Cormac McAnallen’s enduring legacy still making a real difference
The succesful Cormac Trust ensures the Tyrone star’s death was not in vain
“But he was my best friend so I really felt his absence when I was getting married, say. And then just at ordinary times too, like at quizzes. But that time has flown. It has been hectic. The first two years, in particular. There is Before Cormac and After Cormac for us as a family.”
The emotion generated by McAnallen’s death and the sense that nothing was known about adult death syndrome encouraged the family to try to raise awareness of the causes of his death. The Cormac Trust was launched in 2005 and has been instrumental in helping to provide defibrillators at sports clubs and establishing a culture of screening young athletes to detect potential heart defects.
The speed of progress was frustrating at times: some of the medical practitioners they encountered were reticent about the idea of wholesale screening. There were times when the family felt as if they were being judged as a bereaved family, grieving and doing what they needed to do.
But whenever other young, healthy people died in similar circumstances, media stories inevitably referred to Cormac.
There was a gradual change in attitude and recognition that parents whose kids were involved in sports clubs wanted a safeguard.
Lives have been saved with defibrillators in the years since. “Probably in the double figures,” Donal says. “I’m not sure I knew what a defibrillator was ten years ago. I certainly didn’t know what they looked like. So there is a certain degree of fulfilment in that. It doesn’t, obviously, bring Cormac back or make things easier that way. But it makes it worthwhile.”
Ten years is always a milestone. Last September, the Tyrone team of 2003 got together for a reunion to mark their first All-Ireland success. Mickey Coleman travelled from America for the occasion. He had played midfield with Cormac at U-21 level in 2000 and on the senior side and played in what turned out to be Cormac’s last game in the McKenna Cup final. “He had started off his captaincy on the front footing. It was just nine days after that match.”
As it happened, Coleman was in possession of the Sam Maguire when news broke of Cormac’s death. “It was my ‘turn’ to have it. It was at the foot of the bed. Then I got a call from Paddy Tally in the wee hours. I think I was meant to give the cup to John Devine the next day – he was heading to Belfast. But things obviously spiralled in a different direction.”
The next morning, Coleman stopped at the Brantry lock, close to where the McAnallen house is. “Just to get my head together. It was very still there, very serene.”
Coleman is a musician and in the months afterwards composed a song, which he titled the Brantry Boy . When he thinks of McAnallen now, he says it is hard to articulate his distinguishing quality.
“He was meticulous in everything he did and it was just that determination and the way he carried himself in training, the way he looked after himself.”
At the reunion in Carton House, his name came up often.
“Just popping up here and there in conversation when boys would be chatting. He was never too far away. You go back to 2003 and the celebrations and he was there for a lot of good times with us. Cormac, you know, he wasn’t all serious . . . I remember his party piece was the Music Man and coming back after the final in 2003 he gave us a brilliant rendition with full theatrical add-ons.”
In the months after Cormac died, the Tyrone team did a good job of pretending to themselves that they could successfully defend the title. It felt like the only adequate tribute.
“Kevin Hughes had been visited by tragedy in his family and he was inspirational to a lot of us,” Coleman says. “He spoke very well. We did play some good football that season. I remember in the dressing room after Mayo had beaten us that there was a feeling we had let Cormac down a bit. But you don’t get your way in football always.”
Speaking with this newspaper on the first anniversary of Cormac’s death, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte felt t the champions had, in retrospect, bowed out at the appropriate stage. Much as they desired and strived to retain the All-Ireland, he said, “It was maybe not the time to return to the euphoria we felt the season before. It had no place. That is not to say we didn’t try to win it but on reflection, it had no place.”