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17th May 2023

“I’m living my brother’s legacy in the work that I do” – Philly McMahon

Patrick McCarry

Philly McMahon

“John gave me a purpose in life.”

It is a day out from his latest appearance on The Late Late Show and Philly McMahon is hoping to up-stage Rory O’Connor when it comes to the best threads for the show.

Collar & Cuff are looking after the eight-time All-Ireland winner, ahead of his time on the couch with his old buddy and Ryan Tubridy. “It’s my fourth time doing the show,” the retired Dublin star tells us, “and I still get a buzz from it.”

As it turned out, both McMahon and O’Connor looked pretty spiffing for their stint on the Late Late couch, as they helped preview their new RTÉ show, Gaelic in the Joy. The idea behind the documentary shows the pair taking a group of prisoners from Mountjoy Prison and seeking to turn them into a competitive football team.

For McMahon, who lost a brother, John, to a heroin overdose in 2012, and O’Connor, someone who battled a gripping gambling addiction for years, this project was more than personal.

“The idea was the brainchild of Rory and the show’s producer – making a real-life version of the movie, The Longest Yard, which was later re-made as Mean Machine. I was already working with a programme with prisoners in Mountjoy, at the time, so it was a no-brainer for me. It was incredible that we were able to pull it all together. The show is a real first of its’ kind.”

Philly McMahonPhilly McMahon and Rory O’Connor, pictured during Gaelic in the Joy. (Credit: RTÉ)

‘I’ve seen how sport can impact on people’s lives’

Philly McMahon says there was ‘lots of work done behind the scenes in order for it to happen’, with some of the main stake-holders being the GAA, Mountjoy Prison and RTÉ.

“The idea was to pick prisoners that fit in with a certain criteria – so people that were in for non-violent or ‘lesser’ crimes. We dealt with prisoners that were in the progression unit, and enhanced part of the prison. Then it was up to Damien, the producer, and the staff to listen to the stories and select certain people that felt would suit.”

Given that his brother, John Caffrey, died of a drug overdose just over a decade ago, McMahon says he dealt with a few questions when his involvement with Gaelic in the Joy cropped up.

“Some people were asking me, ‘Why are you going in there, helping people that could have impacted your brother’s [drug] addiction?’ What I would say is this – if I can impact anyone, in any shape or form, or get someone back on another direction in life, I’d love to play a small part of that.

“I’ve seen how sport can impact of people’s lives. I’ve also experienced that just listening to these prisoners can make a big difference. Society needs to look at why these people are going to jail, and asking themselves what can be done to prevent it. Listening to their stories is a big start.”

Philly McMahonPhilly McMahon and Rory O’Connor, walking the Mountjoy Prison halls during Gaelic in the Joy. (Credit: RTÉ)

A Dublin-Meath friendship forged in GAA

Philly McMahon and Rory O’Connor – also known as the comedian, Rory’s Stories – have known each other since they were teenagers, with the Meath native often ‘getting a lift with the Healy brothers’ to line out for McMahon’s Ballymun Kickhams, when they were growing up. They have stayed in touch with each other ever since and have attended each others’ weddings.

“He is seen as a social media comic,” says McMahon, “but he is very impressive, in terms of the challenges and difficulties he came through in his life.”

It has been five years since McMahon’s book – co-written with Niall Kelly – ‘The Choice’ was published. As was as detailing some of his big sporting and personal highlights, the book dealt with growing up in a Ballymun community that was be-set by societal, support and drug issues. The title itself was perfect, as McMahon himself took the choice to follow the sporting road, and trying to help others with addiction, even as his own brother fought a drug addiction that ultimately cost him his life, at the age of 32.

“Every week, particularly through social media,” says McMahon, “I get messages from people saying they loved the book, or that it helped them a lot. It is great to read. I was in the hospital recently for a complaint and the doctor recognised me, and had read the book. He was asking me if there was anything to do to help.

“John gave me a purpose in life. I’m living his legacy in the work that I do.”

Gaelic in the Joy airs on Wednesday, May 17, at 9:35 pm on RTÉ One and will be available to view on the RTÉ Player

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