Cormac McAnallen

The life of the talented Tyrone footballer who died tragically young

‘I was at his wake on Thursday and the lambs were sitting enjoying the sun in the fields, dressed in their brand new baby clothes, oblivious to the fact that a few yards away a great man lay in state. Sam Maguire stood at his head and watched everyone who came in, and in, and in.’

So wrote Tyrone actor and playwright Conor Grimes in February 2004 in a personal tribute to the life of Tyrone captain Cormac McAnallen, who won every honour at county level in gaelic football. The former Young Player of the Year and Ireland International Rules player died as a result of the heart condition known as Sudden Death Syndrome at the age of 24.

‘Cormac was a son, a brother, a fiance, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, and he was Tyrone. He helped Tyrone heave itself up to a place many men only dreamed of seeing. But this seems a cold table now. Our appetite is gone for the spoils that are ours,’ wrote Grimes.

The sweet taste of winning the All Ireland senior football title in September 2003 from next door neighbours Armagh turned sour overnight with the realisation that one of those who helped in winning gaelic football’s Holy Grail – the Sam Maguire Cup, was gone forever.

‘I just played a bit part in it all,’ Cormac told me a few weeks after Sam was brought across the River Blackwater to spend a year with the people in parishes like Killyclougher, Carrickmore, Pomeroy, Edendork and of course McAnallen’s native Eglish. ‘It should increase the numbers at training after this,’ he added.

Others who knew him better say that Cormac McAnallen was modest beyond belief – always playing down the contribution he made to the sport that he loved so passionately.

‘Cormac was 12 when I first saw him playing.  Even then he had leadership qualities and was always trying to help others,’ says Adrian McGuckin, one of Ireland’s top gaelic football coaches, who guided the Eglish under 18 team to a Tyrone minor title.  ‘What marked him out was that he was so rounded. He combined academic excellence with complete dedication to sport.’

McAnallen was an A level history and politics teacher at St Catherine’s College in Armagh and he took the challenge of working in a girls school completely in his stride. ‘The stick I took in class when Armagh were the All Ireland champions hardened me up for when Tyrone got to the final,’ he recalled with a mischievous smile. ‘After we won it, all the wise cracks stopped.’

Cormac was destined to be captain of the Tyrone senior team. He had led the minor and under 21 sides to All Ireland success in 1998 and 2001 and 2002. Senior team manager Mickey Harte had chosen him to take over from Peter Canavan at the beginning of 2004 and nine days before his death, McAnallen was hoisting the McKenna Cup high in the air after defeating Donegal.

‘Cormac was such a gentleman and his maturity belied his years. He was everything you would want in a young man.' remembered Harte with great fondness. ‘He was such a good guy, a brilliant athlete and dedicated player. People use the term, role model liberally, but for Cormac, he was that person.’

‘I felt I was a better person for having known him,’ says former Armagh captain and television commentator Jimmy Smyth who was among the thousands who attended the funeral service. ‘One man at the service said to me that all of Tyrone was delighted to see the Armagh team at the service. There might be intense rivalry between the counties but when support was needed the Armagh team was there and that gesture would never be forgotten. But then that was a mark of the esteem in which Cormac was held.’

Sudden Death Syndrome affects about one in 100,000 people. Several weeks after McAnallen’s death, John McCall, the Royal School Armagh rugby captain died suddenly during a game at the Under-19 World Cup in South Africa. As a result of this and an increasing number of similar incidents, an organisation called the Cormac Trust has been set up to work at reducing the chances of young people dying in this way. The Trust aims to promote a screening programme for heart conditions which may attack young athletes. It also wants to equip sports clubs with defibrillators which could prove to be life savers.

While the annual International Rules test matches that Ireland and Australia now play for has been called the Cormac McAnallen Trophy, there is no doubt that his name will live on in many other ways.

‘He was always buzzing around, encouraging us. It was a privilege to know him,’ says his older brother Donal. ‘He was a great motivator. He was always up to something. Up to something good.’

‘Everything he did in life, he did it the best he could,” Eglish and Tyrone colleague Mattie McGleenan told the BBC.  ‘He gave us some beautiful days in the sun. We loved him as a brother. Our brother has died and part of us died with him. We’ll not replace him. All we can do is rebuild because Cormac wouldn’t have given up. And we’re going to make sure we don’t give up either.’

By Padraig Coyle