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Day the GAA world stopped

THEY flocked in their thousands to Brantry for a final glimpse of Cormac McAnallen, stewards shuttling them in from the Jordan Engineering plant nearby: a who's who of the GAA firmament united - and baffled - in their grief. On Thursday night the crowds grew more dense by the minute, routed through an adjoining marquee specially erected. There they stalled to sign a book of co

THEY flocked in their thousands to Brantry for a final glimpse of Cormac McAnallen, stewards shuttling them in from the Jordan Engineering plant nearby: a who's who of the GAA firmament united - and baffled - in their grief. On Thursday night the crowds grew more dense by the minute, routed through an adjoining marquee specially erected. There they stalled to sign a book of condolence, then moved past the open coffin.

In aching proximity sat the Sam Maguire Cup which the Tyrone footballer had brought back just five months before - two journeys ending as one. At around 9.0pm on Thursday the Bishop of Armagh, the Most Reverend Seán Brady, arrived to pay his respects. Cormac's fiancee Ashlene Moore stood by the coffin, heartbroken, holding the hands of the man she had planned to marry sometime next year. For a few moments the queue paused for prayer.

Over the surreal days since his sudden death on Tuesday morning, at 24, mourners filed into Eglish parish to offer their sympathies to the family. It is impossible to say for certain how many. Some, like GAA President Seán Kelly, said they had never witnessed a funeral of this magnitude. Surrounding roads were closed to traffic and, somehow, the local stewards ferried everyone through.

Later, as Cormac's family, along with his fiancee, returned to the house, the full moon shone brightly in the sky as it had the night before. But by now the crowds had dispersed and the first traces of normality revisited their lives. They began opening some of the hundreds of cards and letters that had arrived. It was a helpful distraction.

"There's one from Barney Eastwood," said Donal, Cormac's elder brother.

He looked shattered, not having slept for 24 hours after his brother's death, and managing only a short rest on Thursday night. Yet the dignity and courage he and his family displayed under unimaginable strain was incredible.

There are moments he'd liked to have shared with his brother - but many more which he did - and which he'll cherish forever

He spoke about how Cormac and Ashlene had bought a site up the hill in this tranquil rural setting where they were to set up home. They'd met in 1999 when Cormac was studying at Queen's and she was attending Jordanstown. Donal recalled how much he'd wished for all the family to live there, close at hand.

His late brother turned 24 on February 11. "I look back with regret," said Donal, "not having given him more of a present. But what can you give to a man who has everything?" There are moments he'd liked to have shared with his brother . . . but many more which he did - and which he'll cherish forever.

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We are sitting in the house and every now and then he gets up to check television news reports of the funeral earlier in the day. There is a large framed photograph of him and Cormac from the victorious Tyrone dressing-room last September after the county won the All-Ireland. They are holding the Sam Maguire and both are beaming: a moment of unrestrained joy.

He looks at this photograph and says that it will be one of the memories he will treasure of them together. When the final whistle went on September 28 he was seated in the bottom row of the Hogan Stand. His girlfriend Katie was beside him then, as she is now: "I have never seen anyone clearing a barrier as quickly," she smiles.

There was pandemonium on the pitch, people spilling in from all angles, as he raced towards his brother. "I think as I got there, two other Tyrone players had just joined him. I don't think he realised it was me, and I said, 'Hey, it's Donal. Donal!' He grabbed me by the hand and dragged me towards the presentation area, but we got separated in the crowd.

"But I managed to get into the dressing-room and they weren't letting many in. That's when that photograph was taken. I know it looks staged but it was totally spontaneous. That will be one of the great memories I'll have of us together."

THERE was football in the family before Cormac's ascension to greatness. His mother Bridget's brother, Peter, was on the Tyrone panel in 1986 that reached the All-Ireland, losing to Kerry. Her uncle Joe played for Dongal in the 1941 Ulster championship. Cormac's father Brendan was secretary of the Benburb club in the 1960s and his own father helped establish a club in Brantry.

In 1956, St Patrick's GAA club in Eglish was formed and the Brantry players became part of the new entity. They won only one senior championship, in 1970, but in the 1980s and '90s minor titles were claimed, back-to-back in both decades.

Donal recounts how his uncle Peter was a major early influence on the boys. "Whenever he called to the house we'd be out messing with a ball. It was always a thrill when he'd arrive. On the odd occasion he had Plunkett Donaghy with him." Donaghy was a legend, an empowering symbol of Tyrone football from the last generation.

Fergus, the youngest of the three brothes at 22, didn't show the same level of interest in football as the other two boys. His primary passion is rallying and for some time it looked that if anyone was going to play for Tyrone in the McAnallen household, it would be Donal.

