I currently work in a book shop. It’s December 2017 and I’ve had enough of people asking me if we have any more Bad Dad by David Walliams in stock. I’m not sick of them asking me about Philly McMahon’s book though. I haven’t read it yet either, but I find myself sneaking previews whenever the shop quietens down. I’m getting this for Christmas too, I excitedly told customers. “He’s one of the best players on the team, but they’d never tell you that”, a man informed me one day.
“He’s a great person, too”, I replied, as if I know him. The truth is, I don’t need to know McMahon personally to appreciate that what he is doing for his community, and the wider Dublin area, is incredible. I’ve started referring to The Choice as “Philly” in work. “Are we sold out of Philly, I haven’t seen any today and someone is looking for it?”
Such was my surprise when one Saturday, while placing price stickers on “Philly”, my co-worker announced, “Who is Philly McMahon anyway?”. Stunned silence. It reminded me of the day before the All-Ireland Final in 2015, when I was sweetly asked, who was playing anyway? Fair enough, sometimes I take for granted that not everyone grew up with a Dublin fanatic as their dad. But my co-worker is a North-sider. How could he not know him? I was truly baffled.
Philly McMahon is a gaelic footballer for Ballymun Kickhams and Dublin. He has won five All-Ireland Senior Football Championships with Dublin. He has been awarded two All-Stars. He is a college graduate of Dublin City University, a business owner, a health and wellness advocate, and a founder of a charity. Perhaps most importantly, in the context of his first book, McMahon is a brother.
Following his brother John’s death in 2012, McMahon has used the five years since to raise awareness for numerous addiction and mental health initiatives. He has challenged society’s stigmatisation of drug addicts and mental health. He has become a local role model, and a hero to many Dubs supporters, owing to his successes on and off the pitch.
Co-written with Niall Kelly of The42.ie, The Choice is broken into three sections, “The First Half”, “Half Time”, and “The Second Half”. “The First Half” brings us back to McMahon’s childhood, as he retells his experiences growing up in the Ballymun flats. He admits that football was initially a means to get closer to his big brother. As he was developing a talent for football, John was falling deeper into drugs, unbeknownst to his family. McMahon describes the years that followed with brutal honesty and self-reflection, berating himself for being embarrassed that his brother was a drug addict.
“Half Time” opens with a harrowing poem written by John, and includes letters written to his mother while he was incarcerated. The photos chosen for this part of the book pull the reader deeper into McMahon’s story: old family memories, a photo of him from the Irish Times, and tense and celebratory moments in Croke Park.
Portions of this section, and indeed the book, are dedicated to GAA, including certain matches and sporting memories of McMahon’s. They are written in such an accessible way, however, that non-Gaelic fans shouldn’t worry about being alienated.
“The Second Half” is McMahon’s ace card. Using his experiences to transform the mindset of readers, McMahon’s raw account of his family’s journey to London to collect John’s belongings is enough to put anyone off drugs for life. He’s not messing around. He’s not holding back certain elements of his or his brother’s experience to make you comfortable. And it’s painful, it’s sad, but it’s so refreshingly honest that it sweeps you up.
McMahon wants everyone in Ireland to have a “half-time talk” with themselves: to reflect on their lives so far and focus on what they need to do going forward to find peace and happiness in life. In one of the many endearing stories in the book, McMahon responds to a question from a young fan: “Ah yeah, I suppose I am famous a little bit”.
If he was a little bit famous before The Choice, his fame is about to hit new heights. McMahon’s debut book was awarded both the Eir Sports Book of the Year and the Bord Gáis Energy Sports Book of the Year. He is closer than he ever has been to his goal of raising his own profile so that he can help others. I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with addiction, or those with family members struggling with addiction. I recommend it to all Dublin fans, GAA fans and anyone with an interest in some of the biggest challenges facing Irish society.
For those wondering, “Philly” sold out in the bookshop just before Christmas, and my co-worker lives on in blissful ignorance. Powerful and moving, The Choice is a necessary and insightful read for everyone. For all the right reasons, I have a feeling that in 2018, a lot more people are going to know Philly McMahon’s name.