Made in Culloville. The life and times of Chicago-based former Armagh, Ulster and Ireland star Fran McMahon
IT’S an American voice on the other end of the line.
“Hello. Can I speak to Fran McMahon?” I ask.
“This is Fran.”
I introduce myself, we start to chat and 10 minutes later, Fran’s talking like he’d never been out of Culloville in his life.
Of course he has, he’s spent more time in Chicago now than he did in south Armagh. In 1985, after a brilliant career with Armagh and his native Culloville Blues, he put his boots in his bag and swapped these shores for the shores of Lake Michigan.
He settled in Chicago and, over the last 35 years, he has established McMahon Construction into a successful building company, married an American girl, raised a family and has generally done very well for himself.
Ah, but Fran still harks back to the old days when football was the driving force in his life. Tall and broad-shouldered with a shock of blond hair, he could have passed for a Viking warrior and, when the occasion demanded it, he could play like one too.
From his earliest days, football was his passion. He ran the roads when nobody ran the roads and on many an evening when the sun was dipping down behind the south Armagh hills, he kicked ball after ball through the goalposts he’d helped to put up (more about that later).
“Like any young lad, every night you’re down at the field and you just want to kick a ball around and get out of the house,” he says.
“Culloville’s not the biggest place in the world and we were lucky to be able to field a team sometimes. Like most small clubs, five or six families was the most of the team.”
He’s the seventh of Eddie McMahon’s 10 sons (he has four sisters too). Eddie himself came from a family of 14 (also 10 boys and four girls) and had captained Armagh in his time. Fran went to all the games with his father and the news that he’d been plucked out of nowhere to join Gerry O’Neill’s senior panel in 1976 was greeted with a mixture of joy and shock. But mostly joy.
At 18, he felt like he’d been picked out of the crowd to play with men he’d idolised like Joe Kernan, Colm McKinstry, Jimmy Smyth, Paddy Moriarty, Peter Loughran, big Tom McCreesh…
“It was a great time in my life and I used to think: ‘Here am I, sitting among these boys’,” he says.
“I’m not sure I thought I was good enough to play with them but every game I played I went out and did my damnedest to make the grade. There was nothing that was going to stop me.”
His debut was against Monaghan and he scored two points playing at half-forward. He was in the panel for the 1977 All-Ireland final against Dublin but it wasn’t until 1978, when he moved into midfield, that he nailed down a starting spot in the team and he held it until 1985.
During his nine years in the orange jersey he won three Ulster titles, two Railway Cups with Ulster and he played for Ireland’s International Rules side in the win against Australia at Croke Park in 1984.
Opponents were tough on the field and there was opposition off it too. Back then, going to training or games with Armagh wasn’t straightforward for men from the southern outposts of the county.
“It was tough times during the Troubles,” says Fran.
“We came from a big Republican family and going to training with Armagh you would be pulled over every night going and coming home.
“You’d be tortured, it wasn’t easy times being part of the Armagh team – it wasn’t just a matter of jumping in a car and going to training.
“I remember us sitting up on the black banks in Newtown (Newtownhamilton) until one in the morning at a check point just being hassled. Up around Newtown it was always the UDR and once they saw who I was they’d be tormenting us all night; questioning us.
“I had the football to fall back on and that’s what kept me going. The football helped to get you through things.”
By 1982 he was a regular visitor to the USA. He’d gone on tour to the States with Armagh that year and scored a famous diving header for the Orchard County in an exhibition match against Roscommon at Gaelic Park, New York. A talented soccer player too, he’d had a season as a centre-forward in the League of Ireland with Dundalk, and those skills came in handy when a bootless McMahon swooped to score the winner in the Bronx.
“We had a few beers the night before and the bus was leaving early to go to the game,” he recalls.
“I grabbed my bag but, believe it or not, I had gone out to a field near the hotel to kick the ball about the night before.
“When I came back I didn’t put my boots in my bag and I headed off to the game without them. I borrowed a pair off Colm McKinstry but they were so tight I ended up playing in my stocking feet.
“Johnny Corvan went down the line and put a ball across and I came in with a diving header… back of the net.
“The referee didn’t know if it was allowed but he did allow it. The New York papers the next day had a headline ‘McMahon heads Armagh to victory’.”
When Armagh exited the Ulster Championship in 1985 he was invited out to play club football in Chicago. “What the heck, I’ll take a run over,” he thought and, after the season was over, he decided to stay where he was.
“I actually really liked it,” he says.
