There are things that a book can do for you that defy adequate explanation. It is a something deeply personal, a connection made with the words that lingers long after the book is closed and laid down. 

Such books are rare and when they are found they deserve to be cherished.

In the millions of words that have been written about the GAA and its players, there are surprisingly few outstanding books.

How is it that a passion which is so central to the lives of so many has brought such a limited literature? And that in a country in which writing and writers are so celebrated.

Most of the books written around the GAA and its players are devoid of serious ambition.

They are autobiographical works essentially driven by commerce and branding.

The very best of such books can be entertaining and informative, it is true.

Usually, they open a crack and give a glimpse behind a dressing room door and into the thinking of a particular player or manager.

Usually, too, they tease rather than reveal, offering the illusion of insight; the author is always too loyal or too cute to really take a chisel to any doors.

Theirs is a world where anecdote trumps revelation at almost every turn.

This is entirely understandable – who wants anyone else to know everything about them?

Very occasionally a book steps beyond these constraints. Two such GAA books are Breandán Ó hEithir’s 1984 book, Over the Bar: A Personal Relationship with the GAA and Patrick Deeley’s The Hurley Maker’s Son (2016).

The success of both of those books lies in the way in which they transcend the individual.

Instead, of being spancilled to the rehearsal of great games or particular controversies, they locate a personal story within a much broader frame of reference. Basically, they tell you as much about the world as they do about the individual.

Dónal McAnallen’s beautiful Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen must now be set alongside that shortlist of exceptional books. It is unique and compelling, raw and moving.

*** 

Cormac McAnallen was born in February 1980. He lived in a house three miles from the village of Eglish in rural south-east County Tyrone, with his parents Brendan and Bridget, and his two brothers, Dónal who was 18 months older and Fergus who was 18 months younger.

The story of his early life is one familiar to boys all across Ireland – and, indeed, across much of the western world. He loved sport and comics and television programmes such as Knight Rider.

He played marbles and climbed trees and got mucky. He went to school and worked hard there and had the sort of curious mind that revelled in the pursuit of knowledge.

But there was another aspect to this childhood that was absolutely unique to the locality: Four more people were killed in the Troubles in the week that he was born. The wider context here was ‘partition, Stormont misrule and neglect.’

And Cormac’s Uncle Dan had been killed in 1973 while taking part in an attack on Pomeroy Police Station.

Dan had been a football fanatic and had led an apolitical life before being radicalised by the civil rights movement and by the violent reaction of the government of Northern Ireland.

In the McAnallen household, Dan was not forgotten, but nor was his death allowed define those who remained. Brendan and Bridget McAnallen made a conscious decision to steer their boys in a different direction:

"Martyrs have begotten martyrs in Irish history and they did not want to mourn another one. Immersion in local historical, cultural and sporting affairs would surely keep us safe. We should live for Ireland, not die for her."  

*** 

The backdrop of repeated car searches and the passage of soldiers along country lanes and through their fields could never be normalised, but against this backdrop a passion for football was flowering.

The making of a pitch using posts cut from nearby trees made a pitch out of a back lawn. Sometimes Fergus (who had interests other than those of his two brothers) or their father or a cousin would kick with them, but usually it was Cormac and Dónal.

Rugby during the Five Nations, tennis during Wimbledon, bits of hurling, but Gaelic football all year around.

In general, the portrait that is drawn of the childhood that ensued on that lawn and in the house and in forays beyond the gates (France and America, as well as across the border to Dublin and Donegal) is vivid and real.

Layers of detail are placed one on top of the next. Usually, such layers are the product of memories or half-memories, old family tales and stories that have been burnished over time to fit a certain narrative.

Not in this book. The depth of its telling is made possible by the type of household Cormac McAnallen was reared in. It is true that sport was vital.

The boys played football, of course, but also played other games ranging from cards and chess to snooker, table tennis and basketball. They raced around fields and undertook assault courses.

They were restless and full of energy and the sort of vigour that makes a house bounce.

But alongside sport, this was a house where books and reading were essential. Inspired by their mother, the boys read everything from serious books borrowed from the library to comics such The Beano, Roy of the Rovers and Shoot!

The range of reading material serves as a reminder that it is not so much important what a child reads, rather that the child reads at all.

There is something very lovely about the fact that the zenith of this comic-reading saw some 14 comics coming into the house in any given week.

And partly from all of this reading grew a meticulous approach to documenting what was happening in the world around them and to record-keeping.

For his part, Dónal ultimately became a pioneering historian whose work on the GAA, broadly, and on Ulster, in particular, is of the highest quality and underpinned by meticulous research.

But Cormac, too, wrote page after page through his formative years. His diaries form the bedrock of this book. To read these diary entries is to gain a special insight into how the boy grew into the man.

Sometimes the entries are funny, especially the boyish ones. In February 1987, for example, he noted that his father passed 31 cars heading into Omagh for a league match between Derry and Tyrone, while being passed themselves by just two!

At that same match, the name Cormac McAnallen was read out over the tannoy system for the first time ever: he had got lost when he wandered away to buy himself a packet of crisps.

All told, the entries record school and sport and family living and the everyday things that shape a life. They reveal the personality that was being forged and the impulses that drove him onwards.

And they offer an extraordinary insight into the way he prepared for matches, how he thought about those matches, how he conquered himself and sought to win.

Without these diaries, this book could not work in the way that it does.

***

Cormac’s progress through the various levels of GAA competitions was relentless. For club and school and then for county and college, he emerged as a player who was fearless, skilful and utterly determined.

What stands out most of all is his love of play. It is this love that, more than anything, explains the dedication he brought to his craft. 

