which won the All-Ireland for the third time in four years.

Two months later, there would be further success when their club, Carnacon, won its first ever All-Ireland title.

Just three months after Aisling’s death, a Mayo team featuring Michelle and Sharon persevered through sorrow and won the All-Ireland.

15 years on, the McGings believe the time is right for Aisling’s story and that of the 2003 Mayo All-Ireland victory to be told.

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* * * * * *

The morning of July 19th was one where disappointment nagged Aisling McGing. She had won an All-Ireland title the previous year and had played in the 2003 league but when the Mayo panel was trimmed for the championship, she did not make the cut.

“You could tell that it really hurt her that she wasn’t coming with us,” said Aisling’s sister Sharon, who along older sister Michelle was part of the Mayo group looking to win a fourth All-Ireland title in five years for the county.

“That was the first game where she wasn’t involved, so it would have been hard.”

Not having their younger sister on the championship journey diluted Sharon and Michelle’s interest in inter-county football but Aisling urged them on: she would be there as a supporter.

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Leaving Aisling off the panel had been a tough decision for then Mayo ladies manager, Finbar Egan.

“Aisling had huge potential to go forward," said Egan.

You have to remember that she was only 16 going on 17 when she won that All-Ireland.

Everyone’s form goes up and down and there was good competition. She was going into a panel that had won three All-Irelands.

She was going to make it as a player. I thought Aisling would have come back the following year and tried harder and made it. She just didn’t have a great season but I had no doubt in my mind that she had a serious future.

Instead of going to the game with her family, Aisling travelled with her boyfriend, David Reilly.

Just five miles from the McGing’s home, between the villages of Ballintubber and Ballyheane, David’s car collided with another vehicle.

“Dave overtook on a dip he didn’t know about and there was a car in the dip. That’s what happened,” said Sharon McGing.

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The passenger side, where Aisling was seated, took all the impact. David was left unharmed.

“You could hear the sirens,” said Carnacon club secretary Beatrice Casey who was at MacHale Park that day.

Hearing those sirens, and in hindsight realising what they were for, is what many remember about the evening.

“Castlebar being Castlebar, it would be a regular occurrence. Nobody even contemplated that it might be one of our own.”

An ambulance which had been dispatched to the crash site unfortunately ended up in the wrong village. It’s unclear if that valuable time would have made the difference in saving Aisling's life.

The McGing’s family doctor, Dr. Whyte from Westport, happened across the scene and waited with Aisling for the ambulance to arrive. For the family, it would later be a minor comfort to know she had been in good hands during those minutes.

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Earlier that day, Sharon McGing had made her sister promise to be at the dressing room following the final whistle. Knowing her sister was not one to break a promise, something felt off when she wasn’t there. Word reached the dressing room that Sharon and Michelle’s mother, Teresa McGing, had called.

Mam got a phone call during the game to go down to the hospital. We headed down, myself and my sister and my brothers, James and Thomas.

When we landed down, I knew that it was serious because they brought us into a room where I had been when friends had passed away. I knew the room wasn’t a good room, it wasn’t one they brought everyone into. Reality hit. Things were not as positive as we had thought.

We thought that same girl was invincible, that nothing would happen to her.

She was talking right up until eight o’clock before she died. Mam and Dad got to talk to her before she passed away.

The crash happened at five and she died around nine that night.

Fiona, the eldest of the McGing children, was in France at the time of Aisling’s death. The opportunity to say goodbye to her sister was one she unfortunately missed. “It’s hard for her because she missed seeing her in the hospital,” said Sharon.

After initially not realising the seriousness of the situation - no one really did - the Mayo team had headed for their post-match meal. News quickly filtered through.

Even before she had passed, a huge number of people - one which astounded those who worked at the hospital - had gathered.

“We made our way down, all the team was down there,” said Finbar Egan.

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“It was just unreal, it was very surreal. It still would make the hairs stand up on the back of your head with what happened: that someone who was there that morning was gone that evening, especially someone so young.

