Sunday 18 February 2018

McAnallen's lasting legacy is the lives he helped to save

Tyrone star's tragic death inspired action to prevent similar cases.

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Ten years on, Cormac McAnallen's legacy shines through in so many ways. If there is comfort for the family of the late Tyrone captain, whose 10th anniversary falls on Sunday, it is in the testimony of Seaghan Kearney, Shane McAnarney and their likes.

In 2010 Kearney, now a member of Jim Gavin's Dublin back-room team as a statistician, was playing an indoor match one Monday evening in St Oliver Plunkett's clubhouse when he collapsed and hit his head off the floor on impact.

He had suffered sudden cardiac arrest and the window of survival instantly began to close. He had just minutes to live.

Fortunately, those around him reacted quickly and Terry O'Brien, a club volunteer with a background in the fire service, was able to bring him around with the use of a defibrillator stored in the clubhouse.

By Seaghan's own admission, O'Brien's experience saved him – with only slight memory loss as a side-effect.

In recovery, the young Dubliner felt compelled to travel and meet Bridget McAnallen, Cormac's mother, who has done so much to raise awareness of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS). He is now patron of the Cormac Trust, the charity set up in the years after the Tyrone man's death. Almost two years ago Seaghan got married – O'Brien was one of his groomsmen.

The defibrillator had been installed in the St Oliver Plunkett's clubhouse, courtesy of a donation from local pharmacist David King.


Would such an act of generosity – and ultimately, necessity – have happened were it not for the events of the early morning on March 2 – when richly talented recent All-Ireland medal winner McAnallen was discovered dead in his bed by his family?

Shane McAnarney can also throw a nod in the direction of the Eglish countryside in south Tyrone for the screening that led to his double bypass last September.

As many of the Dublin players that the former Meath captain had faced in a Leinster final 14 months earlier were winning their second All-Ireland title in three years last September, McAnarney was hooked up to machines in the nearby Mater Hospital, just two days on from the cardiac surgery that may well have saved his life.

As part of testing routinely available to all inter-county squads through a Gaelic Players Association roll-out, tests had shown that he had two blocked arteries and may even have suffered a mild heart-attack at one stage, such was the nature of the damage detected. McAnarney admits thinking instantly of McAnallen when the diagnosis was revealed to him last summer.

Perhaps the GPA and GAA would have got together anyway to facilitate screening if the fateful events on that night in Eglish had not occurred. But there was action in the years after Cormac's death.

McAnarney is well on the way to a full recovery and has taken up coaching duties at club level this season. He has been invited to record a short message and attend a dinner hosted by the Cormac Trust, which will commemorate the anniversary and give thanks to all those who have helped in raising the awareness of SADS, the generic term for a number of cardiac-related diseases that can claim the lives of adults under 40.

The appreciation will be two-way as the Cormac Trust has helped to install defibrillators in every club in Tyrone and has now reached into Armagh and Fermanagh, not just GAA clubs but sports clubs too.

The donation of defibrillators, such as the one which saved Kearney's life, has been commonplace over the last decade.

The GAA has played its part too, offering subsidised defibrillators. As many as 1,500 units have been supplied at costs ranging from €850.

In the decade that has passed, and the message that has been transmitted, which has surely saved many lives, it is easy to forget the legacy that Cormac McAnallen left as a footballer.

He was only 24 when he died and had just taken over as Tyrone captain from Peter Canavan. The McKenna Cup, which he had lifted just a few days earlier, was later presented to the McAnallen family.

The shock of his passing prompted solidarity from across the religious and sporting divide in Northern Ireland.

Supporters of Linfield soccer club sent messages of sympathy through a local broadcaster, members of Dungannon Swifts soccer club arrived at the house in The Brantry, hockey and rugby clubs came through the winding roads too and paid their respects, and the then-Irish Football Association president Jim Boyce attended the funeral.

Several Gaelic football teams lined the route from the church to the graveyard, most poignantly the Armagh football team that had lost the previous September's All-Ireland final to their neighbours.

Illustrating just how much his death had touched the community, a letter arrived at the McAnallen household from the headquarters of the Black Preceptory, an organisation with strong links to the Orange Order. It struck quite a chord.

Could Cormac still have been playing now? At the age of 34 could he have been lining out against Kildare in the league in Newbridge on Sunday?

His former county colleague Ryan McMenamin has no doubt that McAnallen would have stood the test of time better than most. "He did everything that had to be done at 100pc. He was ahead of the game as an amateur. He lived his life as a professional," recalls McMenamin.

For 'Ricey' the memory of McAnallen's mid-season switch to full-back after the 2003 drawn Ulster final with Down stands out.

In four subsequent games to the All-Ireland title, against Down, Fermanagh, Kerry and Armagh, Tyrone conceded just 1-25, an average of seven points per game.

"He was constantly looking to improve himself. When he did get moved into full-back he was always coming asking for information," says McMenamin. "He had a meticulous mind. 'Can you explain that in more detail?' he would ask. You would have to go into the detail.

"He would still be playing. I have no doubt. His love for the game, the way that he went out to prepare, lifestyle-wise, everything was right. In the last five or six years, with preparations even more advanced Cormac would have embraced that, he would have loved it and taken it on."

With just a handful still playing from that 2003 side, current captain Sean Cavanagh among them, McMenamin believes that while the squad will be aware of the date and conscious of the need to represent themselves well on Sunday, it may not be that emotional for them.

"It won't be something that Mickey (Harte) will focus on too much. This is a new team," he says. "It will mean most for Sean, especially. They would have trained together quite a bit, they would have travelled together to training at times, coming from the same part of the county."

Irish Independent

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