It explains, also, how he moved from being not just the outstanding player in his own age group, but also in the age group above his own.

He benefitted from the timing of his arrival. His boyhood progress was facilitated by the impetus given to Gaelic football in Tyrone in the wake of reaching the All-Ireland final of 1986.

The improved structures that were built in the county produced a team good enough to reach another final in 1995.

And the pain of that defeat, in turn, drove the making of a new team, one that would build on the achievements of the past, but one which would also learn from its failures.

There were many disappointments, setbacks, and difficult days. But Tyrone were climbing up the mountain when Cormac arrived and his arrival, itself, helped make that climb possible.

That Cormac McAnallen won Young Footballer of the Year, won an All-Star and was a key player as Tyrone won its first ever All-Ireland senior football championship underlines just how good he was.

But, while the story of the making of a brilliant footballer is obviously important to this book, it does not dominate unduly.

There was too much else to his life to allow for that to be the case. Moving away to university, falling in love, training to be a teacher, working as a teacher – basically, doing the things that so many people do.

And all the while playing football, making himself better, striving for perfection.

*** 

Running through this book is the deep love of one brother for another. This is a love that is portrayed on page after page. Sometimes it is apparent through apparently mundane details, the stuff of every family in which siblings like each other.

In other times, it is made clear through manifestations of friendship and kinship and the sheer pleasure of spending time together.

Perhaps the most brilliant sentence in the book – and one that in its simplicity reveals so much about the lives of brothers who share passions – is the very first one: "Cormac was always there." 

And that’s it, when it comes down to it. For Dónal McAnallen, his brother Cormac was in his world from his very first memory, breathing the same air, competing with him, sharing with him, helping him.

They shaped each other in so many ways and yet one of the most commendable aspects of the book is the determination of the author to make it understood that his brother was no plaster saint.

When as nice a man and as successful a man as Cormac McAnallen dies at so young an age and in such circumstances, the temptation to present his life as a sort of perfection would be understandable. It is to the credit of Dónal McAnallen that he does not make that mistake.

No finer tribute from one brother to another

He shared too much with his brother for too long not to know that the perfect state of grace that no human being can achieve was also denied to his brother.

And so it is that, for example, he describes Cormac as a ‘dirty fib-dog’ for writing as a young boy that the family had been to see 101 Dalmatians in the cinema. No such trip was made and Dónal gently pointed out the invention.

Cormac fought, too: a scrap in the schoolyard saw him have his hair pulled while he tore the other boy’s jumper. The result was six slaps from the master: corporal punishment was about to be consigned to history but in the 1980s it still reigned supreme in Irish schools.

And, of course, there are the inevitable feelings that are provoked when the lives of brothers are pulled a little apart from each other when they grow out of their childhood. It is a tribute to the candour and courage of this book, that this is met head on.

It is not easy to be the brother of a county player who is not just a star in his own county but increasingly a ‘media darling’. In short, Dónal became ‘Cormac’s brother’.

But Dónal, too, would have loved to have been a county footballer and doesn’t shirk from saying that the loss of this dream was hard to take.

He didn’t begrudge Cormac a thing (the complete opposite, in fact), but the very fact of taking a different path brought a little distance.

Dónal was a little more bookish and had chosen never to drink. Cormac chose to enjoy a few drinks – and missing weekends – as he celebrated county success as an All-Ireland winning minor.

But this adjustment to growing up and growing a little apart does not take from the love that was shared between two boys whose lives were intertwined by being so alike, so close in age, growing up in a house where their parents did so much for them.

Underpinning everything was an unspoken bond, revealed most dramatically in two meetings (neither of which would be possible in the new age of elite posturing in Croke Park) in the minutes after Tyrone won the 2003 All-Ireland Football Final. Dónal led the charge onto the field after Tyrone had won and ran straight into Cormac; later, he managed to make his way into the Tyrone dressing room. There were "embraces, emotions and effusions." 

Of these two encounters, Dónal writes: "Cormac probably sensed in those two encounters, more than any words I’d ever say, how proud he made me." 

*** 

And, of course, with such depth of love comes a pain that is almost unbearable.

That pain, an unspeakable grief, visited the McAnallen house in March 2004 when Cormac died in his bed in the middle of the night.

Dónal heard the death-rattle and rushed to Cormac’s room. The house woke and worked frantically to revive him. An ambulance and a retired local doctor was summoned.

It was to no avail. The words of their father set out the grim brutality of it all: "I think the poor child’s dead."

The days, the weeks, the years after the death are handled in the book with great care. The new reality in all its appalling detail had to be dealt with in the public eye.

For Cormac’s new financée Ashlene, for his parents, for his brothers, for the wider family, the flood of grief, the incomprehension, the raw crushing agony was endured in the open as well as in private.

The funeral was a ‘maelstrom’, the immediate aftermath saw the BBC air a tribute documentary. Asked by interviewer Jerome Quinn what he would say to Cormac if he had a chance, Dónal said with overwhelming poignancy: ‘Tar ar ais’.

***

Cormac McAnallen is now dead for half as long a time as he lived. The memory of his deeds is a vivid one.

And the impact on the life of a loving family is still apparent. As Dónal writes: "What hits me hardest is to hear his name read in church – even now, it still sounds intimately raw, and wrong."

The memories that make this book, the images that are freshly painted onto the page, the tenderness, the honesty, the willingness to issue truth is a tribute to everyone who lived in that house in the fields near Eglish.

Much better than any myth or legend, much better than the canonisation of a fine man and a brilliant footballer, this book is authentic and deeply moving.

No finer tribute could be paid by one brother to another than to render him in truth.


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