Preserving the memory of Cormac McAnallen - a beloved brother of mythical status

It was in the spring of 2014 that Dónal McAnallen first drafted his memories of the death of his brother Cormac was in the spring of 2014.

Preserving the memory of Cormac McAnallen - a beloved brother of mythical status

Initially, he felt that would be the opening chapter in ‘The Pursuit of Perfection’; how Tyrone’s captain, a pivotal member of their first team to win an All-Ireland, could suddenly pass away like that in the dead of night, in his family home in The Brantry, to overwhelming shock and devastation.

Three years later, he was still re-drafting the passages.

Police records, ambulance records, phone records and the recollection of so many continually fed into the story, altering the shape of the book, which in the end was written almost chronologically.

The opening line ended up being simple, arresting and poignant: “Cormac was always there.” Then he wasn’t.

For a time, Dónal wasn’t there, either, at least not in the way any other young man in his mid-twenties should have been.

While his contemporaries were getting on with building careers, houses, families, partying their way through the Celtic Tiger, Dónal’s life was much different.

“After Cormac’s death, there were impossibly high standards you were supposed to represent,” he says.

“I stayed around home and caught up with everything. Dealing with problematic issues, it was a dark time. It put me on edge for the first couple of years. There was so much to be done and your mind starting working on overdrive. You are trouble-shooting, wondering what the next issue is going to be. For example, if there was a flare-up in the International Rules matches, were they going to ring up about that?”

He continues: “There were so many requests for things to be done in his name and every one of them needed consideration and debate. Between media requests, medical issues, other people who were bereaved, requests to honour his memory or name in some way, functions to attend…

“All this was going on, I was in the thick of it and, for me personally, doing post-graduate study at the time, it would have been in my own selfish interests to think of my career. To think back now, it would have been better for me to be in an office setting and to have got myself out of there on a daily basis.

“[But] it wouldn’t have been fair on my mother. Even with dealing with visitors. I look back on that period of two or three years as lost years.”

Everything was taken away from him on March 2, 2004. The last conversation was typical of the brothers, a trifling debate about how many Ulster players had made the camogie team of the century.

Later that night: “On the landing, I realised that the noise was coming from Cormac’s bedroom. I walked around the corner, entered and flicked on the light. There he lay on his back, tilted slightly to one side, with his duvet half lifted as though he had tried to get up. His eyes were open, staring into space and there was some sort of mucus on his lip.”

That chapter, the one he spent three years perfecting, is one of the hardest and most incredible examples of writing you will read.

In death, Cormac’s spirit reflected that of his high-achieving life. There have been documentaries made and songs written. The International Rules Cup is named after him.

Defibrillators have been popularised and placed in public spaces all over Ireland, saving lives in the process.

A group of ex-pat Tyrone people in Australia requested, and named their Sydney-based club Cormac McAnallens. Eglish have a second pitch, Páirc Chormaic. An annual summer camp, Campa Chormaic, has spread to numerous counties.

Still, a life like that needed fleshing out. As he notes: “Did we have first say over Cormac’s memory, or was it simply public property?

“Now, as custodians of his memory, we had to consider always; What would Cormac want?’ ‘The Pursuit of Perfection’ was not shortlisted for either of the main sports book of the year awards, but given the pattern of picking a current face on the cover — leaving aside the excellence of the books in question — it was never likely to.

That doesn’t take away from the effect and impact this book, a study of brotherly love, a happy childhood filled with colourful characters, such as his fiddle-playing grandfather, “good old Gandy” who advised Cormac to firstly skip rope if he wanted to be a footballer, and their uncle Peter O’Neill, a sub on the 1986 Tyrone All-Ireland final team and the coolest man in the Moy because he could spin a basketball on his fingertip. Before everything changed, utterly.

Doing the book was as painful as you might imagine.