A year older than Cormac, he grew a lot quicker. When they started playing together Donal manned central positions like midfield or centre forward; Cormac was positioned at corner back with a limited mandate. Nobody can say that they saw a future Allstar in the earlier years of his career.

Paddy McIntosh, a local carpenter who arrived in Eglish from Dungannon almost 30 years ago, watched him blossom - saw the transition take place. He took charge of the local underage teams and had the boys from the time they started up to the county minor wins of 1996 and '97. By then Cormac was a county minor and had played in an All-Ireland final.

"He was a small tubby lad," he recalls, "a wee round face. The only thing you'd have picked out at that time was his determination but you could say that about a lot of young fellas. Around about 15 he lost some weight."

But there were early signs of resolve. Like the time he was stranded in Donegal on a family holiday, anxious to make it back for an U14 challenge match in county Down. McIntosh rewinds: "We gathered here in Eglish and they were on the bus when I arrived and I said to Donal, 'what about Cormac?' He said: 'Oh, he'll be here, I was talking to Mammy. Before I left they were in Letterkenny, he was getting new boots.' We waited over half an hour. Then we could wait no longer but decided to start the journey and take a route through Armagh which meant we might meet their car coming home. Donal and I were sitting up at the front of the bus watching out for it.

'He was a brilliant lad, we owe everything to him. He put our club on the map a long time before today'

"We didn't see it so we drove on without him. We arrived there and went into the dressing-room. I'd totally forgotten about Cormac and anyway you could understand; family holidays came first in those days. We were out on the field ready to start, a man short, and then I saw him running up the sideline pulling on his jersey. For any lad of that age to be able to persuade his parents to drive from Donegal to Down was amazing."

Cormac was 16 and full back when Eglish won the 1996 county title. His brother Donal recalls that day as the point where their career paths diverged. They had played on the same teams for all but one of their years in school together in St Pat's, Armagh and also on many of the underage teams for Eglish.

Donal failed to make the Tyrone minors in 1996. When the county final came up afterwards he was eager to prove a point, but it didn't go well and he was substituted. His brother took the man of the match award. "After that, I just got left behind. And it was hard for me to take for a while."

MATTIE McGLEENAN, big Mattie as he is known here, has taken charge of the Eglish team this year. He recalled how Cormac showed up unexpectedly for a challenge match in Armagh against Cullaville a week ago. He tried to cover every assignment.

"On Sunday we got a whisper that he was coming, but you had to tell Cormac sometimes, because he was so busy, that, 'listen, you've had enough.' He'd be apologising for not coming to games. Benny Donnelly rang me to say Cormac wanted to travel and he arrived with Ashlene - they were joined at the hip."

On Thursday night the Cullaville players turned up at the home to pay their respects. "They said how, after the game, he shook hands with them and wished them all well."

James Muldoon, who played with Cormac up through the ranks of underage football in Eglish, recalled the challenge match - Cormac's last. "He just turned up out of the blue. One of the fellas I was marking said: 'He must give you some commitment to turn up on a Sunday morning like that.' I just said: 'That's Cormac, like.'"

McGleenan faces a tough challenge in lifting his team, who have their first league match on March 28. "This is a whole new world for me. He was someone I will never forget. I will try to do my best for the club. I hope this will give us a new sense of urgency and we can have an attitude of: 'Let's do this for Cormac.'"

Former Eglish chairman Canice Murtagh was more downbeat. "Up to the weekend I would have said we had as good a chance as any in the championship. But I'm afraid that has now taken a very severe dent.

"It's going to take strong men and strong hearts to get us through. You saw him coming through Eglish yesterday and you filled up. There's no short way out of it. You know the old saying: big men do cry. He was a brilliant lad, we owe everything to him. He put our club on the map a long time before today."

Cathal Murtagh, who played football with the McAnallens and was on the same Scór quiz teams, remembered how Cormac had said that they could win a county championship this year. That was a a fortnight ago after they won the semi-final of county Scór. Earlier in the day McAnallen had captained Tyrone in the McKenna Cup final.

"He drove to Omagh from Ballybofey for the Scór after having the meal with the team," says Murtagh. "I mean, he had to sit around for a couple of hours in Omagh before the quiz started." Donal recalls how they had tried to persuade Cormac that they might manage without him but he wouldn't hear of it.

"He was very competitive and like to be involved. We talked about getting Mammy to stand in but he wanted to take part.

"We won the quiz and I was annoyed at the same time because I felt we might have won without him. But I'm glad we won together now."

