Dublin GAA's Philly McMahon recalls the night his father was wounded by British Army
WEST Belfast streets were dark and dangerous in the early 1970s.
Past midnight, 16-year-old Phil McMahon and his mates made their way home from a dance blissfully unaware that the Troubles waited around the corner.
Suddenly memories of bright disco lights are replaced by muzzle flashes and the guitar beats of Hendrix and the Stones are forgotten as the crack of gunfire rips through the night air.
A life that hangs in the balance is transformed in the blink of an eye. Phil clutches his stomach as warm blood soaks into his hands through his best shirt. From up the street there are shouts: ‘Stop there!’ and the clatter of army boots.
He has to hold in his wound as his mates drag him away before the soldiers can get to them.
A chain of events has begun.
“Isn’t it incredible to think that this lad from Belfast was shot at 16, joins the IRA, fights for his beliefs, for his country, gets interned, tries to escape from Long Kesh, escapes from Newry, goes on the run, settles in Ballymun and has a son who becomes an All-Ireland winner for Dublin?” says Philly McMahon, Phil’s son, who won his seventh All-Ireland medal when Dublin completed their historic five in-a-row last month.
“It’s an incredible story.”
It is. The McMahon family’s story is incredible. There is hardship and pain in Philly’s life but so much humanity and kindness too.
“Obviously that shot could have killed my da,” says Philly.
“It was random, he told me he had his good clothes on, he was going to work the next morning but then there was a shot from down the street.”
Philly McMahon has won seven All-Irelands, including a historic five in-a-row, 11 Leinster Championships, five National Leagues, two Sigersons with DCU, Leinster and Dublin titles with his club Ballymun Kickhams, two Allstars and he represented Ireland at International Rules. But he might never have played county football at all if his dad had grown up in a ‘normal’ society.
A product of his time and his place, Phil McMahon’s life was shaped by the Troubles. As a young man growing up in Dungloe Crescent in west Belfast there was no escaping the daily cycle of murder and mayhem.
When Phil had recovered from his stomach wounds, he joined the IRA.
“He was hugely influenced by what was happening in the 1960s and he was hugely-influenced by getting shot himself and that’s definitely why he joined the Republican movement,” says Philly.
“He had friends and family destroyed in the Troubles. He saw people he knew killed and the families around them suffer, he would have seen that pain and suffering and that only ignited a lot of the recruitment process.
“In my eyes he is a hero for what he did.”
In the summer of 1971, McMahon senior was scooped up along with other IRA men, suspected IRA men and men who had nothing to do with the IRA in the catch-all net of the British Army’s ‘Operation Demetrius’ programme, better known as Internment.
After his release he was convicted for an armed robbery carried out by order of the IRA to raise funds for the campaign. He was sentenced to eight years in Long Kesh but like many other prisoners he was determined that the ‘H-Blocks’ would not hold him.
In November 1974, along with 32 others, he took part in a daring escape attempt from the camp. After crawling through the tunnel he had helped to dig, the fugitives made their way under rows of barbed-wire and then attempted to scale the perimeter fence. But the break-out failed. Clonoe native Hugh Coney was shot dead and the other runaways were quickly recaptured.
Subsequently McMahon and 11 others were taken to Newry courthouse to be sentenced for their unsuccessful escape bid. With the border only a few miles away, they decided to have another go.
According to the Irish News on Tuesday, March 11, 1975 the men: ‘Prised open corroded bars in the toilet window, then squeezed through and climbed the security perimeter fence at the rear of the building’.
Relatives and friends of the prisoners who were in court heard the news an hour later and spilled into the courthouse foyer, cheering and singing: ‘Over the Wall’. Two men were captured, but Mahon managed to make it to the Republic and eventually he made his way to Ballymun in north Dublin.
“He was the youngest out of the group, he was 20,” Philly explains.
“He jumped out of a window and broke his ankle and when they all jumped in the getaway vehicle he was in excruciating pain. He showed me the scars from it.
“He was on the run from there and he came down south and was very lucky to have support down here in terms of safe houses.
“He was on the run ever since, until his dying day.”
Sadly that day came far too soon, Phil McMahon passed away last summer after a battle with stomach cancer.
He never fully recovered from the bullet that hit him that night in Belfast and, like other Republican prisoners in Long Kesh, he was sprayed with dangerous chemical agent 'CR' - a skin irritant 10 times more powerful than other tear gases – during a disturbance on October 16, 1974. More than 50 of the prisoners at Long Kesh who claim to have been sprayed with the chemical have died or have developed cancerous illnesses.
“Getting shot was directly linked to his death,” Philly explains.
“For years he struggled with pain in his stomach. When he got diagnosed with cancer in his stomach he couldn’t differentiate between that pain and the pain that was cancer.
