| 14.4°C Dublin

Philly McMahon on beating the stigma of being from Balymun and how losing his brother to heroin inspired him


Philly McMahon, the tough man of Dublin GAA, is an inspirational figure. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Philly McMahon, the tough man of Dublin GAA, is an inspirational figure. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Philly McMahon and his partner Sarah Lacey

Philly McMahon and his partner Sarah Lacey


Philly McMahon, the tough man of Dublin GAA, is an inspirational figure. Photo: Gerry Mooney

'Tears," Voltaire said, "are the silent language of grief." The tough man of Dublin GAA Philly McMahon shed tears at the funeral of his brother John in 2012.

"That was the last time I cried," the young sporting legend says.

They were, he says, tears that reflected his broken heart at his big bro's passing, aged 31 from the effect of his heroin addiction, in London where he was living. That day at Dardistown Cemetery in Dublin, Philly felt, he says, "sad, frustrated, regret, disbelief."

"It was tough for me - tough for all my family. He was my only brother," adds Philly. (He also has three sisters: Kelly, Lindi and June).

"John looked after me in Ballymun. If anyone came near me, I could say, 'I'll get my big brother after you'."

Growing up in Ballymun, says Philly, the worst thing that can happen is that you have a family member that becomes a drug addict.

Following on from having a drug addict in the family, adds Philly, the biggest worry is when you get a knock on the door from An Garda Siochana. Because there are only two things that the guards are knocking on your door to tell you about your brother. One - that he is in trouble.Two - that he is dead.

"That's what we always as a family dreaded," says Philly. "And eventually it came in 2012. Because all the other knocks were for him getting into trouble. This knock came because he passed away."

Did John get to see Philly win the Sam Maguire with his beloved Dublin in 2011? "You know what?" Philly sighs. "He was going through recovery in London that year when we won the All-Ireland and he didn't have the money to come home."

Does he ever remember playing and John being in the stands cheering him on?

"John didn't go to many of the games. I made my debut in 2008. He went to London around that time. So he wanted to come home..." Philly says, lost in the pain of the recent past.

"We [Dublin] were in the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo in 2012 and if we won that he wanted to come home to the All-Ireland Final. But we got beaten. He died in September which is the month we would have played the All-Ireland Final. He died September 7.

"He had written me a letter saying he was off heroin and he was going into methadone recovery. It was that weekend he was going into recovery and he died that Wednesday, the 7th, two days after my birthday," Philly says, emotion writ large across his boyish face.

John's health just gave up, I say.

"He didn't die of an overdose. Heroin had obviously taken a toll on his health. He had a heart condition," Philly says referring to heart arrhythmia.

"Basically his heart kind of skipped a beat and had enough. It was tough, because he was so close to coming off drugs completely," Philly says.

It is hard to underestimate the amount of sadness in these words as he says them.

Later in life, when he was coming off drugs, in his final letters to his little brother, John would tell Philly how proud he was of him - "and, strangely, he'd always apologise for what he had done, going on drugs".

Philly doesn't drink. Not in any deep-seated desire not to be like his brother. "No. I just never liked alcohol. And if there's something I don't like I don't do it."

Born on September 5, 1987, the youngest child of Phil (from Belfast) and Valerie (from Dublin), Philly is definitely wiser than his years. He talks for almost two hours and there is not a bother on him. He is quite a philosophical person, certainly one who has a mental energy as full as he exhibits on the field for his Dublin.

An inspirational figure by any stretch of the term, he set up his own charity Half Time Talk, ("to target high risk youths and drug addicts") as well as being the owner of food company Fitfood-ireland.ie and the two BeDo7.ie fitness clubs, at Dublin Airport and Tallaght.

Philly speaks with the poetic idealism and fervour of a Luke Kelly (or even Damien Dempsey, whose music he adores, and who he sometimes goes swimming with). Philly says he was as much inspired by his youth in Ballymun as he was by John's passing.