“Fr Hegarty was over the Armagh team and he called to see if I would come back and I was in two minds and I decided not to.”
The drive he’d had as a youngster practicing his football in Culloville was channeled into his work and McMahon Construction came into being over the next couple of years. He has spent the last three decades building his company into a very successful firm.
“I didn’t want to be working for somebody for the rest of my life and I was smart enough to set up a business,” he says.
“I’ve been in business now for a good 30 years building houses, extensions, bars and restaurants and I do a lot of swimming pools and pool houses and all that sort of stuff. You wouldn’t need too many of them in Culloville!”
He’s married to Patricia and their children Brian and Fiona (“I’ve only got two, unlike the 14 that everybody else has”) are both talented basketballers - Fiona was an All-American College star.
Fran played GAA in the US until he was 45. He was involved with the now defunct St Brendan’s until it disbanded and these days he’s a “massive” fan of the Chicago Bears and a keen golfer.
“It’s not that I’m any good at golf,” he says, “It’s just that I hate to lose.
“I follow Rory McIlroy a lot. I walked the course a couple of times with his father and Mickey McDonald (his friend and former Armagh team-mate and Rory McIlroy’s uncle). Rory is a great lad and his father Gerry is a great fella too.”
Life is good but he remains close to his roots and comes home every year. When he thinks of his native sod, he recalls the characters who kept the club going through lean times and nurtured the sporting passion that shaped his life.
“John Kelly, Jim O’Neill… They did it for the love of the game. When we played, every time you’d look over at John he’d be eating lumps of grass he was that nervous!” he says.
“I’ve had the best of both worlds.
“I had the GAA for a long time which is a great way of life and it’s funny when I go home and get talking to some of the boys – you replay games from 40 years ago!
“We talk about the oul boys that were on the sideline. I remember going to get goalposts with John McCreesh. ‘Come and give me a hand to get these,’ he says one time and we crossed over the border to this boy’s house in Monaghan. He had pine trees at the back of it and they were dead straight. We cut them down and cleaned them up and brought them over to Culloville.
“We dug the holes and put them in. We’d be putting them into the ground and trying to get them good and tight but John was standing with his shoulder pushed into them.
“He was always an umpire for us and when he was umpiring and boys were taking free-kicks against us John would be pushing the posts over the back with his shoulder trying to put them off. Unless the ball went over the middle, he waved it wide. He waved everything wide if it was the other team!”
As an established star with county, province and country, Fran was the man in the Culloville team but with Joe Watters in midfield beside him and his brother Gerry at full-back (“he had better hands than I had”) the Blues forced their way into Division One. Unfortunately they couldn’t stay there long.
“In one of the games in Culloville the previous year one of our supporters came onto the field and decked the referee, knocked him out, and our field was closed for a year when we were in the first division,” he explains.
“We played all our home games in Crossmaglen. We played Carrickcruppen and I scored a goal and 10 points from the middle of the field. We won that game but we didn’t win too many.”
He was Player of the Year in Division One that season but Culloville were relegated back to the lower leagues. At times five of his brothers would be in the team with him and they took the hits and gave them back from Annaghmore to Tullysaran and back to Cullyhanna.
“Och they were tough, physical games. I used to love them but, like, there was nobody out trying to kill you,” he says.
OK, but wasn’t there an umbrella-wielding woman from Clonmore who did her best?
“After the match she came running after me trying to beat the living daylights out of me,” he says with a chuckle.
“Don’t you hit my son,” she was shouting: ‘Just because you’re playing with Armagh you think you can hit my son…’
“I was shouting: ‘Can somebody grab this woman!’ and her son came over and said: ‘Ma, he didn’t do anything’ and got her stopped. Ah, they were great days.”
Home is St Charles these days, about an hour outside the ‘Windy City’. Does he still get homesick?
“Of course I do,” he says.
“I go home every year – there’s always weddings going on and I keep in touch with Brian McAlinden, Joe Kernan and Mickey McDonald and Kieran McNally (another former Armagh team-mate) works for me over here.
“If I hadn’t played, I probably wouldn’t be here now because I would never have had the opportunity to go the States.
“It’s funny when you think back about Culloville and all the old-timers that were around the team for years and years. Some of the oul fellas would be out there lining the field and cutting the grass and all they got off us was bad manners half the time. I just hope it’s still going on with the clubs at home.”
It is, I assure him.
“That’s good to hay-are,” he says, in a broad south Armagh accent.
You can take the man out of Culloville, but you’ll never take Culloville out of the man…