We're delighted to present an extract from The Choice, a fictionalised account of eight-time All-Ireland winner Philly McMahon's multi-award-winning memoir, aimed at young readers and published by Gill.
Two brothers growing up in the shadows of the Ballymun flats are on very different paths. Sports-mad Philly is on his way to the hallowed turf of Croke Park; John to exile, heartbreak and ultimately tragedy. But were these paths set in stone? Or does our fate lie in the choices we make?
BALLYMUN, DUBLIN, 2001
I got my head out of the way just in time. The skin of his knuckles brushed the side of my cheek, like your mam might do if you had a bit of dirt on your face, and missed.
I didn't want a fight. But I didn’t have much of a choice now. So I took a step towards him and took a swing back.
A spark of electricity shot through the crowd. There must have been forty lads there watching us, fencing us in in a circle so that even if we wanted to leg it we couldn’t, and once they saw those first punches, they knew they were going to get what they came for. Game on.
Eddie Moran bounced around on his feet like a boxer, shouting at me, shouting at himself, trying to figure out his next move. And for what?
Eddie Moran was from Shangan. I was from Sillogue. He slagged my ma. I slagged his da. And now we had to fight.
The school yard wasn’t the place for it, and even if, earlier in the day, the two of us had wanted to go back inside to the classroom, sit down and forget about it, we weren’t allowed to. The fuse had been lit, and the news had spread like wildfire, desk to desk.
'Scrap up at the Monos after school. Eddie and Philly. Pass it on.’ ‘Eddie’s going to batter him. Pass it on.’ ‘Philly’s da’s in the ’RA. Pass it on.’
When there was a fight, the best spot to watch it from was on top of one of the Monos, these two long rows of tall, round stones and concrete cubes of different shapes and sizes. They were supposed to be art, I think, but for us, they were a ready-made boxing ring. If you were up on top, you had a great spot to see everything, and there was much less risk of being dragged into the middle of it.
Because even though these things started as a oneon-one, it didn’t take much for them to end up as something bigger. It was a bit stupid that you had to be Sillogue or Balcurris or Balbutcher or Shangan because that was where you lived and that was who you hung around with. Stupid that lads who lived two minutes around the corner from each other and went to school together were told they hated each other.
At the end of the day, we were all from Ballymun, and Ballymun was bigger than everywhere. But that was just the way it was.
Now, Eddie Moran was moving, shaping, taking two steps closer to me and then one step back, just to see how I’d react. I caught Kev’s eye as we went around in a circle again. Kev had his jumper off, his tie off and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up around his elbows. He nodded when he saw me look over at him, encouraging me with his eyes. He wouldn’t jump in unless one of the Shangan lads jumped in. Or unless things were getting bad and Eddie needed to be dragged off me. He was my best friend, but Kev didn’t want to be there either.
A driver beeped his car horn at us as he pulled away from the traffic lights, but nobody paid any attention. It would take more than a few beeps to break up a scrap. The next time Eddie came at me, I went for a low kick to try to catch him around the ankles and knock him off balance. I knew I wasn’t close enough to hit him, but I had to at least look like I was trying and not playing for a draw.
If this turned into a proper scrap and I got my jumper ripped, I’d have to go home and explain it. If my mam didn’t have time to fix it, I’d have to wear it in to school the next day still ripped, or I’d have to wear a different jumper instead. Either way, it sounded like an easy ticket to another detention once Mr McEvoy spotted me. Or worse again, I could get hurt and miss training.
So, yeah, there was a lot at stake for a fight that I really didn’t want to be in. But as I said, I didn’t have a choice. Because in Ballymun, the only thing worse than losing a fight was running away from one. You’d only have a black eye for a couple of weeks, but you’d have your reputation forever.
‘Are yous fighting or what? Come on!’ A voice I didn’t recognise shouted in at us, and the frustration spread like a ripple. ‘Stop just dancing around,’ someone else shouted. ‘One of you do something.’ And then the chanting started, one or two voices by themselves at first: ‘Fight. Fight. Fight.’ Until more joined in and then everyone was at it: ‘FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT.’
A sudden shove in my back shot me forward into the middle of the circle and I stumbled, off balance, right into Eddie’s fist. He caught me square underneath my right eye, right on the bone. The crack of his punch sounded like it had come from somewhere very far away, but my whole face felt like it had burst into flames. I fell backwards, managing to stay on my feet. I took my hand away from my face and, through my one open eye, quickly checked it for blood. Nothing. Yet.
The world flipped upside down and I landed with a thump, my back slamming into the stony earth. Eddie had sensed his moment and wrestled me to the ground. I did my best to cover up, waiting for him to start swinging wildly, but instead, he flipped me so I was lying face down. With one knee in the middle of my back, and one knee on my neck, he pressed.
All he wanted was to hear me say that I quit. To say that he had won. That was my only way out of this now.
