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'There were things about Cormac McAnallen's life and death that even I didn't know until I sat down to write the book'

By Declan Bogue

When Cormac McAnallen died from an undetected heart condition in 2004, he was a young star cut down in his prime. Now, drawing upon Cormac’s diaries and through conversations with those who loved him, brother Donal has penned an intimate portrait of the Tyrone GAA icon —  as well as a powerful insight into his quest for sporting perfection.

There is a passage in Donal McAnallen’s book, The Pursuit of Perfection, about his brother Cormac, the Tyrone Gaelic football captain who died in tragic circumstances in March 2004, that stirs something deep around the concept of brotherhood.

It’s towards the end of summer when the two are travelling back from a hard day’s work picking strawberries on McGeary’s farm in Collegeland, just across the county border in Armagh from their home in The Brantry in Tyrone. And Donal begins to lament the passing of time, now that he is 14. Cormac is just a year younger. The age of innocence is gone and there will come a time when they are not as close. It’s almost a perfect scene of how bittersweet it was to have him as a brother and then, to have lost him from the world.

We all know the story. Cormac McAnallen was one of those universally-loved sportsmen that collected friends and awards and honours. In time, he would have married his fiancee Ashlene Moore and he had just purchased a plot of land close to his parents’ house when, on the night of March 2, 2004, Donal heard a loud noise coming from Cormac’s bedroom.

“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,” he recounts in the book.

Despite attempts to revive him, this young, athletic man with the diligent teaching notes for his work, the multiple interests including basketball, coaching, table quizzes, delivering talks and being the freshly-minted captain of the-then All-Ireland champions, died that night.

The cause? It’s been attributed to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. The facts around it are so much more complex than that.

In the book, Donal raises a number of interesting theories, questioning if the level of training that amateurs are undertaking, all the while trying to combine it with a full working life, is too demanding. There were also the four head injuries that Cormac had sustained in the lead-up to his death.

And then there were his diaries, chock-full of rigorous self-assessment and markings out of 10 for every game he played; he would measure his performance across a number of different metrics, including the head, body and legs.

But above all, this is a book of love and loss. It’s been a long time in the writing, but as the author explains, it required all that time for Donal, his remaining brother Fergus, and his parents, Brendan and Bridget, to even consider it.

“In the first couple of years, a couple of people had considered it, in the world of writing and publishing. In terms of a book, one journalist was interested,” he begins. 

“But, there was a bit too much going on. And the real-life story for us was still playing out. It wasn’t finished.

“There wasn’t the mental space to write in. We were still overwhelmed by things, trying to find our feet again. As you can see in the book it took two and a half years for even the offer of an inquest (into Cormac’s death) to come, by which time we were exhausted by everything.”

As you might imagine, Donal had his struggles for a few years.

“The heavy impact played out for two years,” he says. “By the time that was done, we had to try to restore some normality into our lives, you can’t go straight into writing a book.

“People always said to me, perhaps without the greatest of sensitivity, that if you were going to write this book, you should do it soon. And people had this fixation in their head that it had to be an anniversary, particularly the 10th anniversary.”

On that 10th anniversary, a gala dinner in memory of Cormac, to aid the work of the Cormac Trust, which has popularised, spread and educated people on the use of defibrillators, left Donal in no doubt that there was still a serious interest in his brother and an energy around his memory that former classmates, pupils, teammates and friends enjoyed drawing upon.

Consequently, Donal says the idea of capturing Cormac’s story in book form began to properly take shape: “In the course of gathering up photographs, video and renewing conversations with people around that time, I said ‘Well look, I will have to strike now if ever.’”

The book is a lovely mix of the gentle and the brutal. Of love and pain. As brothers, Donal and Cormac were close in age.

They happened to go to the ‘other’ primary school in the area. They both went to St Patrick’s School in Armagh, rather than the more well-trodden path to the one in Dungannon. They went to youth club in The Moy. Where they lived was remote.

Basically, they lived in each other’s pockets. And Donal felt it would always be that way, coaching and collaborating, scribing and scheming.

But that wasn’t to be. So he had to be remembered.

“Other people had put forward and carried out different memorial projects. I had assisted them and was involved in them, but the big thing for me was wondering if I could do this,” explains Donal.

“Another thing was that there was a certain amount of mythology that had built up around Cormac. I touched on some of that in the book. From the very word go a lot of it was ‘He didn’t drink’ and other stuff like that. I’ve heard people on stages embellishing his story, greatly at times. And that was never meant to discredit him.

“But it occurred to me quite often that no amount of embellishment can do justice to the real story.”

At times, that tale has shade cast upon it. As a ‘county man’, Cormac was fair game for the club players that delight in inflicting injury upon county players.

He found himself deeply isolated during a trip to Australia to play for Ireland in the International Rules series (the trophy for these tests is now named ‘The Cormac McAnallen Cup’) and in his private diaries in the weeks leading up to his death, he lived his life through a never-ending list of commitments made to speak at club dinners, county training with Tyrone, becoming captain, maintaining a presence around his Eglish club-mates and an ever-growing workload as a teacher in St Catherine’s in Armagh, along with wedding plans with Ashlene.

