Mystery death of Gaelic football's brightest star stuns Ireland

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The Independent Online

The news was greeted in Ireland with shock, amazement, dismay and sheer disbelief: one of the country's brightest and best young sportsman had gone to bed as usual and died during the night.

Incredulity reverberated throughout the country as people sought to come to terms with the fact that Cormac McAnallen, a 24-year-old super-fit Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) footballer, was found dead in his bed.

He had just become captain of reigning Gaelic football champions Tyrone following a career in which he had already won the game's major honours.

With years of playing apparently ahead of him, McAnallen had looked destined to become one of sport's dominating figures. His untimely demise is the equivalent of the sudden death of one of England's leading football or rugby international figures.

In fact, in Irish terms the impact may be even greater. While sports such as football and rugby are popular in both parts of Ireland, Gaelic games reflect the Irish national psyche. Although Protestants play Gaelic, it is mostly the preserve of Catholics and nationalists, and is viewed as an affirmation of identity.

For many participants, sport and national spirit are inextricably intertwined. The GAA is regarded not just as a sporting body but also as a symbol of the Irish personality, with Gaelic games imbued with historical, cultural and social meaning.

The GAA is a central part of Irish society. Rivalries between, and within, counties run deep, but beneath is a binding common culture. The death of one of the Gaelic game's most promising young stars is therefore deeply felt. Within hours it had become a tragedy to the McAnallen family and the nation. A post-mortem examination is to be held to discover the cause of his unexpected death. McAnallen had been an athlete since he was a boy, winning major Gaelic honours in his teens. He neither smoked nor drank.

Mickey Harte, manager of the Tyrone team, said of him: "He was such a fit person. There was a fitness test done a few weeks ago and he was top of the pile. He dedicated himself so much to being the best."

He had only last month become Tyrone team captain and a few weeks ago had led the team to an important victory. "People are just walking round shattered," one Tyrone woman said. Last September he was part of the victorious Tyrone team which beat neighbouring Armagh in the All-Ireland Gaelic football final for the Sam Maguire Cup. It was the first time that two northern teams had battled for the trophy. Since Armagh had won the cup the previous year, there has been much talk that northern teams may be on the brink of carving out a new era in a game traditionally dominated by southern counties such as Kerry and Dublin. His death is all the crueller since he seemed likely to play a leading part in a northern upsurge, with graft and determination poised to win out over the sometimes more stylish southern game.

He played in defence and midfield for a Tyrone team which has been summed up as sharp, mobile and abrasive. Recently the team's social ties were emphasised when almost all the players, including McAnallen, attended a wedding in the county.

His life seemed full of promise: he was due to be married this year. A graduate of Queen's University, Belfast, he taught history and politics and coached sport at an Armagh school. He left the school, for the last time, on Monday at 5pm, with no apparent sign that anything was wrong. Tyrone GAA had suffered an earlier tragedy in 1997 when Paul McGirr, a youth who played alongside Cormac McAnallen, died several hours after a junior game. The team has been conscientious in keeping his memory alive.

The tributes which yesterday flooded in emphasised McAnallen'sstrong leadership and talent. The Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte, said of him: "I'm still in a state of shock after hearing the news. He was such a good guy, a brilliant athlete and dedicated player."

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, described him as a wonderful young man who would be missed by the entire country.

Adrian Logan, the GAA television commentator, a close friend, said: "Tyrone is in complete and utter devastation and in the aftermath of the championship victory it's heartbreak. He was a brilliant footballer and a wonderful person"

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, described him as an inspirational young man whose passing had robbed the island of one of its greatest talents.

Noel Doran, editor of the Belfast Irish News, said of the tragedy: "In terms of a sporting figure in Tyrone, he's a bigger name than Damien Duff or Robbie Keane or Bryan O'Driscoll."

One of the most eloquent tributes came from Margaret Martin, principal of St Catherine's College where he taught. She described him as "someone so gifted, so young, so full of life - so full of optimism." She added: "We're mourning our own loss of a talented, committed young teacher, and wonder why. There is a sense of national loss here."

Mrs Martin in effect delivered Cormac McAnallen's epitaph: "He epitomises for me someone committed not only to education but also to Irish culture and Gaelic games - the loss of someone who epitomised all that is good, all that is vibrant and all that is forward-thinking [in] Ireland."

HEART DEFECT THAT STRIKES THE YOUNG AND FIT

Rumours were rife yesterday about the possible causes of Cormac McAnallen's death. First suspicions in a young man in his early twenties would be drink or drugs. But McAnallen did not drink or smoke, and had no history of drug-taking.

A brain haemorrhage or heart attack can also occur without warning. In a footballer such as McAnallen, said to be the fittest in the team, an undetected heart defect would be top of the list of possible causes.

The commonest defect is cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition that thickens the muscle in the heart wall, reducing its capacity to pump. Though rare, it affects active young people and may cause increasing fatigue and tiredness. Athletes think they must be unfit and need to work harder. Many non-sports people live with the condition for years without knowing because they never put their hearts under a strain that could cause problems.

Marc-Vivien Foe, the former Manchester City and West Ham player who died aged 28 last year while playing for Cameroon against Columbia, had cardiomyopathy. Another heart defect caused the death of the Benfica footballer, Miklos Feher, 24, during a league game in January.

Cardiomyopathy also killed Daniel, the 15-year-old son of Terry Yorath, a former international footballer and one-time manager of Wales, during a kickaround at home in Wales in 1994.

There is no cure for the condition but early drug treatment can prevent it.

Jeremy Laurance

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