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Tuesday 19 June 2018

Philly made right choice but loss of brother cuts deep

Book review - Alan Aherne

Philly McMahon's 'The Choice'
Philly McMahon's 'The Choice'

If you're looking for a succinct yet accurate summation of Philly McMahon's 'The Choice', then turn to page 212 where he reveals that Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan sent him a message after they were team-mates for the 2015 international rules series.

'I thought you'd be a dick because of what you're like on the pitch, but you're actually sound,' were the words of the Tyrone goalkeeper according to the Dublin defender.

That gnarling and snarling on-field persona has followed McMahon around for a while now, but I think anyone with a pre-conceived notion like Morgan will be changing their mind after reading this engrossing autobiography.

This is the third such book I have reviewed in this column in recent months, and it is easily the best, vastly superior to Colm Cooper's or Jackie Tyrrell's.

What makes it so interesting has nothing whatsoever to do with the all-conquering Dubs or the five All-Ireland medals the Ballymun Kickhams defender has collected on their amazing run.

Unlike so many past or present G.A.A. players who produce bland autobiographies purely to make a few bob, McMahon actually has an interesting tale to tell, and he does so with assistance from Niall Kelly, a journalist whose work I wasn't familiar with beforehand.

The book is divided into three sections, titled the first-half, half-time and the second-half. And it's what happens in the middle one that forms the corner stone of this fascinating read, as McMahon tells us about the death of his drug-addicted big brother, John Caffrey, in London at the age of 31 in 2012, shortly after his Dublin team lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Donegal.

His sibling had grown up in the Ballymun flats at the height of the heroin epidemic in the area, and he had been fighting a battle that ultimately defeated him since his mid-teens.

McMahon notes at one stage that he was seven years younger than John and wonders if he, too, would have been drawn towards drugs if they had been closer in age.

Seeing his brother's troubles dictated 'the choice' that Philly made, namely to give his entire focus to sport and go down a more productive route which serves him so well to this very day.

And while it's clear that he misses John dearly, the second-half of the book outlines the work he has undertaken since his passing as an advocate for various mental health and addiction initiatives.

Philly's family background as a whole is interesting and quite complicated. He is the youngest of five, with three sisters as well as the late John in the family, but they don't share the same father.

His mother's name was Caffrey, and that's what the children were known as growing up. Philly was referred to as 'young Caffo' when he was seen with John, and when he started attending Dublin development trials it was quite common for others to ask if he was the son of Senior boss Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey which, of course, wasn't the case.

After Philly's mother split up with John's father, she met a new partner from Northern Ireland. And when John's drug addiction was at its height, Philly chose to change his name from Caffrey to that of his Belfast-born father, McMahon.

This is a moving account of a driven sportsman who opted to go down a positive road when the alternative of drifting into addiction and crime was ever-present in his younger days.

It is raw, emotional, and ends on an uplifting note. I defy anyone to read this and not be impressed by McMahon's positivity and determination to do all he can to help the less fortunate.

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Wexford People