Saving Lives in Cormac's Name
Cormac McAnallen's family are continuing to nurture his legacy
EGLISH is more like itself again, quiet and unremarkable, not like we remember it ten years ago when a great mass of sympathisers filtered through for the funeral of Cormac McAnallen. His father Brendan, sitting in a small office reserved for the Cormac Trust in nearby Benburb, wonders where the ten years have gone. It feels like a finger-click. He'd have been 34 on February 11. Would he still be playing football?
His brother Donal still drives his car and he lives in a house with his wife and small child where Cormac had bought a site intending to build and settle. It is near the parents' place in The Brantry, bordering the parish of Aghaloo. In this house are stored innumerable possessions that belonged to Cormac, including his medals and even school essays written when he was nine. They show a precocious talent for creative writing, an engaging style, and perhaps there was a suspense novel in him at some point.
What he showed right through the 24 years afforded him was a tremendous energy and capability to master whatever he put his hands to. In football he made his name. He was captain of his county, destined – surely – to lift the Sam Maguire. He had won All-Irelands as captain with his county at minor and under 21, twice, and represented Ireland in three international rules series. He was an All Star. There were worlds aplenty left to conquer but he had scaled a serious amount of peaks for a man of his age.
The tenth anniversary of his death falls a month from now, on March 2, and life in a sense has not been allowed to go on without him. His parents Brendan and Bridget threw themselves into campaigning for greater awareness of sudden cardiac-related death in young people, where they would argue that the statistics demand greater Government consideration. They didn't expect to find themselves doing this – Bridget admits music and literature are more stimulating interests – but they feel the need to do what they can to try to avoid someone else suffering as they have.
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On a quiet day, like most days in Eglish, there are young kids walking home from school, wending their way along a narrow path that runs past Fr Connolly Park, the home of St Patrick's GAA club, and up to
where the new playing pitch is set. Those kids are probably too young to remember Cormac McAnallen. If they are too young, they can not but be aware of the impression he has left. The new pitch is named in his memory, Páirc Chormaic, and there is an annual Irish summer school named after him which Brendan conceived and helped establish. It has become a huge hit, spreading in time to three other counties in Ulster and now adding up to eight weeks and catering for approximately 1,000 children.
In Benburb, Brendan bought a small pub eight years ago and renovated it. The building had served as a soup kitchen during the Famine. A plaque on the wall noting this claim is one which he had erected. He renamed the pub as 'The Bottle of Benburb', reflecting his close interest in the historic Battle of Benburb in 1646. Cormac had jocularly suggested this as an apt name for the premises a few short years earlier, not knowing his father would ever buy it.
The Cormac McAnallen's GAA club was launched in Sydney in 2005 and since 2004 the international rules trophy bears his name. Donal McAnallen remembers being in Galway while studying a few years ago and discovering that the lad sitting next to him one day was wearing a top from the club in Australia. He felt it only right to introduce himself. Donal says it felt "eerie" to be far from home beside someone wearing a top with the name of his deceased younger brother, neither having a clue as to the other's identity.
The international rules series has been a tottering affair and not always graced with good publicity. Initially, it was suggested that the winners' medals be presented in Cormac McAnallen's name but the Australians subsequently came up with the idea of the trophy. The family have mixed feelings about the association.
"We agreed at the time," says Brendan, "Seán Kelly was (GAA) president, it wasn't long after his death. But then there were a few bust-ups and at times I wondered whether the whole thing should be cancelled – we didn't want Cormac's name associated with the violence."
The international rules series suffered a credibility hammer-blow last year when Ireland demolished an Australian selection that didn't include their best players. Donal McAnallen's view is that the matter shouldn't be overplayed.
"Any time after the violence erupted, the media would be on right away, 'What do you think of this?' I'd say, 'Look, we don't want to comment'. I remember one guy who asked, 'Do you think this will defile his memory?' And I said, 'I don't particularly feel that way, I am not that emotionally involved'. Next day – McAnallen slams Rules Series. I had to ring up Croke Park and say I didn't say that. I can only speak personally on this but my view is that it is an honour to have an international trophy of any sort named after a family member. At the same time the competition itself is a bit, you know, haphazard, very irregular. Even the rules themselves are not that clear.
"You are also conscious of the fact that in Tyrone in particular there is quite a level of opposition to the series. I personally don't have strong feelings about its continuation or otherwise. I personally wouldn't feel I had lost much of Cormac's legacy if it were to go. Because at the end of the day it's a trophy. A trophy is a trophy.
"But you have to remember the games Cormac played in weren't tea parties either. He ran into Barry Hall you know. I know he didn't particularly enjoy his time in Australia in 2003 but he definitely relished the opportunity to play for his country."
His unhappiness in Australia was down to being away for three weeks soon after Tyrone won their first senior All-Ireland. And not being in the classroom where he worked as a teacher. "Being conscientious he felt he was neglecting some of the classes. And then there were the internal dynamics. He felt that Tyrone had been demonised so much by the media in 2003, he felt it reflected in personal interaction between players, it was only himself and Kevin Hughes (from Tyrone) on the trip. And it was dull; they stayed in their hotel all day."
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Campa Chormaic is less stressful territory. Children between nine and 16 are offered the chance to play Gaelic games and learn the language, Irish having been frequently spoken in the McAnallen household. Queen's University has dedicated a medal to his memory, presented annually for outstanding sportsmanship and commitment. A Sigerson Cup medal with Queen's is part of the McAnallen medal haul. There are other awards in his name and a few songs but the most impressive legacy is the Cormac Trust.