“I had seen tragedy in football before but this was hard for the family, for two young girls. Remember, Sharon and Michelle were only kids at the time too. They were only young girls and this was what they were facing into; nobody knew what was going to happen.”

* * * * * *

Aisling McGing was just 13 when she made her debut for the Carnacon senior team in a county final against Hollymount.

A breakthrough at such an early age was built on a career already brimming with medals. In 1994, aged just nine, she won a Community Games All-Ireland U12 football title for Carra along with her sister Sharon. She would go on to captain the team as they won two more.

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By 1998, Aisling, Sharon and older sister Michelle were all playing senior club football.

That year, Carnacon began thinking big. They were just a small rural club but had won the Connacht title. In the All-Ireland semi-final, they lost heavily to reigning champions Ballymacarbry but came out of it stronger than they had entered.

In the Waterford club, the kingpins of ladies club football in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, Carnacon saw a vision of what they wanted to become.

“We sat down and said we need to get our name on that cup at least once,” said club secretary Beatrice Casey. “It was a dream for everyone who was involved.”

Aisling McGing would be instrumental in realising that dream as she made the club’s number five jersey her own.

“She was known on the Carnacon team as the one who could kick with both feet,” said Sharon McGing.

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“Mam and Dad were so into football. Dad would have said that you need to learn to kick with both feet, you need to learn to fist with both hands to be that extra special. It was always something that we practiced in the garden.

“She was tigerish on the pitch and she read the game very well; a very good man marker.”

Her engine and the ability it gave her to tirelessly get up and down the pitch was often the source of admiring comments from the terraces. Every blade grass was touched by her bright red Adidas Predators.

"We used to love playing on the same side because she knew how I played and I knew how she played. We played well off each other.

"She was always the person who would run off the ball for you, no matter how tired she was."

Finbar Egan, who was also involved with the Mayo minors, remembers Aisling as a versatile footballer who could play a number of positions.

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“She was tidy and quick, good on the ball and rarely gave the ball away. She looked to go forward all the time,” said Egan.

Talented on the pitch, Aisling was loved off it.

"Aisling was a lovely footballer but she was an even nicer girl," added Egan.

"She had a great sense of humour, a real smart smirk on her all the time. She was very well liked. I know everyone would say that, but she actually was, genuinely. I never heard a bad word out of Aisling’s mouth about anyone else."

Beatrice Casey saw Aisling as someone "fun-loving" and "always having the craic".

“Behind that mischievous demeanour, there lay a heart of gold. She was very sensitive, very thoughtful, very loyal, very gentle.”

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At home, she was the "heart and soul of the family".

“Around Christmas, the laughs around the table were always about her, telling stories about everyone from the night before," said Sharon McGing.

"Us dying of embarrassment but her dying laughing telling Mam and Dad about the craic. She was the one full of devilment.

“Aisling was such a bubbly person anyway that if you lost a game, she’d be trying to cheer you up. If you were in bad form, she was trying to cheer you up.

“She was very close to Cora [Staunton] as well. She’d always be pulling the piss and messing. Not many people would be messing and pulling the piss out of Cora because she’s a quiet person, she keeps to herself. Aisling was always the one messing with her and sticking her into pictures.”

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In 2002, Aisling made the Mayo senior championship panel along with her two sisters. It would become their most precious year as a footballing trio.

Mayo beat Monaghan in that year’s All-Ireland final. Sharon and Michelle both featured in the game as subs.

It was a treat but the proper dessert was yet to come. Four years after they vowed to win the Dolores Tyrrell Memorial Cup, the club brought an All-Ireland title back to Mayo after beating Tyrone’s Carrickmore. Aisling had played well in the final and throughout the club season.

“She was the life and soul of the Carnacon team as well, the one on the mic and being loud,” said Sharon McGing.

“We’d always sing a song together as a family: ‘Unanswered Prayers’ by Garth Brooks. We sang that on the way to Carnacon that night. She was the lead.