“He was always kind of hunched over because his stomach was stitched together. He wouldn’t have been able to drink that much – he’d have a couple of drinks and he’d be in bits for days. It wasn’t until later on that he found out that some of his liver had been removed when they took out the bullet.”
That bullet dictated the course of Phil senior’s life. As an IRA fugitive, he was forced to leave friends and family behind forever and, with the threat of extradition hanging over him, begin an unsettled existence in Ballymun.
But in 1984 the Supreme Court in Dublin upheld his appeal against an extradition warrant. North Belfast MP Cecil Walker criticised the verdict in the House of Commons.
“I draw the attention of the House to the recent case of Philip James McMahon who escaped from Newry courthouse in 1975 and fled to the Republic,” said Walker.
“The Supreme Court in Dublin, in a unanimous reserved judgment, upheld the appeal against extradition on the ground that the escape was connected with a political offence.”
By 1984 Phil had put down roots in Dublin. He and his wife already had a family and three years later Philly – the youngest of their five children - was born.
“Whether people like that or not, I’m proud that my da was a person who fought for his country,” says the Dublin corner-back.
“Some people might be proud of their family members fighting for the Irish Army, I was proud my da fought in the Troubles. He fought for his country and that’s probably hard for a lot of people down South to realise because there is a huge disconnection between the North and South, especially in certain social classes in the Republic of Ireland.”
Philly has always been in touch with his Belfast roots. Along with his father he made regular trips back over the border to visit family and friends and during those trips his dad educated him on the Troubles.
“I was very young so maybe he had to bring me!” he says.
“But he wanted to show me what his life was about and what he grew up with and I’m very thankful for that
“We would have went up a lot. I would have had to pretend he was my uncle if we were stopped but we never got into trouble.
“When I was up there he educated me on how to be streetwise in terms of what I could or couldn’t say when I was out with my cousins and somebody heard my southern accent. I am very close to my cousins and I would have known my granny Chris but my granda passed away when I was very young.”
He used to call his dad ‘Grandpa Simpson’ in reference to the Simpsons cartoon character who claims to have done everything and seen everything. He had heard his stories but didn’t believe his dad was special until he walked in behind him into a pub on the New Lodge Road
“He said: ‘Come on we’ll go down to this pub, I’m going to meet a few friends’,” Philly recalls.
“I will never forget, never forget (ITALICS), how people reacted when he walked into that pub – it will stick with me for the rest of my life.
“I knew he was liked but I didn’t realise how liked he was. I was just blown away, everybody was all over him. When you go up to the North and you’re on the run sneaking back in, people are like: ‘Wow, you’re back, brilliant.’ It’s brilliant energy, a brilliant buzz.
“He was always well respected, his mates would have thrown him a few bob to go back down south, that’s what they did. Like, ultimately he had to leave his home because of the cause. He had to leave where he lived for these people, anybody who was on the run were fighting for these people.
“People were hugely respectful of what men like him had given up, that was the feeling I got and when he walked into that pub that day… I just couldn’t believe that was my da.
“It’s the equivalent of a Dublin player walking into a bar packed with Dublin fans after the All-Ireland. It was a big cheer… it was incredible and needless to say he didn’t put his hand in his pocket. He was locked, my uncle had to come around and collect him.”
The old comrades enjoyed meeting up and sharing stories over a few drinks but Phil McMahon was delighted to see Belfast gradually changing. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 signalled the formal end to the Troubles and brought with it hope and opportunity that was absent when he’d grown up there.
“He educated me a lot more on northern politics than southern politics and he would definitely have educated me that there were better ways to do things than violence,” said Philly
“When there was the transition into the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process and he would definitely have been in favour of that. There were things he had to do for the cause but he felt that the way forward was the way it went – decommissioning and doing things with the pen and not the gun.”
Throughout his time in Ballymun, Phil senior had a regular stream of visitors with northern accents. His old friends would bring him The Irish News and tell stories of how this one and that one were getting on back home. One of those visits produced a little evidence that may help explain where Philly got his sporting talent from.
“He used to tell me all these silly stories about doing sports and I never believed him. I used to say: ‘Shut up Grandpa Simpson, you’ve done this, this and this…’ Funny enough, a group of his friends came down from the North and they brought a picture of him in a GAA team and he just slated me: ‘There, I told ya!’
“He was really good friends with Martin Ferris (former Kerry footballer and Republican) and he never used to shut up about him playing football. He would say: ‘Ah you want to see him catching the ball’ and obviously being a Kerry man he had the gift, it’s in their genes.
“I went: ‘Ok, so you played with him, then you might have played a little bit’ but then he told me he did boxing and he went to Blackrock College in Dublin with his brothers for a short time, so he played rugby there.
“But whenever somebody asks: ‘Did your da play sport?’ I usually say: ‘Ah, he was in the athletics club from the North, sure he was good and jumping walls and he was always on the run!’”
Obviously that’s where Philly gets it from. He can run and jump too of course and there’s more about that tomorrow.