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Dónal McAnallen on defending his brother Cormac's legacy

The tragic tale of Tyrone’s lost leader is captured in Dónal's touching new biography

Tyrone’s Cormac McAnallen lifts the Sam Maguire after the All-Ireland final victory over Armagh in 2003. ©INPHO/Patrick Bolger

There is a passage at the end of the 15th chapter of Dónal McAnallen’s book on his brother Cormac that jumps off the page like a spatter of oil from a hot pan.

It is March 2004 and Cormac's funeral has just ended with Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh giving a graveside recitation of Brendan Kane's poem The Beautiful Game.

The days that follow gave Dónal his first chance to gather himself and take stock. And although the vast majority of his reflections were of people’s kindness and bottomless goodwill, a few cameos here and there stood out.

“People positioning themselves strategically for attention,” he writes. “Posturing as dear friends. Pushing for places and brazenly name-dropping. Politicos parading through while pals and neighbours stood back. Pressmen imagining. Parkers noseying…


“None of these matters perturbed me at the time, nor should they have. They were clues, however, as to a future issue for us: did we have first say over Cormac’s memory, or was it simply public property?”

Dónal McAnallen: “I knew that I had access to a whole host of memories and documents and sources, different things that would bring whole different layers of depth to that story.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Roll the tape on 13 years and a quiet midweek day in early September finds Dónal McAnallen still fighting the tide. Punching himself out, some of the time. He has spent the morning phoning around family members to warn them that The Irish News made a front-page splash out of two texts that were found on Cormac's phone after he died.

A lad Cormac played squash with had texted on the day before he died about an upcoming game, play-cod posturing about how Cormac was going down and going to die on court. In the fog of the 48 hours after Cormac had been found dead, the family were worried that there was some significance to it all but police very quickly found it was all innocent and the matter was cleared up.

It’s not an area McAnallen particularly wants to delve too deeply into, for fear that he comes across as being needlessly sensitive. He is quick to stress that the vast, vast majority of interactions he and his family have had over the 13 years since Cormac’s death have been positive and helpful and enriching for the soul. He’d hate for any interview to make out that the book is a score-settling exercise.

And it isn’t. Not by any stretch.

What it is instead is a touching, sometimes bracing biography of his brother, meticulously sourced as befits his academic background. For the reader, however, that tension over the ownership of Cormac’s memory seems to get at the very reason for the book in the first place. It feels like a final word, the family’s last say on how he lived and how he died and how he ought to be remembered.

Cormac McAnallen: by the time of his untimely death at just 24 he had won All-Ireland medals at minor, U-21, and senior level plus Ulster championship and national league medal. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho

“Not necessarily,” counters McAnallen. “From the early days after he died, when I managed to get time to stop and think clearly at all, it did occur to me that Cormac’s story would be worth telling. He is so revered, so much has been written about him and so much has been said about him – most of it not only fair but even embellished at times.

“But at the same time I knew that I had access to a whole host of memories and documents and sources, different things that would bring whole different layers of depth to that story.

“We could never have predicted anything that could have happened and we could never have imagined that his name would resonate so strongly even all these years later. If you’d told me that I would write a book about him, I wouldn’t have been surprised. If you told me it would be 13 years later, I would have said, ‘No way.’”

It took this long because it took this long. The first few years went by in a fingersnap. It took two-and-a-half years before they got the offer of an inquest, by which time they had gradually, dutifully moved on. Dónal got married, had kids, built a house, made a life. It was only after the 10th anniversary that he decided that the time was right.

And no, it wasn’t about taking back control. But no, he and they weren’t comfortable about everything that happened, either.

“For the most part, you were so grateful for everything everybody did. Please don’t misquote me because I would hate for the context of this to be lost. So many people did and continue to do so many wonderful things, so many positive things and so many generous things. But there have been many occasions – and I have no one person or no one incident in mind here – but there have been many occasions where you have just had to become accustomed to it.

Young prince

“People and sometimes organisations have made assumptions that they can just make a decision or do something without getting approval or something that we don’t fully agree with. Now, we’ve nothing against being persuaded but sometimes people aren’t necessarily respectful of loss. I’m sure these people have lost family members themselves and they carry that privately. But at the same time, nobody is probably forcing anything on them against their will.