“Looking back now at 2002, the memories of coming back after winning the All-Ireland with the club and coming back to Claremorris after winning the All-Ireland with Mayo, they’re memories that we will treasure forever.”

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* * * * * *

“It was one of the biggest funerals I’ve ever seen.”

- Finbar Egan, former Mayo ladies football manager

“It was like Princess Diana in this small rural community.”

- Beatrice Casey, Carnacon club secretary

“We opened the doors in the Killawalla Community Centre at four o’clock in the evening and we didn’t get to the church until 12 that night. It was eight hours of greeting people, you can imagine the thousands of people that went through.”

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- Sharon McGing

Aisling’s death was not the first nor the last tragedy which the Westport area suffered. Car crashes, motorbike accidents and suicide had all hit hard.

“It was quite scary,” said Sharon McGing.

“Our family, even before Aisling, went through quite a lot with our friends. A lot of people who came to the house as friends would have died from 1998 onwards. We’d lost a lot of friends growing up. ”

Those included: close friend Vinny Rigney who died in 2001; Gina Moran, a friend of Sharon’s who passed six months before Aisling; a second cousin who died two weeks after Gina.

“Even since Aisling, two or three of our friends have passed away, close friends from school. Westport went through quite a bit of tragedy rather than happiness.”

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Death being such an elemental part of her young life led Aisling to contemplate her own funeral - the songs she’d like to be played, the bits of her life she wanted to be placed on the coffin, how she would be laid to rest.

Myself and Aisling would have shared a room together when the two girls were gone off to college.

I suppose because there were so many tragic accidents around us and we did lose a lot of friends at the time, it was something that had been brought up.

I remember saying to Mom at the time that she wanted this song played and Mom was like, ‘How the hell do you know?’

I’d know hers, she’d know mine. I’d ask, ‘What about mine?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m more important’.

A football community from Mayo and beyond descended on the parish to pay their respects. It was presumed the turnout would be big but no one could have anticipated its size.

The father of Carnacon teammate Martha Carter suggested the funeral take place at the Killawalla Community Centre.

“We hung up all the jerseys in the centre, so when we came in, it wasn’t an empty hall. Her Carnacon jersey, her school jersey, her Mayo jersey, her Debs dresses were hanging.

“We had a memory table in the hallway as people went out. Aisling was huge into pictures, she loved pictures. She had so many albums so we put them all on display so people could stop and go through them.”

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Such was the length of the queue, family friend Eoin Sweeney, also the undertaker, asked Jimmy McGing if they wanted to take a break or maybe bring the evening to a close.

“Dad was just like, ‘No. Whoever came to pay their respects will pay, even if we have to be here until tomorrow. They made the effort to come, we’ll make the effort to meet them’.

“The longer it went on, the longer we had with Aisling. It was something that we wanted to hold onto.”

Eight hours after they had sat down to meet those offering condolences, the McGings made their way to the church.

Aisling had been scheduled to play for the Mayo minors later that week.

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Cora Staunton and Yvonne Byrne (captain of the 2003 Mayo minors), they got the number five jersey that Aisling would have been wearing framed for us; they brought it the morning of the funeral.

Even the week the week that she died, she had so much news coming her way. She had so much to live for.

She always wanted to do hairdressing - that’s all she wanted to do. She got the letter of acceptance to the hairdressing college on the morning of her funeral. It was another gift that we brought up at her burial.

One of Aisling’s favourite songs was Bon Jovi’s ‘Bed Of Roses’. It played as she was lowered to her resting place.

“She was always saying that if she died young to do that, to have her teammates put down roses before her coffin.

“It was something that me and Michelle got onto the Mayo and Carnacon girls to do. The Carnacon and Mayo girls were phenomenal. That was special as well. Her coffin didn’t go down awful deep because there were hundreds of roses down before that.”