DURING the week it was suggested that Cormac McAnallen would have made an ideal GAA president: he impressed on all fronts. These virtues placed a high demand on his time outside of football. In recent months he had been to several counties for GAA functions. The tributes that have flowed since his death underlined his remarkable legacy. A large part of this was because of his achievements as a footballer. But it went beyond that. He had human qualities that touched many people in the GAA, cutting across sporting and other divides. "An honour to have met you and played with you. For once, all of the clichés about greatness and humility are true," stated the Wexford hurler David O'Connor in one of the online books of condolence set up after his death.

Kieran McGeeney's words were especially moving in light of their recent rivalry: "Like all great athletes he had the lot, real courage, unbelievable focus, an unwavering dedication and commitment to his sport, true loyalty to his team-mates, the ability to never give up, integrity, honesty and above all the mark of all great leaders, the ability to really listen and the modesty to learn."

The Derry coach John Morrison brought a signed Mass card with the names of the Derry panel inscribed on it. Derry and Tyrone are poles apart in many ways, but this tragedy made no sense of it. "You see the tributes you read?" says Morrison. "They're meant."

THEY came in huge numbers to Eglish. Names that resonate around the GAA fraternity - Jack O'Shea, Colin Corkery, Pádraig Joyce, DJ Carey, Dessie Farrell, Brian Cody. It stands alongside any of the great GAA funerals for size and impact.

'For our own clubman to win an All-Ireland medal and then on top of that to get an Allstar . . . I was so proud to even know him'

Muldoon says that when the body came back from Belfast to Eglish from the autopsy on Wednesday the finality of his death hit home. He was one of the stewards co-ordinating traffic and that night he stopped a car containing Colm O'Rourke and Seán Boylan. The last time Muldoon saw O'Rourke was when they had a coaching session with him in Meath as U12s.

The high for him though was when Cormac came back with Sam last September. It is the same for Edward Daly. "The sensation was just unbelievable," he says. "Even for Peter Canavan. We call him God. But for our own clubman to win an All-Ireland medal and then on top of that to get an Allstar . . . I was so proud to even know him. It was a joy. There's emptiness. Why? I don't know; he must have been too perfect for this world."

While McAnallen achieved an abundance of riches in 24 years, invariably there are thoughts of what might have been ahead were he given the chance. Daly believes that having won the All-Ireland Cormac, like the team itself, would have relaxed more and played even better football.

He watched them in the McKenna Cup final win over Donegal a few weeks ago. The football they played was, he says, "like music." He was stewarding at Jordan Engineering on Wednesday when the hearse passed. "You began to realise you had lost someone special."

THE McAnallen's have redoubtable energy and that fans out from the family home. Cormac's parents, Bridget and Brendan, are deeply immersed in local cultural and historical events. And they have been through the grieving process before. In 1997 Paul McGirr was on the same minor team as Cormac and died freakishly on the playing field.

Before Christmas Cormac was in Ballintubber in Mayo for a GAA presentation. The club asked if Eglish would bring down a juvenile team to coincide with next week's league match involving Tyrone and Mayo. One of Paddy McIntosh's final dealings with Cormac was being alerted to the request and asked to see it through. The death made him have a rethink but Mickey Harte's advice to him outside the McAnallen home during the week was unambiguous.

He said to me, 'You have to move on. You know what he'd say himself.' And I know if Cormac was here he'd say 'Paddy take those kids down to Ballintubber.'"

Friday night in the McAnallen home. Bridget, Cormac's mother, is bringing us tea and discussing family history. The McAnallen's talk like the Spanish; they hardly ever stop. They live it to the full. It is no surprise that they raised a son like Cormac.

Donal remembers the two of them playing basketball after walking home from school and how they carried the coffin down the same road. His mother sang a song she used to sing for Cormac when the doors were closed before his remains left the house. Her father Charlie, Donal says, is 87 and plays the fiddle, often - he jokes - unrequested.

In conversation Donal will frequently speed off on tangents, new ideas and associations popping off in his head. They are too vibrant a family to stop doing the things they love to do.

Donal regrets not having travelled to Cullaville to share in the last available piece of football action Cormac experienced. Missing something like that went against the grain and you sense that this is what irks him most.

It has been a harrowing week. He recalls the moment around 3.0am last Tuesday when their lives changed. "I heard this noise upstairs and it escalated in volume and got more repetitious. I went to the bottom of the stairs and said: 'what's going on up there?' And the thing continued. Then I went upstairs and realised the noise was coming from Cormac's room. He was lying slightly on his side and staring straight ahead and he had some sort of mucus on his upper lip. He had descended into his last couple of gasps. That will haunt me for the rest of my life.

"I went out of the room and Mammy was dozing. I ran to her. Daddy heard the shouting, but there was no life out of him after that. I can't work out how he died in his sleep. You think you might have been able to do something if you got there a little earlier."

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