Joey Dunlop anniversary: ‘It doesn’t really get any easier, there’s that half of you missing’
Linda Dunlop doesn’t need an anniversary to remember her loss.
She thinks of him every single day.
The 57-year-old Ballymoney woman’s life was shattered a decade ago today when her husband, best friend and father of her five children was killed in a motorbike race in Estonia.
Joey Dunlop, the iconic motorcycling champion, was just 48.
“To be honest, it has been a nightmare,” Linda said.
And even after the passage of 10 long years her grief is still as raw as the day she took that awful phonecall and heard her world had fallen apart.
“It doesn’t really get any easier with time. You are fit to get up and go on after a few years, but there’s just that half of you missing.”
Joey's achievements in road racing are legendary. He won five consecutive Formula 1 World titles, 24 Irish Grands Prix and 26 Isle of Man TT races, including a hat-trick of hat-tricks.
However the shy and reserved Joey always shunned the limelight, preferring to put his family before the fame.
“He was a superstar to a lot of people, but to us he wasn’t,” Linda said. “Joey didn’t believe in the big glitzy high life or being a superstar. He was just as content at home.”
Famed for superbike success on the world’s best-known circuits, it was all the more shocking when Joey’s life was cut short while leading a 125cc race in a little-known part of eastern Europe.
It dealt a devastating blow to the motorcycling fraternity across the globe, and for Linda and her young family life was never the same again.
“That’s the end of a good bit of your life. You live every day but it’s not the same. There’s nothing you ever do that doesn’t have that sad tinge with it,” she said.
Joey’s funeral was one of the largest in Northern Ireland. More than 50,000 friends, fans and famous faces turned up at the tiny church on the outskirts of Ballymoney to pay their respects. “They reckon there were between 50 and 75,000, but to be honest that day is just a blur,” Linda said.
“They got boats and planes to come over, and it just let us see how high he was held because we were just used to him as an ordinary person.
“The cards also came in packs of hundreds, the postman was carrying them in in boxes. I opened every letter and I have 40 condolence books.
“Sometimes I would go back, open them up and look through them. One day I took all the cards from the flowers on the grave and put them in a big box and I noticed that he had a wreath from Eddie Jordan and his wife Marie. I didn’t even know that until about six years ago.
“I still get the odd card coming up to the anniversary. And there are still some people who stop at the house and ask for a photograph. After 10 years, to think they do remember him, is very comforting to us.”
Having grown up in the same Co Antrim housing estate, Linda and Joey started dating when she was 15 and he 16.
Two years later they were engaged, married in a no-fuss registry office ceremony aged 19, and after another two years together welcomed Julie, the first of five children into the world.
Now a grandmother of six, Linda regrets her husband never lived to see the next generation of Dunlops.
“The grandchildren were all born after Joey passed on,” she said.
For many women being the wife of a motorcycle road racer — one of the most dangerous sports — would be too much to cope with.
And even though her heart was in her mouth for much of the time, Linda embraced the lifestyle and travelled to almost every meeting.
“The place that scared me most would have been the Isle of Man but that’s the place where we now have the happiest memories, because everything always ended up very good,” she said.
Nowadays life is very different. Linda hasn’t been to a single race since Joey died and couldn’t even bring herself to support her son during his brief spell on the bikes.
She said: “Gary did go out for a season but he did it for the wrong reasons because he thought people would want him to do the same as his daddy, but it just never lay to him. So he just packed it in and I thought ‘great’. I couldn’t cope with that at all.”
After Joey’s death, picking up the pieces of her life meant re-opening the Ballymoney bar the couple had bought in 1984.
It took more than a month before Linda could step through the front door and for years there were times when she thought of selling up.
But now Joey’s Bar forms an annual part of the pilgrimage thousands of bikers make every year.
Ten years after being awarded his MBE, Joey received an OBE for his humanitarian work bringing clothes, food and medical aid to vulnerable children in eastern Europe. Much of this aid work was done without any fanfare.
Posthumously his charity work continues through the Joey Dunlop Foundation which has a house for underprivileged children on the Isle of Man.
Today a select number of guests will gather at Garryduff Presbyterian Church to remember Joey 10 years after his death.
“This will be the first time that I’ll be out on his anniversary,” said Linda. “We are just going to try and go and say thanks and try our best to look at it as a happy day, not a sad one. It will probably be hard to do but that’s the way we are trying to get into our frame of mind.
“There’s always something that you have to remember, and that is you are not the only person in the world that this has happened to.”