* * * * * *

“You can’t hold that grudge against someone that’s driving a car, it could happen to any of us in the morning.”

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- Sharon McGing

David Reilly was ordered to spend three months in prison following the crash which killed Aisling McGing.

He did so for driving without insurance and making a false declaration on a vehicle ownership form.

At an inquest into the death of his girlfriend, Reilly - who had also been given a six-month suspended sentence for dangerous driving - made a plea to young men across the country.

"I pray every night that the young lads will slow down and that things will stop," said the then 19-year-old.

Throughout it all and despite his culpability in the death of their daughter, Jimmy and Teresa McGing have shown compassion for David.

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“It’s obviously tough and a lot of people have opinions on it but the people who are talking about it are not the people who have gone through it,” said Sharon McGing.

“It’s something that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, to go through that. Unfortunately, it’s something Dave is living with every day of his life.

“When Mam and Dad were talking to Aisling before she died, she asked how Dave was and I think that’s a memory that will always stand to Mam and Dad; we know how much she cared for and loved Dave.

“We’ve done a lot of things for Aisling in our lives. We wouldn’t treat Dave any different than Aisling would have wanted us to.

“As a family, Dave came into our lives through Aisling. Mam and Dad always like to see Dave coming. Even recently he came out to the house 15 years on. It is tough, seeing him getting on with his life and wondering where Aisling would be now.”

* * * * * *

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Just two weeks after their sister’s fatal accident, Michelle and Sharon McGing were back playing football for Mayo.

Finbar Egan had spoken to them and asked that they return whenever comfortable but he did not think it would be so soon.

“Nobody would have said a word to them if they hadn’t but I don’t know how they actually did,” said Egan.

“They showed enormous strength. They thought coming back would help.

“Why wouldn’t they struggle? Every person on the planet would struggle. You don’t go through things like that and be fine the following day.

“I lost my father in 2001, two weeks before the All-Ireland semi-final. My head wasn’t in it when we played and lost the final. I would have felt a huge amount of blame would have come to me because I couldn’t seem to focus on it.

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“I was 30-years-of-age losing my father who was 65. They were 19, 20, 21 losing their 18-year-old sister. I don’t know how they got through it.”

Sharon and Michelle returned in time for the Connacht final against Galway, the second of three occasions Mayo would face their neighbouring county in that year’s championship.

“It was a hard decision,” said Sharon.

Obviously, after a tragedy, you don’t eat or sleep. In the end, we said we’d do it for her because football meant so much to Aisling. If she was there, she’d be the one in the stand supporting us.

That year is a blank really to me and my sister. We kept low key because there were a lot of reporters at the time wanting to do interviews with us. We were asked to do 20 to 30 maybe more interviews but it wasn’t what we wanted to do. We kind of said that we were there for football and wanted to get on with it.

Finbar Egan and the rest of the panel didn’t know how to deal with the tragedy. How could they? Those chapters do not exist in the standard coaching manuals.

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Though it was not openly said, the idea they would win the All-Ireland that year to honour Aisling’s memory was a motivating factor.

“One thing I said was that we weren’t going to tarnish or devalue Aisling’s memory by saying things like, ‘We’re going to win it for Aisling’ because if we didn’t, did we let her down, had we not tried hard enough but every single person had it in the back of their mind. There wasn’t a person in the place that didn’t have it,” disclosed Egan.

“Her death did have a huge bearing on our performances and the way we approached things.

“We didn’t play well after, there’s no point in telling you that we did. We got through games. People just thought, ‘What’s all this about anymore?’”

Waterford were beaten in the quarter-final in late August. In mid-September, Mayo again defeated Galway, this time in the All-Ireland semi-final. Dublin were the opponents in the decider at Croke Park on October 5th.

“Aisling’s death even affected the Dublin team in the final,” said Egan.

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“They said a prayer for her before the match. Mick Bohan [the Dublin manager] told us that afterward.”

