He was still with us five years ago today. His brother Donal has his diary from that year and it shows that on 1 March, 2004, Cormac McAnallen was a busy young man. As well as teaching in St Catherine's all-girls secondary school in Armagh, he had taken on some work as a youth sports officer. That left him with a considerable to-do list. There was the primary school volleyball to organise, the internal school audit to prepare for, the money for the kickboxing to collect, a call to St Malachy's in Belfast to make, that notice about the year eight football course to put up.
That was his way, to always have something to do. The last game he played for Tyrone was the McKenna Cup final the previous week. It had been the complete performance from the All Ireland champions, a showcase of what football was going to be like with Cormac McAnallen as Tyrone team captain. Donegal, All Ireland semi-finalists only six months earlier, had been wiped by 18 points in Ballybofey in front of 14,000 people. Yet on the team bus back home as teammates speculated about what bar to hit, Cormac was engrossed in a book. A teammate went over to ask what was he reading. "Politics," answered Cormac. The previous week his students in St Catherine's had answered all his questions. "Tomorrow," said Cormac, "I want to be able to answer all theirs." After the bus left him off he was away to the Scór quiz semi-final in Omagh to answer more questions. Win, enjoy, move on, next question, next task; that was his life.
That 1 March was no different. Beside each line in his checklist he had drawn a little box. Most of the boxes got ticked. Volleyball – check. Internal audit – check. That phone call – check. Then that night he went to the gym in the Armagh City Hotel with his Eglish clubmate Paul Feeney, came home, watched some telly and then went up to make his checklist for the next day, Tuesday, 2 March.
Under-14 match versus Lismore
Sort out homework for 8R inspection
Bus notice about training
Mundane things he'd have done at his ease.
But as Donal says wistfully, "The boxes aren't ticked."
• • •
You always had
A smile to share
Time to give
And time to care.
Years may pass
Tears may dry
But memories of you
Will never die.
Small commemorative plaque at the base of Cormac McAnallen's grave donated by an anonymous supporter
Some time after Cormac passed away, Donal came across a box in the attic of old notebooks and diaries. One of them from Cormac's primary school days made it clear how exclusive they were. "HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE!" the writing on the cover screams. "THIS BOOK IS PRIVATE AND SECRET. ALL NOSY PARKERS WILL BE EXECUTED!"
Donal suspected though Cormac would forgive his curiosity. "Cormac McAnallen is gold," Mickey Harte had wrote in his own diary of 2003 and that box in the attic was a treasure of gold.
It brought it all back. Before he was even in his teens he could name the capital of every country on the planet. When he was nine he was given an essay to write which had to start with the line 'Hello, I am a piece of wood…' Nobody in the class had more fun with that one…
'Hello, I am a piece of wood and I live in Siberia. Will I tell you my story? Alright then, I will. It all started when I was a seed in Quebec. I fell into the sea and floated into the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually after about a year or so I got washed up on the shores of Ghana. A local tribe picked me up and planted me. After about 40 years I was grown to my full height. Then they carved me out and made a hut out of me! I stayed there for nine years. At that time the country was fighting a civil war and guerrillas wrecked the hut. Soon archaeologists came and looked for remains of the tribe's belongings. The archaeologist brought me to Vienna where I was put in a museum. Then one night some Russian bandits stole me and brought me to Moscow! From there they brought me on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok...'
Civil wars in Ghana, Russian bandits on the rampage in Vienna, spelling guerrillas archaeologists and Vladivostok correctly. He was nine when he wrote that.
The routine school assignment of writing the news was dominated by sport. His account of a league game between Tyrone and Derry on a bleak February's day in 1987 would have been typical. "On the way to Omagh," a seven-year-old Cormac noted, "we passed 31 cars and two cars passed us." At half-time Cormac went to the shop for a packet of crisps but couldn't locate his father Brendan on the way back. Awhile later he was in the control centre, prompting the first of many times that Cormac McAnallen's name would be read over the public address in Omagh.
By 1998 it was already a regular occurrence. He was captain of the county minors and his quest to give himself and Tyrone that edge was all-consuming. It's all there in his diary of that year. His awareness that he wasn't catching enough kickouts. The hurt of being criticised in the local paper, the decision to ignore it and instead have the confidence to take his own score. His urgings to "impress upon the others the need to get truly stuck instead of poncing about, trying to look good".
The turning point had been the two games against a loaded Down team. In the replay they blew Benny Coulter and friends off the field. "The secret," writes Cormac, "was a conversation I had with [Mickey] Harte. I told him we had not been psyched up enough the first day. In the effort not to be overhyped and lose boys, we had been kept too calm. In the replay we went out psyched up to the eyeballs and did not give an inch all through."
