Cormac MacConnell: This manopausal virus has dogged me

Beware of sibling jealousy. It can last a long time.

Do not be too shocked by my honest confession to you all today that I have suffered all my adult life from a virtually unreported and totally incurable manopausal virus, now identified as the lethal SJ Syndrome.

It will eventually kill me with its appalling and perennially worsening symptoms such as hot flushes, palpitations, nocturnal tremors and related insomnia.

Much is written constantly in the media about a far less serious female condition which strikes our sisterhood in their middle years, but lasts for only a few months, I understand, and is never lethal.

The SJ Syndrome, on the other hand, is a killer. The SJ initials, incidentally, do not refer to the honourable Jesuits of Ireland. They are shorthand for the sibling jealousy which has afflicted me all my life.

Sadly, the pure truth, yet again.

It struck very early indeed. When I was six or seven years old, I was permitted by my mother to wheel infant brother Mickie up and down our front street in his huge pram. I felt very important carrying out this work and, in truth, Mickie was a very beautiful baby, with his black curls and angelic eyes and plump little yellow legs.

What happened then was that every passing matron in our Ulster parish was stricken by Mickie. They picked him up from the pram and hugged him against their Green and Orange bosoms, cooing the while.

Even then, I noticed that none of them even noticed the caring older brother who was wheeling the pram perfectly. The SJ virus struck then, and has never freed me since.

I will have ye know I was the oldest of the four brothers, and that is a heavy burden to carry anyway. I bore it manfully against all the odds. I secured a reporting job at 16 in the local Herald, and was so sober and industrious behind my Pioneer pin and accurate shorthand that it opened the doors — of what was then a closed shop — to Seán (now laughing at my plight from Heaven, RIP) and Mickie.

At about the same time, I purchased a tin whistle out of my tiny wages as a birthday present for my next oldest brother, Cathal.

He had a gift for music. Inside four years, he was All-Ireland champion on both whistle and flute and, after years of success with his band, The Boys Of The Lough, who crammed Carnegie Hall several times and even played with Chinese musicians on The Great Wall, he is a folk music legend.

The SJ thing hits me hard every one of the 20 times a month I am asked: “Are you by any chance a brother of Cathal McConnell?”

It gets worse than that. Much worse. There came an evening in the late 1960s, when the entire night shift in the Irish Press newsroom was manned by the three MacConnell brothers. At the start of the night, I felt quite proud, and was patting myself on the back.

By the end of the shift though, Mickie had landed a scoop that gave him a large front page byline next morning, and Sean had another byline on a farming exclusive inside.

I got no byline at all. At the same time, I was the only one of the trio with cash for the celebratory pints in Mulligans, and the taxi fare home.

The cruel reality was that bloody Mickie was a better writer than I and Seán, later the highly respected Agriculture Correspondent of The Irish Times, was a much more effective reporter.

Is it any wonder I suffer from the SJ Syndrome?

And it gets more bitterly punishing.

When he was 17 years old, at a boringly sectarian meeting of Enniskillen Borough Council, representing the Fermanagh Herald, bloody Mickie wrote the classic song “Only Our Rivers Run Free”, in 20 minutes, on his reporter’s jotter. And had the air five minutes later.

In today’s terminology, it went viral, initially via Christy Moore and James Last, and has remained up there, along with many other of his fine songs, all the years since. So I am asked constantly too: “Would you be a brother of Mickie MacConnell?”

Do any of you out there empathise? Mickie phoned me last weekend to invite me down to Listowel for special celebrations, to mark the fact that it is 50 years since he wrote “Only Our Rivers Run Free”. There is to be a big party on Saturday night in John B Keane’s. Would I come down for it?

It so happened, that I had a genuine excuse for not travelling but, because of the SJ Syndrome, I would have invented one if I had to. I’m just not strong enough any more, because of my incurable viral condition. The sad truth, again.

If any of you get to that party, maybe do me a healing favour. Ask Mickie, at some stage, to sing a song called ”The Leaving”, and add that you consider it to be his best song of all. Better than Rivers by far.

That will hit him hard, where I have been hit all my life because, you see, that is the only good song I managed to construct in 50 years of trying.


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