“You want to cherish the positives and appreciate them. You don’t want to sound discordant. But there have been many times and ways when it was a bit much.”

The Cormac McAnallen that emerges from the book is, naturally enough, a deeper, more complicated figure than the young prince who was mourned across the land in 2004. In many ways, he was everything we thought he was – ultra-competitive, highly intelligent, preternaturally decent. In others, he was totally different – sometimes insecure, occasionally verging on depressed.

His diaries are revealing here, especially the entries from Australia when on the 2003 International Rules tour. Lonely and detached, not sleeping well, crying – he seemed to hate just about every minute of that trip. Some of the rawest stuff in the book comes from the diaries, which obviously caused his brother to give serious thought to leaving them out.

Cormac McAnallen in action against Kerry during the national league in March 2003. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

“I really did wrestle with including some of the stuff from his diaries. But there were times where I got to the point where I thought that people wouldn’t believe me if I put some of the stuff in my own words. I do feel some guilt about it still and there’s a wee bit of apprehension on my part about whether it was the right thing to do. I hope people understand that it’s not aimed at reflecting badly on him in any way.”

One detail to emerge from the diaries stuck with the McAnallens for a long time. Cormac had four serious head injuries in the 16 months before his death and at times in the diaries he talked about headaches. A fortnight out from the 2003 All-Ireland final, he had one so bad he sat out training and it required him to go for tests at Craigavon Hospital two days later.

“When you see the diary references to headaches,” says Dónal, “I never would have thought he’d be so badly affected by them. I do recall him being quite emotional at different times during 2003 as a result of different injuries and frustrations before the All-Ireland and after it indeed. But when you see it written down, it sort of raises it to another level.”

Electrical current

He had questions for a long time over the significance of these headache and whether they may have contributed to Cormac’s death. He doesn’t know, just doesn’t know. He has made his peace with the ultimate verdict – that Cormac most likely died of Long QT Syndrome, essentially a disruption of the electrical current to his heart.

The book is comprehensive, exhaustive even. At times in the early chapters, you can’t help but wonder if the level of detail devoted to, say, Cormac’s appearances on Blackboard Jungle will still pertain when it comes to the night of his death. It does, and then some. It makes for a harrowing few chapters’ reading. Presumably, that’s as nothing compared to the process of putting it together.

“I wrote that chapter first, way back before anything else. This was such a labyrinthine process. It appears in chronological order but different things were popping up along the way. Little records he kept, schoolbooks, a diary. That’s the chapter I wrote in its first draft starting over three years ago. It took about three months on and off to write the first draft.

“It was probably the most emotional thing to write in its first draft. And after that, as I was adding things in here and there, bit by bit, I got more used to it. I kept finding new details. I kept talking to people, asking myself who was there in the last few hours, accessing phone records, ambulance records, medical records, even newspaper reports from the time and what have you.

“I was continually inserting bits and pieces of other people’s memories into it, revisiting that chapter several times. It was always an emotional thing to write but I had become so familiar with the text that I sort of had to become a little emotionally detached from it as I went along. I just had to get on with it. Now that I see it written down and that I know other people are reading it, then that makes me a little bit more prone to emotion again.”

Books were always important to the McAnallens. As a 14-year-old, Dónal went through Liam Hayes's book Out Of Our Skin with a bottle of Tipp-Ex, whiting out the curse words so as to allow his 12-year-old brother read it. He laughs at himself now, accepting that his protectiveness was overdone at times. But you can't fight instinct.

He has some press to do now, some launches to go to, some speeches to make and some copies to sign. In a month, or maybe after Christmas even, it will all die down and he will get on with getting on. And no matter what happens, Cormac’s name will live a life beyond his own.

Protected, as always, by his older brother.

*This article was edited on September 11th, 2017

The Pursuit of Perfection - The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen by Dónal McAnallen (Penguin Books) is out now.

Corrections & Clarification (Sept 22nd,2017)

This interview included references to The Irish News from the author Dónal McAnallen. Mr McAnallen has acknowledged that he was treated with courtesy and professionalism during his dealings with The Irish News over many years and The Irish Times acknowledges this.