A great deal of his mother Bridget's life since then has been consumed by the charity in its efforts to spread awareness of sudden cardiac death in the young, and actively promoting wider use of screening facilities and defibrillators. After a major fundraiser organised by Club Tyrone in February, 2005, around £125,000 was raised for the Trust, most of which went into providing defibrillators to GAA clubs in Tyrone.
Bridget appreciates the value of that provision but always had wider designs for the Trust. "We started with a large advisory committee and three trustees. There was a strong emphasis on defibrillators and on training people to use them. But a defibrillator will save someone if you are lucky. It is quite clear people need to be aware of what the symptoms are. If possible all young people should be screened. Quite a lot of deaths happen when there are no warning signs."
Cormac died in his sleep showing no symptoms of a heart condition. The Trust was set up as a charity in 2005 to commemorate his name and fight against the condition Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS) which caused his death. SADS is an umbrella term for a number of diseases, usually genetically-inherited, which cause sudden death in otherwise healthy young people up to 40. The stats show that at least one person dies of SADS in Northern Ireland each week and 12 in the UK, while up to 100 die of these conditions each year in the Republic of Ireland.
"My wife Bridget was adamant that she was going to get to the bottom of what happened to Cormac and the Trust was to make people aware of this problem," states Brendan McAnallen. "I have basically supported her. We put defibrillators in every club in Tyrone and some in Armagh and Fermanagh and they were all put in free at the time, and in some other sports bodies and leisure centres. It wasn't confined to just sports clubs. We trained over 50 people last year in using defibrillators. But people can get careless; they don't check the battery, and pads need to be replaced after a couple of years. If you don't check those, it's no good to you.
"We are more into awareness, encouraging people to do this for themselves. I remember going to Chicago airport in 1998 and they were going on about where defibrillators were available in different parts of the terminal. This was being relayed continuously. I didn't know what they were or where to go to get one."
He mentions all the people who fundraise of their own volition, north and south, while PwC has come on board as a backer, offering financial and professional support. "When you hear of someone saved by a defibrillator that is a big thing," says Brendan. "Like Seaghan Kearney in Dublin. He is a patron of the Trust. The defibrillator that saved him didn't come from here but it was donated by a local pharmacist because of the publicity arising from the Cormac Trust."
After Cormac's death, his mother Bridget heard all kinds of theories. That physical exertion might have caused an enlargement of the heart and caused his death. That those with a low body-fat count were more susceptible. She spent her life looking after her children and the idea that she might have neglected something like that gnawed at her. But these were dismissed when she met Bill McKenna, a professor of cardiology based at the Heart Hospital, London, with whom she appeared on The Late Late Show a month after Cormac's death.
McKenna was able to provide more satisfying explanations and he believes that most heart conditions can be picked up through regular testing. "These conditions are almost all genetic and there's a 50-50 chance the parent passes it on. So the chances of others having it and dropping dead of the same condition are very high. But doctors didn't know enough about it," says Bridget.
The GAA's national defibrillator programme was launched in 2007 and has seen defibrillators made available in all county grounds. Over 1,000 defibrillators have also been purchased by clubs as part of a subsidised scheme set up by the GAA.
Bridget McAnallen sighs at the "brick wall" attitude of Government bodies north and south. "They come up with all sorts of reasons that don't stand up to scrutiny when you look for more screening facilities. I would like to think the issue of screening would be taken seriously. We would like to fund more research and maybe do some lobbying. More people die of this than many other things that are tackled with greater energy at governmental level.
"Why don't they do more? Money. They are afraid there will be too much of a demand. That is why they put up these spurious arguments. I have seen so many other parents who have lost a son or a daughter and I don't want this to happen to others. That was my motivation as well. It gives you something positive to think about aside from the memories of my son. You feel that some good will come out of his death; that it was not totally in vain.
"It has been very gratifying that so many people would turn to us for help and advice. Sometimes people just wanted counselling. You just had to talk and give them advice."
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After Cormac died the St Patrick's club he played for in Eglish went through some hard times. They fell from Division 1 into Division 2 and then into 3, and almost into 4. They are now back in Division 1 again. How much his death affected the team is something nobody can say for sure. Tyrone carried on in his absence, winning two more All-Irelands with two impeccable performances in those finals.
There are, as Donal McAnallen says, no shortage of memorials. The McKenna Cup presented to Cormac shortly before he died was donated to the family by the Ulster Council. "I mean," says Donal, "I am not counting the memorials, I was never keeping score on it. I think that it is good to have all these things but ultimately if someone's life is saved by a defibrillator that is as good a memorial as you can have. Or by a screening."
A Cormac Trust Fellowship for research into the causes of SADS is being funded by the Trust to the tune of £25,000 and on March 21 a 10th anniversary gala dinner will be held in the Armagh City Hotel to celebrate the work the Trust has achieved in the time since he died. "We want to remind people we are there," says Donal, "and we continue to do this. The cause endures."
He remembers in 2004 when Tyrone lost to Mayo being a "real downer" because they felt the team was on a kind of "odyssey" and that an All-Ireland win would be the perfect tribute. It came a year later. "You couldn't hear what (captain) Brian Dooher was saying at the cup presentation because the noise overtook it, least it did from where I was standing, but what really struck me that day, and emotionally affected me, was when the crowd stared chanting spontaneously, 'Cormac, Cormac, Cormac'. It was a really special moment.
"He never knew the comedown, his career was one massive upward curve really."