"After John died I started to look deeper into what I was doing with life," he begins. "I looked at different components of my life: sport and business. I started to strive for things in business that people from my community maybe don't believe they can achieve. Maybe because of the stigma of being from Ballymun."

Did he have that?

"Oh, yeah, yeah. Growing up it wouldn't have been in my thought process to go on to further education, third level."

He says that at Ballymun Kickhams, the club he joined when he was 10, you'd have the Ballymun players who were "just getting through their Leaving Cert and then you have all these Glasnevin players saying they wanted to get a certain amount of Leaving Cert points and go on to this course.

"I wanted a little bit of what they had. With my charity, what I'm trying to do is help these youths develop self-esteem and empower them about Ballymun.

"I don't feel I've suffered because of where I come from," Philly says. "I would have got the odd 'Ya Ballymun knacker' and stuff like that. And look at it, when people speak badly of other people that's their negativity. If someone says something about Ballymun that's their issue not mine. Ballymun has shaped who I am. It's shaped who I am as a business person. It shaped who I am as a sports person. It shaped who I am in how I treat people. Ballymun has given me a lot more positive things than negative things in life."

Philly grew up on the first floor of a four-storey block in his beloved Ballymun and describes his childhood as idyllic. He now lives in an apartment in Ballymun with his girlfriend of three years, Sarah Lacey. He and the PR executive with Notorious PSG are very much loved-up, and tanned-up, not least because they have just returned from 10 days in Jamaica - and he's looking superfit in his Calvin Klein jeans.

The couple met in DCU where he studied sports sciences three years ago. "Then we socialised a little bit together. And I suppose it went on from there." And as the planets realigned romantically in their favour, they went on their first date to Cleaver East By Oliver Dunne in Temple Bar and then the following weekend to Bay in Clontarf.

"She is a cougar!" he laughs. "I always say that she is a lot older than me. She is only a few months older than me but I call her the older one in the relationship."

And you're living together, I say.

"We are living together, yeah," says Philly who can talk endlessly about death and heroin but clams up when you broach the subject of love.

"I am training every day. She has a busy job in PR. She is doing some great work. She is the cougar. She is working long hours and will come home late and I am off to training late in the evening. So sometimes it is tough. I love cooking but I am very lucky that I have chefs that cook for me, because I have a company called Fit Food, a home delivery service. Sarah cooks sometimes."

There is a baby in its pram sitting across from where we are chatting. So, I ask Philly if he and Sarah have any plans to start a family.

"We have no plans yet for kids but I definitely want to be a dad. We're both doing well in our careers and we're hopefully going for a house in the near future. We have looked around Ballymun. If I had a nice house in Ballymun I'd buy it, if I had the money, obviously. We like the houses in different areas like Santry and Glasnevin."

As one of the big stars of Dublin GAA, Philly must be no stranger to VIP treatment around the various hotspots of the capital city. How does it stop that from turning him into a bit of an asshole?

"You just remember where you come from. You surround yourself with good people. I always say that what you want off people you generally have to give that same thing first before you get it back."

I ask him what he feels was his best ever game for Dublin.

Philly McMahon doesn't hesitate.

"Mayo. All-Ireland semi-final replay in 2015. We beat Mayo after a tough first game. I did my job for the team. Scored one goal and two points," he says, adding with a smile, "and it was my birthday. I was 28."

Sometimes I forget just how famous this young man is.

Every two minutes in our long chat someone is coming over to tell him how much they love him in the Dublin team.

The sports star says the reason he first kicked a football was to get his big brother's attention. "I used to kick the ball off the flats to get closer to him. He'd be there with all his friends. I used to go up to my Ma and say, 'John is down there, drinking and messing'. And she'd give me money for sweets. So I was a little rat."

The little rat can remember going into his school, where John also went, and the vice-principal saying to their mother: "You have to come. John is in trouble."

"John had a little bit of mischief about him when he was younger."