It was that emotional intelligence that made him the rock upon which Harte would build a Tyrone dynasty. When it was time to have fun, Cormac would share in the fun. No one belted out 'American Pie' louder on a victorious team bus pulling out of Clones. In the bar he was alongside Gavin 'Horse' Devlin, "taking on all-comers at pool and beating them in great style" and singing along to The Mavericks "and other great songs (not)" with the boys.
But when it was time for business he was all business. A few hours before another Ulster minor championship match, the team had stopped off at a pitch a few miles outside Clones for a workout under the roasting sun. Tyrone won but afterwards Cormac told Harte he felt the group had used up too much energy beforehand. No team of Harte's has repeated that pre-match warm-up.
Harte was not the only Tyrone coach who would identify his leadership qualities. A few months after lifting the All Ireland under-21 title for the second time, Cormac was asked by Art McRory and Eugene McKenna to captain the seniors for 2002. Cormac declined. He was going to be in UCD that year. The team would have needed to see more of him when what he really wanted was a first class honour in his H.Dip. He got it and Peter Canavan got the captain's armband.
It seemed inevitable Cormac would follow Canavan, collecting All Irelands. The month before Canavan brought Sam to Tyrone though, Cormac had dropped out of a training session with a chest pain. Reading that entry now is eerie. "I don't want to be some tragic hero." The pain subsided, the next night he was back training but by the following March he'd never train again.
• • •
Not since Christy Ring's passing precisely 25 years earlier had one person's death so forcibly shocked the GAA world as much as Cormac McAnallen's at the age of 24. It moved the entire nation. When Ireland beat world champions England in Twickenham the following Saturday, they cited the memory of Cormac as an inspiration. Three thousand people wrote to the family. Up to ten thousand did so in person. But gradually the crowds faded and the McAnallens were left to pick up the pieces that were their lives.
They did that by throwing themselves into work. Back in 2004 few people in Ireland knew what a defibrillator was. Thanks to the Cormac Trust a lot more know now. But the Trust, currently chaired by Cormac's father, often feels frustrated. The GAA's Medical, Scientific and Welfare committee are unconvinced about the merits of screening, citing the work of Dr Paul Thompson, a leading cardiologist. But the McAnallens contend that many more experts champion its value and that the self-administered questionnaires currently provided by the GAA are inadequate and tokenistic.
"A government task force recommended that all elite young athletes, including inter-county GAA players, should be screened," says Donal McAnallen. "Yet the association which Cormac belonged to has contradicted, even discarded, that same report. People try to portray families like ours as being emotive but there's empirical research that backs up our concerns. Anecdotally, we've seen it too. Look at Marty McGrath, Barry Owens. If they hadn't been screened who knows what would have happened to them."
The GAA has certainly been shoddy when it's come to another aspect of Cormac's legacy. The cup presented to the winners of the International Rules series was named in his memory but in the past three years the family received no correspondence from headquarters, not even an invite to the games in Salthill and Croke Park in 2006.
The family remain committed to the GAA though, particularly Donal. He's one of the organisers of the conference the Ulster Council and the Cardinal Ó Fiach library in Armagh is hosting the weekend after next as part of the GAA's 125th anniversary celebrations. President Mary McAleese, Peter Quinn and Mickey Harte are just some of the guest speakers. Donal himself will be one of several leading GAA historians presenting a paper as well.
He's doing well these days. For a good while there he wasn't. Two years ago he stated "We haven't really had a chance to stop and ask, 'What happened to us?'" When he finally did, he realised he was suffering from chronic fatigue. Nowadays he's keeping busy but keeping better care of himself and is back playing with Eglish.
So many people still miss Cormac. Even Tyrone do; Cormac would have been the one player with the moral authority to tell Ryan McMenamin to stop tainting his talent and cop himself on. But no one misses him like the family, who attended his anniversary mass in Eglish last night. It's just the little things, like watching something on TV and not being able to fire off a comment or text message to the one person who'd love the in-joke.
"It's hard to believe it's already five years," says Donal. "It's hard to believe so much has changed in five years. There's every possibility if Cormac had been alive he'd have a few more All Ireland medals, be married, maybe have had a couple of children. I don't try to think of those things too often. I do think of him every day and try to pray for him, a few words every day, but you don't want to dwell too much on where is Cormac now. People say 'Cormac's up in heaven', but you don't know that. They talk about the camel getting through the eye of the needle; well that big bull Cormac mightn't get through it! And then it's a scary thought – is he in purgatory? What's he's thinking? How does he feel? You don't want to think about what happens afterwards, it's just so scary. You could get really vexed about it."
If there's a heaven, Cormac McAnallen is there. We were lucky to have him down here at all.
For further information about the 'For community, club and country' conference in Armagh's Cardinal Ó Fiach library on 13-14 March, email email@example.com or phone (048/028) 37521900