The McGing sisters both started the game, Michelle at half-forward - she would score a point - and Sharon at corner-back.

They did so each with a picture of Aisling in their sock, one their mother had laminated. It was borne out of a desire to have a bit of their sister with them that day. It’s a practice which continued for years after.

A tight game was won in injury time when 21-year-old Cora Staunton’s free-kick, 60m from goal, ended up in the net via Diane O’Hora. It was Mayo’s only score of the second half. The scoreboard read: Mayo 1-4 Dublin 0-5.

“We went into the dressing room and said that some greater power had been the cause of that and we could take it,” Mick Bohan told The42.ie in 2017. He was far from the only one to feel that way.

The moments after the game are a blur for the McGings. Sharon has a memory of walking the Hogan Stand steps with her sister to lift the Brendan Martin Cup but is unsure if it’s from that year or another.

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“We didn’t go up at the start because of the cameras, they were following us around at the end of the game. We stayed down on the pitch so that the emphasis wouldn’t be on us. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

In her captain’s speech, Helena Lohan mentioned Aisling but it was not until afterward that Sharon found out. To this day, she doesn’t know what was said.

“I suppose there was so much emotion going through our heads after the game. It was hard to be there but it was amazing to have won that year in memory of her.”

“That’s the one year where it didn’t feel like we’d won an All-Ireland,” said Egan.

I remember coming off, meeting the two girls and some fella, a reporter said to me, ‘Isn’t this great?’ I could see the two girls crying. What was so great about that?

I’m delighted we won the All-Ireland but I won’t ever be cheap about it, Aisling’s death made it very insignificant when you think what people went through.

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For Sharon and Michelle, it was impossible to focus on that year’s victory and instead they found themselves looking back at pictures from the previous year’s celebrations. Without Aisling, they were a tricycle missing a wheel.

“I don’t know how they handled it,” said Beatrice Casey.

“There was such elation at winning but then such grief, it all spilled over - it was overpowering.

“They often said that Aisling’s strength kept them going and kept them motivated, kept them playing.

“I suppose it kept the whole family together. Here they were involved in football, it’s not that they’d forgotten or that they weren’t feeling grief, but there was a job to do.

“Sometimes it just takes away the focus from the hurt and the sorrow that’s inside; I think that’s what football has done for all of us.”

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* * * * * *

There are two cups named after Aisling McGing. The first was presented to Carnacon by Jimmy and Teresa in 2005. Teams from across the country travel to the parish every year, usually on the May Bank Holiday weekend, to compete for the Aisling McGing Memorial Cup.

In 2007, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association approached the family, they wanted to name the U21 Championship after Aisling. It was a request the McGings were honoured to accept.

Neither of the cups are required to keep Aisling’s memory alive but both are a fitting addendum to the life of a young woman who loved football.

The McGings took a step away from the inter-county game in the years which followed but have returned intermittently to the Mayo jersey. That included 2017 when both Sharon and Michelle were part of the panel. 2003 remains the last year Mayo won the All-Ireland.

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Unwavering though has been their commitment to Carnacon. Last year, they won their sixth All-Ireland club title and this year they aim to win their 20th county title.

“I still play with her picture around my neck for every Carnacon game - Mam got it for me,” said Sharon McGing.

At every club game, every Mayo game, she’s around my neck whenever I play.

It was tough, it is tough, 15 years later, things don’t get any easier gracing the pitch without her. Michelle will always talk about her before a match, she’s never far from our minds. Playing football, you do it for her.

Sharon, Michelle and Fiona are all now married - Sharon to the boxer, Ray Moylette.

“That’s the happiest day of our lives but it was a very sad day as well - people crying because of Aisling not being there.

“She’s thought of every day and there are pictures of her in all our houses. It’s something that is still raw; they say that time heals but you just learn to deal with it. The emotion, the heartbreak, the loneliness without her never goes away.”

See Also: The Day Waterford Shocked Gooch And Declan O'Sullivan

PJ Browne
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