Philly adds that while growing up in Ballymun John would have hung out with a group of lads that were "probably all getting into these sort of things".

It is sad, I say, that John went one way in life and Philly went the other...

"We both had similar upbringings. John didn't play that much sport. But I didn't realise he played Gaelic football in school until I went back to my primary school last year. I was walking down one of the corridors and the principal goes - 'There's your brother, John'. There was a picture of him. I couldn't believe it that he had actually played football. I never saw him as a sporty person. Obviously, my parents pushed me towards sport but it was ultimately me seeing what he was doing and all the mistakes he was making that probably pushed me a little bit further. John was drinking. He was getting up to mischief. He was doing drugs. He was getting into trouble, getting into drugs..."

How did it affect him emotionally to see his big brother become like that?

"When I got a little bit older, when he actually became a drug addict, I was very embarrassed, because I wanted the perfect family. I was from Ballymun Kickhams and I was getting on the Dublin teams. And none of the other members were talking about family members who were on drugs. So I was embarrassed because I knew there was something wrong at home. It was tough, but it was only until I got a little bit older that I felt that it was a mental issue and not a criminal issue. That stigma that I created for myself when I was younger was based around the laws of this country."

This is a subject that is, for obvious reasons, extremely close to Philly's heart. He remembers the hard times when he and his family tried to help John.

"We would have used tough love to break down the barrier of the drug and the connection in a relationship. We thought the connection between John and us was love and if we cut that love out he would come off drugs. We just didn't realise how powerful a drug is, and that it can take over a life.

"Heroin is what they need to survive every day," Philly says. "That is probably stronger than love."

In hindsight, what approach does Philly think he should have taken?

"I would always give him a way back in. Never shut the door on a drug addict in your family.

"There's certain things you can do and there's certain things you can't. First, you can talk about all the policies and strategies - but ultimately the person has to want to come off drugs. If that person doesn't want to come off drugs, it's not going to happen. You can give them all the tools but if they don't want to come off...

"The only thing you can do is make sure they have a way back in. I believe that this country is doing a couple of things wrong in terms of drug addiction."

Philly believes there are more social hooks to heroin than chemical hooks. "If you go out on the street and buy heroin it is diluted down by the drug dealer - it is not pure heroin - and if you go to hospital and you break a leg they give you diamorphine which is pure heroin. You don't come out of hospital as a heroin addict. So you have a pure drug there and a diluted drug there, right? How does this person become an addict? The reason is because they take it over and over again and it becomes social and after a certain amount of time they develop an addiction to that drug.

"So, can you give them a route back in? And if there is no route back in," Philly says, "they'll always stay out. We don't give them a way back in because it is a crime in this country to have an addiction for heroin. You are going to be sent to prison. So that then creates a stigma in society. We look on drug addicts as people who are dangerous.

"Do we go the route that Portugal has done and decriminalise drugs? If you do that it can potentially break down society's stigma, and people won't feel as threatened by drug addicts because the drug is off the street. You cut the market down for the dealers, who are the only ones winning in this situation."

Philly says he would decriminalise heroin. Telling your kids not to take drugs doesn't work, he claims. He backs that up with personal evidence: "My parents told John not to go on drugs - and he still took drugs. We have the third highest overdose rate in Europe."

Philly believes what needs to be said to young people contemplating touching heroin is simple: this is what will happen to you if you take drugs. "This is what happened to me. I saw my brother on drugs and all the bad things he went through. We need to help people come off drugs. If someone gets caught in personal possession of drugs, they need to be put in front of a doctor and a psychiatrist and maybe a judge and given a recovery station."

And would his brother be still around?

"He'd probably be still on drugs," Philly says, "but he would be longer on this planet - which would mean he'd have a better chance of coming off drugs."

Philly McMahon is an ambassador for the GAA Healthy Clubs Project, supported by Irish Life. The project aims to turn Ireland's GAA clubs into healthy community hubs - and you'll find more information on this at www.gaa.ie/community

Sunday Independent