“I knew that I could bring layers to it, to go places where other people could not. In terms of personal memory, the depth of his analysis, his self-appraisal, only really I was in a position to open that up.” “Another thing was that there was a certain amount of mythology that built up around Cormac,” he explains.

“I touched on some of that in the book. From the very word go a lot of it was ‘he didn’t drink’ and stuff like that. I’ve heard people on stages embellishing his story, greatly at times and that was never meant to discredit him.

“It occurred to me quite often that no amount of embellishment can do justice to the real story.” The book leans heavily on Cormac’s diary extracts, which display a man meeting himself coming back on the road, running to gym sessions, trainings, medal presentations, invitations as guest speaker and a serious devotion to his profession and pastoral care as a teacher in St Catherine’s, Armagh.

Aside from that, there are fascinating tables where Cormac marked himself out of five first, then out of 10 for various aspects of his performance and, as his county career took off, his body fat, reach and stretch and fatigue index scores.

“I felt a bit guilty over the diaries, because Cormac didn’t write them for public consumption, but, at the same time, I thought, given what happened and the mystery of it, it was partly an attempt to understand,” he states.

“In using them, I hope they reflected him positively. Or at least, they are the early ones. The late ones, they are darker. There is a lot of introspection, but I justified it in using them. He was very worried at a time that was not that long before he died and it did also coincide with different injuries, including to the head, that he had sustained. There’s just that part of you wonders how much that impacted.”

As brothers, they were inseparable. The range of their interests were uncommon, with one chapter title ‘Naff and Naffer’ a clue to their life spent on playing by the rules for Eglish, their love of quizzes and their meticulous record keeping.

‘Santa Claus produced a small snooker table at Christmas ’83. Battle commenced. By 21 March 1985… I was leading Cormac by 528 frames to 412.’ Then, there are the one-liners. Packed to the throat with them:

‘He taught JP McGeough how to spell Czechoslovakia.’ ‘When parents were cross with him, he burst into tears, but retaliated with a threat: ‘I’m gonna thun away!’ Or ‘Say your pwayers!’ When Dónal was the editor of GAA magazine High Ball, Cormac pulled his weight.

“His idea for a cartoon strip based on a Rastafarian GAA coach — ‘Selecta’ — didn’t make it.” Nobody wants to even say the word closure, but?

“I didn’t write it for catharsis, but I am happy I wrote it,” he considers.

“Beyond that, I learned things I wouldn’t otherwise have learned. About his life, and his death.

“Those things might not have otherwise been heard or documented. Had I not written this book, there are people I would never have had a conversation with about him and, when they passed, the memories of the things he said to them would have gone too.

“But, also, I learned how much he really cared for us. For me and for everybody and just to do the right thing.”

How much did he care? Well, there is a wonderful anecdote about the time Dónal was playing for NUI Galway in a championship match against Dunmore. Cormac made the trip to Tuam.

‘Alone he stood on the empty side terrace, a rainswept hooded man, shouting his heart out for a college he had never been to, and shouting for me.’ Those lines may have come into someone’s thinking.

“One man I met for the first time recently,” Dónal recalls.

“He sent me a casual email afterwards saying that he was going to meet his brother. The relationship wasn’t maybe the best, but after reading the book, he was determined he was going to visit him anyway, regardless of whether it was going to be appreciated.” Now, Dónal sits in his house, on the site where Cormac and his fiancée Ashleen had intended to build their lives.

He’s doing good. Married to Pauline (“meeting Pauline in 2008 re-balanced my spirit level”), they have three girls, Ailbhe, Lára and Iona. He’s teaching now. The injury problems have cleared up. He plays a pick-up game of basketball wherever he can get it.

Cormac was always there. For Dónal, he will remain.

Dónal McAnallen will be signing copies of his book ‘The Pursuit of Pefection’ at Castle Books, Castlebar, today at 4pm. Mayo footballer Cillian O’Connor will be guest. Cormac visited Cillian’s house with the Sam Maguire Cup in 2003.

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