Bridget McAnallen on GAA son Cormac: ‘His death was not in vain’

On March 2, 2004, Bridget McAnallen’s life was forever changed when her 24-year-old son Cormac died from an undetected heart condition.

t the time the Tyrone Gaelic football captain had every honour in the game including winning minor, under-21 and senior All-Ireland titles, while also picking up an All-Star in 2003 when Tyrone won their first senior All-Ireland.

Cormac’s death came as a huge shock to people all over the country as he was a well-known sportsman of exceptional fitness.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, The Cormac Trust was founded by Bridget and her husband Brendan with the assistance of the Tyrone County Board of the GAA.

“One of the things that happened at the very early stages, in the few weeks after Cormac died, a good friend, Hiram Morgan, rang us. There were various people asking us for interviews. I was going to be on RTE, and Hiram said to talk about screening,” Bridget recalls.

“When we realised what had happened to Cormac, we realised it was a condition that very few people knew anything about. It’s a type of SADS — Long QT Syndrome — and we knew that there was very little public awareness of it.

“Then we basically decided within the next few months that this was very important to us, that we were going to raise awareness of SADS.

“Screening for SADS became very important as well. There was a group of people who helped to fund us from the beginning, and they were very keen that we distribute defibrillators. We set up The Cormac Trust within a year of him dying.”

Within the first two or three years of being established, The Cormac Trust donated 120 defibrillators free of charge, Bridget says: “We donated them to sports clubs in Tyrone, then we started to distribute them to schools and leisure centres, voluntary ambulances, lifeboats, to Queen’s University in Belfast, Celtic Park in Derry… to all sorts of places. We also trained all the volunteers involved in CPR and the use of defibrillators.”

It got to the point where The Cormac Trust couldn’t keep up with the demand for this life-saving piece of equipment and so the organisation began to subsidise them instead.

“We were able to get a good deal with a defibrillator company; they reduced the price by about a third for us. So we ordered them, supplied them, we made it easier for all these various places all over the North and different parts of the South as well occasionally, to get one.

“We are still doing that, but not to the same extent as a lot of other organisations have been supplying defibrillators; the GAA have been enabling people to get them and The British Heart Foundation.

“We still provide training, and we provide it at a reduced cost. We supplied another 300 or 400 defibrillators after that, after the first 120 donated. We’ve trained probably at least 1,500 people in the use of defibrillators and in CPR, and quite a lot of that was in the first couple of years, when the training was donated by us and was done free of charge.”

Another objective of The Cormac Trust was to ‘provide education and information to raise awareness at government level and among other authorities as to the value of providing facilities for the screening of young people’.

“We got involved with medical people: cardiologists, doctors and nurses, north and south, who were involved with screening,” Bridget says.

“We have given advice about screening and been involved in various groups that are in support of screening in some way or another. A lot of people came to us over the years. They rang us up and asked us questions about getting screened, people who were worried about some condition that they had, and worried about SADS. We gave them advice and helped them to get referrals.

“We have decided to fund research; over many years we donated at least €100,000 to the Mater Hospital in Dublin, and €20,000 or €30,000 to Tallaght Hospital. Both have specialised screening clinics for SADS.”

SADS was a condition that the public knew little about at the time of Cormac’s passing, but the McAnallen family’s efforts through The Cormac Trust helped change that.

“It does feel great that we have done that,” Bridget says. “It’s very hard to say how many lives we have helped to save because we haven’t probably heard of every incident. We know of a lot of people who have been saved by our defibrillators — at least ten or twelve, but there are probably others in various parts of the country.

“One of the people who was saved by a defibrillator that we donated was Kevin McCloy who was a Co Derry All-Star and he has been on our board, and we hope to have him as chairman of The Cormac Trust.

“Some of our defibrillators have definitely saved lives, but a lot more people have been screened, and maybe have had their lives saved by screening. I know of two or three people for definite, but there will be a lot more people who might be saved, who would have discovered a problem and then had that treated.

