Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Philly McMahon with Niall Kelly: THE CHOICE, Gill Books, Dublin, 2017, 257 pp
ISBN: 978 07171 7913B
RRP: €22.99 h/b, €12.99 p/b
On the front cover, he looks like one of the pictures you see of the young Ned Kelly: grim, serious, don’t mess with me. And that may well be how he is seen and remembered by football corner-forwards or by cheering Dubs on Hill 16 in Croke Park. In fact, what you get here is a thoughtful and committed young man for whom football is only one part of who he is. Not yet in his thirties, he is a successful businessman who is prepared to put his commercial and sporting fame at the service of others, especially young men and women struggling with drugs.
It may be a help for those who are not au fait with Gaelic football to know that there was a long period after the mid-eighties when Dublin were regarded as easybeats, especially against Kerry. That has changed dramatically in the last six years or so and the relative standings of Kerry and Dublin have been reversed. One little fact will illustrate the part that Philly McMahon played in that transition: in the 2015 All Ireland final, he marked Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, regarded by many as one of the best forwards the game has produced. At the end, the forward was scoreless from play: and to rub it in, McMahon – corner-back – had scored a point.
McMahon grew up in a flat in Ballymun, a place in north Dublin that is a textbook example of what happens when you take people out of inner-city communities and move them into high rise apartments without shops, recreation facilities or basic infrastructure. Those towers were finally pulled down in 2015, an admission of a mistake that came too late for the many families who had lost a member to drugs or prison or both. The McMahon family was one such.
Philly was a full five years younger than his brother John who was his hero and protector in their tough world. John got involved with drugs at the age of 14 but made sure that his little brother was protected. To this day, Philly is a teetotaller and non-smoker. He tells the truly heartbreaking story of John’s fight to get away from the drug culture that was endemic where he lived. In the end, the only place he was ‘safe’ was in London; unfortunately, he got in to trouble there also and spent five years in prison.
To give an idea of what they were up against, he tells of the time when John was in a methadone program, one of the effects of which is that the body “balloons out to ten times its size.” The addicts collected their methadone from a place called The Redbrick which became a focal point for dealers, happy to tap in to a ready market.
Driving down the Ballymun Road, it was the same story every time – dozens of bloated addicts, and somewhere in the midst of them, one skinny fella with the flashy tracksuit and whatever drugs they needed.
Today, Philly admits that he is tormented by the memory that when John was at his worst, he was ashamed of him, would not greet him if they passed on the street, would not join in some ordinary family conversation which involved his brother telling a silly story. He has set up a not-for-profit body to help young men and women in the 18-24 age group to get on a path away from the life that killed his brother.
McMahon admits that he was a messer at school, though regarded as a local success because he got his Leaving Cert. Three years later, he returned to school to repeat the program, this time doubling his score and getting admission to university. “People from Ballymun did not go to College. College is for poshies.” When he graduated from DCU, it was up there with winning an All Ireland.
All the time, he was running three gyms and would later add a nutrition/food company. And he was training. And playing. “Realistically, without football there was no gym, there was no business. Nobody cared about Philly McMahon from Ballymun, but Philly McMahon the Dublin footballer? That was different.”
There is much to be enthusiastic about in this book. It was Sports Book of the Year 2017, but in fact the sport is secondary – there are no descriptions of games or football heroics. The writing is clear, without any attempt at showiness or flamboyance. The grief at the death of his brother is there, but so is a muted celebration of survival and success. At times emotional, at other times searingly sad or uncompromisingly self-critical, this is a triumph of personal biography.