There was shouting and cheering, and it was getting louder. They were getting what they wanted. Eddie put more weight into his knee, pressing like he’d happily snap my neck if I didn’t give up first. The ground was cool, but the pebbles were embedding themselves into the side of my face. It was getting hard to breathe, to get the air into my lungs, when another person was putting every last bit of effort into keeping me down. I started feeling dizzy, like I was going to pass out.
‘All right, I quit. I quit.’ I had no choice, but the words hadn’t left my lips yet when everything lifted. The pain shooting through my neck stopped. I could breathe. ‘What the –?’ Eddie cried out, as surprised as anyone. ‘Get your hands off me!’ I rolled over before I was trampled on, expecting all hell to break loose, when a big hand grabbed my collar and dragged me back onto my feet. It was John.
‘You didn’t need to hop in for me,’ I argued as we walked back towards home. ‘I could have got him myself.’ ‘That’s not what it looked like,’ John said, my schoolbag hanging on his shoulder. ‘And that’s not much of a thank you, is it?’ ‘Yeah, but now I’m going to be the lad whose big brother hops in for him.’
John laughed. ‘And what? Is that a bad thing? I’d have loved to have a big brother hopping in for me. No harm having lads think that I’ll come around and batter them if they touch you. It might make them leave you alone. Anyway,’ he said, giving me a little dig in the arm, ‘you’d have been picking bits of gravel out of your teeth for a week if I hadn’t shown up.’ ‘It wasn’t that bad, shut up,’ I said. And then, eventually, ‘Thanks for getting him off me, though. I thought he was going to break my neck.’
John smelled like blood – not human blood, animal blood. He worked up in the Meat Packers, a big factory out near the airport. He had worked there for three years, maybe four. He started off when he was 16, doing one shift a week; he went out on his lunch break one day to collect his Junior Cert results and he never went back to school again. It was his job to pick up the slabs of raw meat from the butchers’ counter, where they’d been hacking them apart, and carry them over to the packaging counter so they could be boxed up and sent out to the shops. He had to wear plastic overalls and special gloves so the meat didn’t get contaminated, but his clothes still stank every day when he came in the door. He wouldn’t even need to say hi or call out that he was home: you’d smell him before you’d see him. ‘How come you’re home so early anyway?’ I asked him. I didn’t know what time it was – around four o’clock, maybe – but John was never back from work before six, except maybe sometimes on Fridays.
He started walking a bit more slowly, as though he needed to concentrate for a second so he could remember. ‘Ah yeah,’ he said, when he finally answered me. ‘I got a half-day to go around breaking up fights. Neighbourhood watch, y’know?’ ‘Stop lying. Why aren’t you still in work?’ We had slowed down to a complete stop now. ‘All right. Just don’t tell Mam and Dad. I’m after getting sacked.’ ‘What? For what?’ ‘For nothing. Honestly, I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He was more angry than upset, which made me believe him. ‘You know what they’re like up there – they just find a reason. It’s a different story if you’re working on the machines, but they can get new lads in for the floor easy, and then they pay them less too.’ ‘Did they give you a reason?’
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. ‘Yeah, they said I’d been on an official warning for being late, and then I was late again. But’ – he took a look at the page in his hand before crumpling it back up – ‘I wasn’t even late on most of those days. It’s just that the clock-in machine doesn’t always be working.’ ‘Did Aaron get sacked too?’ Aaron was John’s best friend and nearly like another big brother to me. Everywhere one of them went, the other was there too. They were always together, a bit like me and Kev. ‘Nah, Aaron’s grand. His supervisor seems all right – he has a different one than I do. Than I did,’ he said, correcting himself. ‘How are they able to just sack you like that anyway?’ I asked as we walked across the field. ‘I thought there’d have to be a law or something.’
But John didn’t say anything until we stopped at the bottom of the stairwell. The blocks of flats stood in a line, side by side like concrete soldiers following the curve of the road. This had been our home for the last 13 years, in the four-storeys on Sillogue Avenue, but Ballymun came in all shapes and sizes. There were the eight-storeys, like the blocks around the corner where our family lived until I was born and they needed a bigger flat for a fifth child, and then there were the Towers – seven blocks of flats, each one fifteen storeys high, soaring over us all.
‘Anyway, I won’t say anything about the fight to Mam and Dad, and you say nothing about the job,’ John said to me as we started up the stairs to the first floor.
It wouldn’t take a detective to figure out about the fight. The lump under my eye was already sore to touch, and I knew there’d be a nasty-looking bruise. I wanted to get inside so I could have a proper look at it in the mirror. ‘You’re not going to tell them?’
‘No, they’ll only be worrying,’ he said as he took my schoolbag off his shoulder and handed it back to me. ‘One of the lads thinks he’ll be able to sort me out with a new job soon, so I’ll tell them the full story once I’ve got everything sorted, and then there’ll be nothing to worry about. ‘Anyway,’ he said, pushing open the front door to let me go in ahead of him, ‘say nothing.’
The Choice by Philly McMahon is published by Gill