“They don’t necessarily come back to tell you, but I know of people, and it does feel great. In setting up The Cormac Trust it was always good to remember Cormac, but also to feel as if his death was not in vain if other people could be saved by us highlighting the condition that he died from, and helping people to get screened, and saving lives by defibrillators.”

The Cormac Trust is supporting pioneering new research at NUI Galway into Sudden Adult Death Syndrome to develop genetic cures for the condition.

“It’s hoping to find a cure for Long QT Syndrome,” Bridget says.

“It sounds amazing, and it is amazing. They are using a very advanced scientific process to transform the skin cells into stem cells, and the stem into heart cells, and the heart cells can actually be seen beating of their own accord in a Petri dish. They are hoping to be able to alter the genes in the stem cells so that Long QT can be eradicated.”

In 2018 Bridget’s son Donal published a book The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen. In the book, Donal draws upon Cormac’s diaries and self-assessments, and his own memories of their experiences, to create a portrait of a young sportsman’s mindset and methods.

“I think the book was excellent,” the proud mother says.

“It really took a lot of hard work, some of which I know about because I was minding Donal’s children when he was doing a lot of his research.

“Most of what is in it, I had known already, but there were pieces that I didn’t know. For example about Cormac’s lifestyle when he was at Queen’s University, and the lovely interaction between himself and his friends and the things they used to do, and the various games they used to play and really enjoyed.

“It was surprising to me that Cormac had kept such detailed records of his playing career. He would just go quietly to his room and work on something, I wouldn’t usually ask, ‘What are you doing?’ What was very nice about the book, that most people seemed to like, is that Donal was speaking very honestly about himself and his view of life and aspirations as well.”

Bridget recalls a fond memory of Cormac that isn’t in his book, of them watching University Challenge together.

“I was back at the university studying, there was a Queen’s University facility in Armagh for several years, that’s closed now.

“I was studying and Cormac was studying as well, he was in Belfast. We were both tested for University Challenge and we both came out in the top five, but Queen’s didn’t enter a team that year.

“Cormac and I used to always play University Challenge at home every week. He always asked me to play. We answered the questions before the contestants. Cormac was very quick, and he could figure it out very quickly.

“He was so good at quizzes and a very good guesser, so even though I would have known a fair bit about music and classical music and other things, Cormac could guess something even if he didn’t know it. We both really enjoyed that. I still look at it although I have nobody else to play it with.”

In addition to quizzes, Bridget has a love of music and literature.

“I have had a great interest in music all my life,” she says. “I did a lot of music at school, both primary and secondary school, I went to Loreto Convent in Omagh as a boarder and I used to sing in all the choirs.

“After that I sang in our local choir and in two very good choirs in Armagh for about 20 years altogether: Armagh City Choir which was conducted by Michael Harris, a great guy from Belfast, and also the Cathedral Choir which was conducted and trained by George Minne. A wonderful man who did such wonderful church music.

“These were some of the most enjoyable times in my life, singing in the various choirs.

“The other major thing in my life would be reading literature: English, Irish, French and even Russian literature. I read a lot of literature when I was very young and I have to say, you don’t necessarily always appreciate it then, you don’t always get all the meanings.

“I attended a brilliant school for music and drama, and every year we had a Shakespearian festival in Omagh, and each class did their part of the play, whichever play they were studying.

“I usually had parts in all the Shakespearean plays. I think Shakespeare was the most wonderful writer, I think he was ahead of his time. He had at least one major moral in every play, teaching us all something.

“On that point I would love to say to young people to take up reading. Start at an early age, I know my sons did. It’s of a great benefit to you, because I think the values young people get from social media are not always the best values for life.

“Social media can be very shallow. It’s teaching people in a way that’s quite harmful, to be too competitive, to be judgemental. Instant judgments can very often be false because people need to know more about the subject.”

For more from The Cormac Trust, see thecormactrust.com

Belfast Telegraph