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Dónal McAnallen: 'Our responsibility as a family was about more than just keeping Cormac's memory alive'

In an extract from his book, Cormac’s brother Dónal McAnallen writes about coming to terms with the death of his 24-year-old brother.

Dónal McAnallen

THIS IS AN extract from The Pursuit of Perfect – The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen, written by his brother Dónal McAnallen. Cormac McAnallen was the captain of the All Ireland-winning Tyrone football team. He died suddenly of an undetected heart condition in 2004 at the age of 24. This extract looks at how Dónal and Cormac’s family handled the aftermath of Cormac’s death. 

Now that Cormac was gone, nothing could ever be the same again.

There was a huge, irreplaceable void in our family.

Beyond that, who we were and how we lived changed overnight. Our roles as Cormac’s father, Cormac’s mother, and Cormac’s brothers were perpetuated, magnified and vested with new meaning. Life, and death, had thrust new responsibilities on us. As if to ram home the fact, the UTV programme broadcast on the Sunday week after his death was called Cormac McAnallen: The Legacy.

As we saw it, our responsibility was about much more than keeping his memory alive. For our family, it was also about trying to live up to the high ideals associated with his memory; to continue his pursuit of perfection.

The exaltation of his name, and the veneration of his life, continued for a long time. His grave became a shrine. For weeks afterwards, a Persian rug of flowers spread from it across the row. Any day you drove past, you could see a steady trickle of figures up the pathway, and a lucky dip of licence-plates parked roadside.

Cormac McAnallens Funeral 5/3/2004 Cormac's funeral on 5 March 2004 in Tyrone Source: ©INPHO

From home we saw a thickening of traffic on the boreen opposite, with cars edging along and slowing to a halt at the farmer’s gate that allowed a view of our house; we could only surmise that they were strangers, curious to see where Cormac McAnallen had grown up.

We became much more recognisable. When people met us for the first time, many could guess who we were from our surname alone. Some surmised privately.

Others asked, “Are you anything to the lad that died?”

We got so used to that question that we could virtually see the cogs moving in their brains before they uttered it.

Many identified us from the media coverage. Never could I have imagined that I’d hear, “I recognised you from the cover of the Irish Sun.”

Quite a few saw a physical resemblance and calculated the rest. Often people lapsed into addressing me as “Cormac”. Moments later, they’d realise their error and apologise profusely. They didn’t need to: they weren’t dragging up a painful memory, for that memory had never left me in the first place.

At the same time, Cormac’s constant shadow could be a bit over-bearing. I felt that nothing I could ever do would be as good as the one who went before. Chris Lawn spoke of a similar feeling when he resumed Tyrone full-back duties.

Cormac McAnallen 28/9/2003 Cormac lifting the Sam Maguire Cup Source: ©INPHO

We remained on high alert for months. Nothing, least of all life itself, seemed certain any more. On the odd night, before going to sleep, I’d wonder, will I wake up in the morning? A few times, without our knowing, Mummy sat up to watch us.

Others talked of similar anxieties. The problem with being hyper-conscious of your heartbeat is that you can misread or imagine an irregular rhythm. One evening in early May, I thought I felt a heaviness in my heart, and I said as much to Daddy. Off we went to the hospital. The doctors didn’t want to take any chances, and kept me in for a week.

Anyone named McAnallen was being watched out for. Shauna McAnallen in Dundalk was pulled aside before her Junior Cert Irish exam to inform her there was a comprehension question on her cousin Cormac.

Often in the early months, when I heard a weird fact or funny story, I’d instinctively think, “Wait till I tell Cormac”. Microseconds later, the penny would drop.

But for many months to come, he remained a very real, living figure in my dreams. In one, there was a match about to start on telly when the presenter’s voice changed pitch to declare that he had a very special guest with him in studio.

“Cormac, first of all, it’s great to see you. I have to ask the question everyone’s asking: where have you been for the last while?! You’ve kinda been missed!”

“Well, Jerome, I suppose this has all been a shock to the supporters out there. Em, what can I say? Sorry I scared you! Everything had just got so much after the All-Ireland. I felt I really needed a break, and I sort of thought it better to slip off quietly. I had done something like this once before when I was a student in Belfast and, eh, that worked then. Obviously, it backfired this time, as there’s been such a fuss. Again, I’m sorry about that. It’s all over now anyway.”

“I think I can say, on behalf of everyone watching today, welcome back, Cormac. We’ll hear more from you later. But before all that, we have to announce the winner of last week’s competition . . .”

Then the signal went, and I awoke.

Dónal McAnallen’s book, The Pursuit of Perfect – The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen, is out now. Author byline photo: Mal McCann.  

 

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