Cormac McAnallen’s enduring legacy still making a real difference
The succesful Cormac Trust ensures the Tyrone star’s death was not in vain
“I remember it very well,” Kieran McGeeney says of the stilling morning when he heard that Cormac McAnallen had died and he then instantly transported himself to a decade ago and his reaction to the early morning text he received while standing on a platform at Newry train station.
It was Tuesday, March 4th, 2004, an otherwise humdrum workday changed by the most unbelievable and, as then president Mary McAleese put it, “the most terrible news”.
The previous football season had been defined by the intensely partisan loyalties of Armagh and Tyrone, whose century of neighbouring feuding on provincial football fields was suddenly pitched onto the national stage when they met in that September’s All-Ireland final.
Armagh were the reigning champions. Tyrone would wrestle the title away in a gripping final through which a collective mid-Ulster sense of frustration and underachievement evaporated.
Just like that, the two counties were at the centre of the Gaelic football world. Tyrone, the first time champions, had an acknowledged great in Peter Canavan and had in McAnallen his heir apparent: a 24-year-old of inestimable composure and talent and application.
The Tyrone and Armagh rivalry is so entangled – in club lore, in schools games, in marriages – that it is scarcely explicable to outsiders. So McGeeney, dazed at the news, did what came natural to him that day.
“I sent a text to Peter Canavan. It was probably stupid on reflection because he would have been in the midst of it all. But it took me a while to just . . . get what was happening. You just couldn’t believe it and presumed that there must be some mix-up. It was over the next few days that you began to realise: yeah, he is gone. Then, the manner of the man . . . the thing about Cormac was that he had everything. It is that old GAA saying: he is the kind of fella you would like to see coming through the door with your daughter, like. He had that kind of presence about him. So I remember the morning very vividly and the disbelief and then shock afterwards. You keep telling yourself: this doesn’t happen to people like that.”
That was the universal reaction. The facts of Cormac McAnallen’s death are well documented now; he passed away in the early hours of that Tuesday morning after suffering an electrical failure in his heart rhythm, an event so rare it was obscure and baffling even to medical practitioners.
He was a natural athlete and radiant with good health and had captained Tyrone to their first silverware of the year in the McKenna cup final less than a fortnight earlier.
Tyrone had known more than its share of grief during the Troubles: as it was, the 1998 All-Ireland winning minor team of which McAnallen was captain prepared for their big day through the dark haze left by the Omagh bombing.
So the All-Ireland final of September 2003 had been an occasion of unfettered joy in the O’Neill county. Of all the players on that side, there was something about McAnallen that set him apart.
“He was part of the new Ireland,” said Margaret Martin, his principal at St Patrick’s Armagh, where McAnallen taught history and politics.
“Unafraid to stand up for his language, culture, sport.”
By the Wednesday afternoon, the pupils there were trying to come to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t be back.
“He carried that Tyrone bag around the school with nothing in it – just for badness,” one student told Frank McNally of this newspaper. “I thought everything of him,” he said then. “He was brilliant.”
In an RTÉ radio interview on Thursday morning last, Seán O’Rourke asked Brendan and Bridget McAnallen how it came to be that they had raised such an exemplary son, echoing the comment that president McAleese had made a decade earlier when she described him as “a very fine young man of whom any mother and father would have been proud.”
For his brothers, Fergus and Donal, he was, on one level, the unflappable Tyrone footballer with play-anywhere quality but he was also the person they had kicked around with for 24 years. In a phone conversation during the week, Donal paused for a second when asked if the ten years since his brother’s death feels as if it has gone by quickly.
“Certainly, yeah. It is part of the aging process too. And when you look at how much Cormac packed into his life, you wonder if you have achieved as much as you would have liked. He was a very solid person. He was obliging. He tried to everything that people asked of him – maybe to his detriment at times. And he had a mischievous streak. I wonder at times: God, could I have been easier on him? We did everything together. Less so as he became absorbed with Tyrone and teaching.
“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.”
That was in March 2005: by the end of the following September, Tyrone had reclaimed the Sam Maguire in a glittering display of football reflecting their growing assurance. Brian Dooher’s speech from the Hogan stand left no doubt that Cormac McAnallen’s presence and personality was still a very real part of their dressing room.
Afterwards, Mickey Harte clarified as much. “Cormac said at 23 that he didn’t want to look back on his career not having won another one. Those words stuck with this team.”
A third All-Ireland title was won in 2008 before the team gradually began to disband.
But do teams really disband? At Christmas time, Owen Mulligan remembered Cormac McAnallen as he prepared to release his autobiography. The pair were chalk and cheese in approach and attitude to the game but it was hard to believe that time had been called on the most impudent and daring of modern day forwards.
Mulligan and McAnallen had graduated from the densely talented group of minor players from 1997 and 1998 cultivated by Mickey Harte and Fr Gerard McAleer. In the recuperative season of 2005, Mulligan was conscious of a fierce solidarity brought about by what had happened to their team-mate.
“After Cormac’s death you wouldn’t let anyone say a word about the team,” he said. “You had each other’s backs. We looked out for each other more. Cormac . . . he was such a leader. All the jotters he had and the ratings he gave himself, using his weak hand and foot at training. He was unbelievable.
“Harte never talked about McAnallen directly. It was all: ‘you know what this means to people. They mightn’t be here.’ And that was it. It wasn’t mentioned until we had the cup in the dressing room in 2005. And there were a lot of tears shed that day.”
Tyrone became one of the truly great football teams in Gaelic games in the wake of Cormac McAnallen’s death, no question. They will always wonder how much greater they might have been had he lived. His legacy and name continues through the Trust and the International Rules trophy which his name graces. In the days after the tragedy, Kieran McGeeney wondered if Cormac McAnallen had the faintest idea of how many lives he had touched.
“When you are in the middle of playing GAA, you never think of people around you having that,” he says now. These days, you see young players on Twitter with 20,000 followers and they probably have more of an idea of what they are in the middle of. Then, you didn’t.”
What McGeeney would like to see is a way of teaching youngsters to at least think about the qualities of personality that shaped Cormac McAnallen. “Skills can always be taught and worked on. But Cormac stood for a set of values – and I’m not trying to make him into a saint here – that would be great to pass on to younger kids.”
Tomorrow, Tyrone visit Kildare in the National League. Stephen O’Neill is the only one of McAnallen’s team-mates still kicking ball for the Red Hand. It is tempting to think that the Eglish man might have lasted the distance with him. On March 21st, there will be an anniversary dinner for Cormac in the Armagh City Hotel. It is already all but sold out. The work will go on through the next decade. The family will enjoy the evening: it is to be a celebration of a short, brilliant life. And they won’t pretend for a second that they don’t all miss him dreadfully and that sometimes it it feels as if it happened yesterday.
“People said at the time that Cormac was a tremendous role model,” Donal McAnallen says.
“I probably didn’t appreciate that. And . . . that may change people’s behaviour slightly. But the world still proceeds about its business and people have their own follies so . . . I don’t know. All I can say is that it was a pleasure to know him. It was a pleasure to be his brother.”