It’s a story of two brothers. One was an outstanding sportsman and later became a Dublin hero. The other fell into the trap of drugs as a teenager and died in 2012 after years of battling his heroin addiction.
Hilly McMahon was a ubiquitous member of the Dublin football team, which enjoyed an almost unrelenting run of fame between 2011 and 2020, while his brother John suffered a miserable death and his name was known only to the immediate community in their hometown of Ballymun.
That all changed in 2017 when McMahon published a stunningly honest memoir. The vote, which reclaimed John’s memory and showed how obsessive both personalities were. Luckily for Philly, his full-time focus on football was a decision that helped him avoid the social issues that were destroying the lives of his brother and several others in a part of Dublin that was once synonymous with urban decay.
Few who read it were surprised when it was named Irish Sports Book of the Year and now McMahon is back with a new version aimed at young readers. Interestingly, it is written as a fictional account of his life. As with the original, it is “hosted” by sportswriter Niall Kelly.
“It was an opportunity for me to reach a young audience,” he says. “I had lectured in schools and I knew there was an interest there. I think the lesson of the book is important, but I didn’t know if what I originally wrote in the first one would be appropriate for this younger age group.
“Most of the stories [in the new book] are true, but there are a few small changes to make it fictional.”
While the first one was hard for him because it cut so close to the bone, this time he had a different experience. “Niall did a great job. I got emotional when I finished reading this book.”
Working on both books has helped him process John’s death and the injustice inherent in life. “It has helped me in the grieving process – sitting down with family and friends and talking about John and crying and laughing. I wouldn’t have had this if I hadn’t written the book, and while it was unusual to do it while playing with Dublin, it was the right time for me.”
McMahon retired from inter-county duty in December — one of several high-profile dubs to retire. Now, after a few months have passed, he is trying to access the legacy he left behind.
Verification wonders if it’s fair to call him a “hard defender with edges”. He likes the description.
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Few would dispute how good he was for Dublin, but there were moments of controversy – that ‘edge’ of his game that sometimes drew the wrath of referees and the fury of opposing players and fans.
Winning the 2015 All-Ireland Final against Kerry is a case in point. He tagged star striker Colm “Gooch” Cooper out of the game – the scorer remained goalless – but towards the end of the game he appeared to be eyeing another Kerry forward, Kieran Donaghy.
McMahon escaped criticism that day, but the GAA took retrospective action and he was banned from the first game of the 2016 league campaign, which, as any sports fan will know, was little more than a nominal punishment.
He has no regrets about the Donaghy incident today. “No regrets,” he says simply. “Life is too short for regrets. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I’ve never hurt anyone extremely badly. No one had to retire because of me.”
He pauses for a moment. “I suppose in hindsight, if I hurt someone really badly and it affected their life or work the next day, I would regret it. I wouldn’t tease you and say I wouldn’t.”
Dublin’s 2022 championship campaign begins with an away game at Wexford this weekend. McMahon says he will feel pain that he is no longer involved. He’s prepared for retirement better than many, in part because he’s been preparing for it for so long.
“I’ve been planning my retirement since 2015, 2016 – I know that sounds crazy – but I knew this day would come. I’ve heard from players over the years who found it very difficult to fill the gap. For me I was very focused on doing what I was doing during the time I left Dublin in my career. But I had always kept an eye on my life after playing.
“You are lucky that you get so much from playing at this level. You are in touch with brilliant people and experts and you can use that to do whatever you want in life, whether it is a business or a work idea.”
Despite winning eight All-Ireland titles – six of them in a row, a feat never before equaled in Gaelic football or hurling – and two All-Stars awards, McMahon believes ex-players will soon be forgotten. He genuinely seems to think that’s the case, although anyone with even the slightest interest in GAA is unlikely to forget him anytime soon.
The 34-year-old has never been so busy. As well as continuing to play club football with Ballymun Kickhams, he also wants to expand his BeDo7 gym, especially after business has been hit hard by the pandemic. Traditionally known for being in excellent physical condition, his personal training skills are in demand and he has worked as a first-team performance coach for League of Ireland club Bohemians.
He is also employed on the panditry front. He has a new podcast with him independent.ie as well as a column with this newspaper. He says both roles help him stay in touch with the elite level of the game.
He has to juggle all of these demands with a new parenthood. His wife Sarah gave birth to a boy named Leannain 12 weeks ago.
It’s pronounced “Lennon,” but McMahon is quick to point out that the name isn’t inspired by Beatle. “The Irish spelling means ‘young darling’. My father was from West Belfast and I wanted an Irish name.”
The joy of Leannain’s arrival is marred by the fact that Phil McMahon Snr died of stomach cancer in 2018. “My father never saw him. I would have loved it if they had met.”
Having a baby has given McMahon the opportunity to re-evaluate the time management skills of all teammates with children. “I don’t know how boys do that when they play. It’s an amateur sport, so you have 40 hours of work and you probably play football for more than 40 hours.”
Philly McMahon can’t walk down the street without someone asking him his prediction for this year’s championship. Having dominated the game for the past decade, Dublin seems to be in transition. The Sky Blues didn’t make it to the final last year and their league form was surprisingly poor.
“I think there are three tiers, with Kerry and Mayo on the top tier and Dublin, Donegal, Armagh, Tyrone and possibly Galway on the second tier. But I think Dublin has the biggest room to grow.” He scoffs at anyone who writes them off and believes Dublin will be champions again next July. He’s still close to some of the current squad, so he’s better placed than most to gauge their chances.
However, the bookies support Kerry. McMahon has his doubts, despite a strong panel that includes one of the greatest players of his generation, David Clifford. “Has Kerry set any complacency in recent years and will that be the theme again this year?” he asks. “Will Kerry end up beating himself?”
It’s fight talk, but then again, it would be odd to expect anything less from Philly McMahon.
The Choice: A Novel for Young Readers is available now. A GAA podcast, Philly McMahon’s Friday Throw-In is on Independent.ie and his Irish Independent column is on Saturdays
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/philly-mcmahon-writing-has-helped-me-grieve-for-my-brother-41600962.html Philly McMahon: ‘Writing helped me mourn my brother’