Motorsport legend Bertie Fisher will never be forgotten as new book chronicles the Fermanagh driver's career
Motorsport legend Bertie Fisher, along with his daughter Emma and son Mark, lost their lives in a horrific helicopter crash in 2001. Ahead of a new book chronicling the Fermanagh driver's career, author Fergus McAnallen tells Ivan Little why the tome has been the work of a lifetime
Fergus McAnallen never managed to pluck up the courage to have a serious conversation with his rally driver hero Bertie Fisher who died in a helicopter crash nearly 15 years ago. All he remembers is mumbling the odd awkward word as a shy teenager to the racing legend and giving him the occasional thumbs up.
But now Fergus, a brother of the late GAA star Cormac McAnallen, has written thousands of words in a highly impressive book which pays an emotional homage to Ireland's most successful rally driver of all time, who clocked up 20 Irish Tarmac championship wins including three victories at the Circuit of Ireland.
The book is called King Fisher - the story of rally legend Bertie Fisher and it will be published next year to raise funds to support local and worldwide charities.
But the book, which has been supported by the Armagh Tigers charity committee, chronicles more than just Bertie's rallying career.
For it also highlights his extensive work for charity and the impact he had on the business scene throughout the British Isles with his family company Fisher Engineering Ltd.
The seeds for the book were sewn a long time ago. Fergus McAnallen had been a huge fan of the Irish rallying icon from his youth and was devastated when Bertie and two of his children were killed in a helicopter crash in January 2001.
Fergus, whose cousin Kieran McAnallen was one of Bertie's closest friends and main sponsors, resolved to publish a book in memory of the rally driver to celebrate the legacy of the popular Fermanagh man.
But it was a tragedy of his own which brought Fergus into contact with the Fishers after his 24-year-old Tyrone football star brother Cormac died in his sleep in March 2004, from an undetected heart condition.
Bertie's brother Ivan Fisher sent his condolences to Fergus, sympathising with him on the passing of a sibling.
Fergus later made contact with Ivan with his idea for a book about Bertie - but they agreed that the time wasn't right for the Fisher family.
Fast forward 10 years and after a meeting between Kieran McAnallen and Bertie's widow Gladys, who survived the helicopter crash with her son Roy, Fergus got the word that the Fishers were now ready for him to proceed with the book.
Fergus spent months speaking to up to 30 friends, relatives and rallying colleagues of the Ballinamallard man and he didn't have to look far to find detailed information about Bertie and his triumphs.
"And that's because I had it all myself. I'd built up a huge archive. I had thousands of programmes, magazines and photographs," says Fergus, a self-confessed 'rally sport nut'.
The 34-year-old businessman, who runs a shop and a pub in Benburb, caught the bug on his own doorstep.
"The Ulster Rally used to go round the back roads near our place at Brantry and I remember my mother taking us to see the cars in the Eighties and that basically was that." In his teens, Fergus went with friends to see not only the Ulster Rally but also the Circuit of Ireland going to Cork and Donegal - "anywhere to see the cars".
"I started to take photos on a wee compact camera before buying more sophisticated equipment and video gear and as well as my own pictures, I have several hundred thousand negatives which I’ve bought from other photographers’ collections,” adds Fergus who was too shy to worship Bertie from anywhere but afar.
"I thought he was fantastic, but even though I was standing near him on a few occasions, I was too young and introverted - a nerdy teenager if you like - to do anything but stand there with my mouth wide open in awe of the man."
In the earliest days of the internet, Fergus set up a website for rally fans with profiles of the drivers and Bertie, unsurprisingly was in the spotlight more than anyone else.
While his friends were plastering their walls with sporting and music idols, every inch of space in Fergus's bedroom was covered with posters of rally cars, most of them belonging to Bertie.
His prized possession is still the reply Bertie sent him after Fergus wrote to congratulate him on one of his triumphs.
"He sent me back a signed poster in an envelope with the Ballinamallard postmark on it. I still cherish the poster and the envelope because it's personalised to me."
For Fergus, his book about Bertie has been a labour of love. The proceeds are going to the Fisher Foundation, a charity set up in memory of Bertie.
He adds: "I feel proud and privileged to have been able to produce this book. I am pleased with the end result and I only hope I have done Bertie and his family justice."
The coffee table book is a massive tome stretching to 300 pages and includes hundreds of photographs and it will be launched in March next year.
The interviews in the book give a fascinating insight into what made Bertie such a giant in the rallying world.
And the one common thread in all the conversations is that no one had a bad word to say about Bertie, who was every inch the gentleman on the roads and off them.
Fergus says: "The Irish rally legend Cathal Curley summed him up. He said that Bertie was the one driver who never had an enemy in the sport - and that's a unique thing.
"And while there may have been battles down the years with the likes of Austin McHale, Andrew Nesbitt and Billy Coleman, they all had a huge esteem for Bertie as a driver and as a man."
One newspaper picture from the height of the rivalry between McHale and Fisher underlines the unusual rapport which the two men shared.
For it shows Bertie helping Austin to change a tyre during one of their fiercest struggles for glory in the Circuit of Ireland rally. Two of Fergus's most revealing interviews were with Bertie's co-drivers Rory Kennedy and Austin Frazer.
"They were able to tell me things about him that the ordinary person wouldn't have known - all about his wee traits and about his skills behind the wheel."
As well as a peerless driver, Bertie was also a shrewd and highly successful businessman.
Fergus points out: "He turned Fisher Engineering into one of the leaders of the steel industry in the British Isles but he also went out of his way to help the community in Ballinamallard in many, many ways.
"Even if it cost him money, he would have priced up small jobs for friends and neighbours in the village. He was a man of the people."
Ballinamallard was plunged into mourning nearly 15 years ago when Bertie and two of his children were killed as the helicopter he was flying came down in woodland at Monea, seven miles outside Enniskillen.
Emma Fisher (25) and her 27-year-old brother Mark, who was tipped for stardom in the rallying world, died along with their father as they were returning from Ashford Castle in Co Mayo where they'd been celebrating Gladys Fisher's 50th birthday.
An Air Accidents Investigation Branch report found no evidence of mechanical failure and said the crash was probably due to poor weather.
Fergus said Mrs Fisher and her son Roy, who also survived the accident, didn't want to talk much about the tragedy.
Kieran McAnallen, who's also chairman of the Armagh Tigers Committee, says the book is a fitting tribute to his friend. "We are delighted to finally be able to publish it and bring together some of the most iconic memories and photos from Bertie's illustrious career.
"He is a rally legend and was a great friend to many, whether it was through the sport, his charity work or his business."
Despite his fanaticism for the sport, Fergus never raced or rallied himself.
He recalls: "I went to a couple of rallying schools but I never drove a rally car in anger because I wasn't in a financial position to do it."
- The book will be officially released at a gala dinner in the Fisher Suite of Armagh City Hotel on Friday, March 4, 2016, and rally enthusiasts can buy tickets for the book launch and night of celebration at www.bertiefisher.com The book is also available on the www.bertiefisher.com website for pre order, priced at £45. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Fisher Foundation, which provides financial support to young people volunteering overseas and continually works to improve motorsport safety standards