The use of the diaries played on Donal’s mind for a time, he admits: “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.

“That’s how I justified 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.”

In the book, Donal addresses the family’s decision to ultimately not seek a public inquest into Cormac’s death. He writes: “After discussion with the coroner Mummy relayed our decision in January 2007. No, thanks.

“Why not? Having accepted the Long QT theory (a syndrome that causes problems with electrical activity of the heart) with experts who have examined Cormac’s case, we didn’t have the appetite to go through this lengthy process in public. Also, we believed than an inquest was likely to tell us little new.

“The autopsy had discovered no visible heart defects, and we knew that the official inquest record for many sudden cardiac deaths where physical proof of the cause was not visible stated ‘cause of death: unascertained’. Long QT could not be proven retrospectively. And a verdict of ‘unascertained’, reported baldly in the media, might be misinterpreted as meaning that Cormac’s death was not heart-related, and this might in turn undermine the positive effects of the work of the Trust.

“In the subsequent decade, even as we availed ourselves of new forms of genetic testing on Cormac’s heart, we didn’t look back on that decision. But while working on this book, and re-running Cormac’s last laps, I have felt some fresh doubts about his cause of death. In particular, I have found myself dwelling on the head traumas he suffered towards the end of his life.

“Before I started working on this book, I recalled that Cormac sustained three such traumas in his last year or so.  Now, his medical records tell me that the three I recall were preceded by another, in November 2002. In a league play-off against Cookstown, he received a blow to the jaw. Five weeks later, on re-examination of the X-rays, a consultant noticed ‘two small lucent lines’ on the mandible — a possible displaced fracture.

“So Cormac had four different significant head injuries in his last 16 months. He was treated in three different hospitals, saw different doctors, and didn’t check in with our GP. On autopsy, his brain ‘seemed swollen’. Had there been tighter protocols about the reporting of concussion and treatment, could any bigger problem — if it existed — have been detected?

“There is of course no obvious connection between head injuries and the heart. But recently I have heard a theory from a person who treated Cormac during that period and recalls his headaches.

“It concerns the vagus nerve, which starts in the brainstem and networks with most internal organs. The left vagus nerve supplies the AV mode, which is part of the electrical conduction system of the heart. In effect, the nerve controls your heart-rate.

“Stimulation of the nerve can therefore impede electrical impulses as they attempt to travel from the atrial chambers to the ventricular chambers — this is a recognised condition known as ‘heart block’.

“So, could cranial trauma have impinged upon or inflamed the vagus nerve, in turn disrupting the regular signal to his heart and thereby triggering cardiac arrest?

“This theory is very much at odds with medical orthodoxy, and for this and other reasons it can be only speculative at present...”

And Donal concludes: “If nothing else, I think that Cormac’s catalogue of head injuries and the symptoms he suffered afterwards, underlines again the need for more post-concussive care in Gaelic games.

“Cormac’s death certificate was signed by Mummy on 29 August, 2007. For Cause of Death, it states: “Unascertained (Sudden Arrythmogenic Death Syndrome)’. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to say anything more definite with utter certainty. Someday, advances in the development of genetic cardiac screening may enable us to clarify whether or not hereditary disease was a factor or the factor. Until such time, we’ll stick with the Long QT explanation.”

While he insists he did not write the book as a form of catharsis, he seems undoubtedly in a better place for having completed the project. “The facts are there for everyone to see. I know that I did my best. Beyond that, I learned things that I wouldn’t otherwise have learned. About Cormac’s life, and his death.

“Those things might not have otherwise have 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 I am glad I learned those things.

“Also, I learned how much he really cared for us. For me and for everybody — and just about doing the right thing.”

Consulting his family, and Cormac’s then fiancee Ashlene, was a difficult process.

“I had to prompt people to bring up their old memories and very often those memories were stuffed away in corners of their minds, not to be opened up again,” he reveals.

“With my parents, I was consulting with them and letting them review scripts along the way. Talking to Fergus as well as others.

“I also had to consider Ashlene. I needed her too. Particularly for the last four years of his life, she would have spent the time with him that nobody else would have done to an extent. In order to find out things or why they happened, I needed her co-operation and thankfully she gave it readily.”

To An Athlete Dying Young, a poem written by AE Houseman in 1896, is the one that preserves Cormac’s memory best for Donal.

In the first two verses, it captures the triumphant homecoming to the village of Eglish in September 2003, the villagers coming out to hail their first All-Ireland champion, and then changes pace to the crisp March day six months later when they laid him to rest.

‘The time you won your town the race,

‘We chaired you through the market-place;

‘Man and boy stood cheering by,

‘And home we brought you shoulder high.

‘Today, the road all runners come,

‘Shoulder high we bring you home,

‘And set you at your threshold down,

‘Townsmen of a stiller town’.

  • The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen, by Donal McAnallen, is published by Penguin Ireland. There will be book launches at Eglish clubrooms on Friday, 8pm, with Peter Canavan speaking, Garvaghey Tyrone GAA Centre on Sunday at 8pm with Mickey Harte and Kevin McCloy appearing, and Queen’s University next Wednesday at 6.15pm, with Dessie Ryan and Enda McNulty speaking

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