The normally idyllic North Antrim coastline will resonate with the roar of highly-tuned speed machines this weekend as the starting flag is raised for Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event — the North West 200.
Thousands of bikers and enthusiasts alike will descend on this area of outstanding natural beauty for the famous — and dangerous — motorcycle road race. A guaranteed pitstop for many will be Joey’s Bar in Ballymoney.
They will not be going just for some swift pints, though, but to pay homage to one of the greatest riders the sport has ever seen, and one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sons. For Joey’s Bar was the great Joey Dunlop’s pub,and is still run and operated by his family. For his widow Linda it will be a poignant occasion, again meeting her late husband’s many fans. Like Joey, Linda is uncomfortable with the fame game.
In her first in-depth interview since Joey’s tragic death, Linda says: “He was always just my husband, the father of my children. He always wanted to be treated just like anybody else. He didn’t like the high life. His family were more important to him than his career.”
This natural reserve extended to his race preperations. “He used to get so nervous before a race,” remembers Linda. “He just wanted to go last, jump out of the van and go. No talking to people, no nothing, just get on the bike and go. It was to get the nerves settled.”
July 2 marks the 10th anniversary of the King of the Road’s passing. Joey was racing in Tallin, Estonia in 2000 when he lost control of his bike in wet conditions and collided with a tree. He was killed instantly. ‘Yer Man’ was only 48 years old.
Joey’s achievements in the sport are legendary. He won five consecutive Formula 1 World titles, 24 Irish Grand Prixs and, amazingly, 26 Isle of Man TT titles, including a hat-trick of hat-tricks (i.e. winning the 125cc, 600cc and 750cc races in the same year). In recognition of this Joey was awarded an MBE in 1986.
Famously Dunlop was also deeply superstitious. He always wore a red t-shirt under his leathers, there was his trademark yellow helmet, and he always rode a number three bike.
Linda explains his family were sometimes party to this superstitious nature. “Donna (his daughter) gave him a kiss before a TT race,” she recalls. “He could hardly ride the bike that day. He told her afterwards never to do that again because it felt like some kind of omen, like she was saying goodbye to him.”
An area of Joey’s life that is perhaps less well-known is the charity work he carried out. Joey regularly loaded up his race transporter with food and clothing and drove across Europe to deliver this to the orphans of Romania, Bosnia and Albania. This was done without any fanfare, Joey preferring to draw little attention to his benevolent work.
“He didn’t want someone to meet him halfway,” says Linda “because he wanted to make sure the contents got there himself, which they always did.”
Attention was paid to his humanitarian gestures though because in 1996 Joey was awarded the OBE for his charity work. He described this as the proudest moment of his life, more so than anything he ever achieved on his motorbike.
Posthumously Dunlop’s charity work continues through the Joey Dunlop Foundation which, to this day, receives donations from across the globe.
“The Foundation bought a house on the Isle of Man racecourse which will be made available to the disabled and under-privileged,” Linda explains. “I know Joey would be very proud of this. It’s always somewhere we can take the grandchildren and show them the legacy of their grandfather. It will let them know the hard work that Joey did in his life.”
In 2010 Linda was fortunate enough to visit the Honda factory and museum in Japan with the help of a BBC documentary on her husband.
“Joey had wanted me to go before but, with the kids being at school, it just wasn’t possible,” said Linda. “But when I went and I saw his 250cc bike being wheeled out, with the sponsors on the side, it was incredibly emotional. It really brought it home that he had ridden this over 30 years ago.”
“They even had the yellow helmets all boxed up, which they were handling with white gloves. I kept thinking ‘they wouldn’t be very pleased with the ones we had back at home’ as we just kept them out, not boxed or anything.
“The most exciting part of the trip was to meet Mr Aika, the engineer who worked with Joey years ago,” recalls Linda enthusiastically.
“It was the first time it really hit home just how special Joey was to Honda. He always treated them with great respect as well. They were so complimentary about Joey, it was unbelievable.
“I just didn’t expect to hear a lot of the things that were said. They even referred to Joey as ‘The Professor’. It would obviously have been nice for him to have been there as well, but it just |wasn’t meant to be.”
Above all else Joey’s name was synonymous with one place — the Isle of Man. Linda offers a different perspective on the island to that perhaps expected by Joey’s fans.
“It was always somewhere where we went for a family holiday as well as for the races,” she explains. “My family never talked about going to the Isle of Man for the TT, they talked about going to see their friends, and the races just happened to be there.”
Linda recalls with clarity Joey’s last TT in 2000, when he was an ‘experienced’ 48. “These Japanese men working with Honda came to the garage and Joey could tell they were thinking ‘surely it wasn’t going to be this wee, grey-haired man who was going to be riding their bike.’”
Famously, Joey not only won but he completed a hat-trick of victories, thus reaching a hat-trick of hat-tricks, an achievement not matched before or since. “Back home that evening,” remembers Linda “Joey said ‘I wonder what they think of the wee, grey-haired man now!’ He thought it was hi
larious that at his age he could do it. He was so happy.”
Sadly, Joey’s victories in the 2000 TT races proved to be his last visit to the Isle of Man.
His death in July of that year caused an outpouring of grief in the province, and worldwide, that Linda and the family were not expecting. Joey Dunlop’s funeral became a provincial event with an incredible 50,000 mourners attending. It was also broadcast on local television.
“At the time of his death,” says Linda, “I said to our son that, at the end of the day, ‘your Dad’s racing career wasn’t private.’ If you have no fans you have no career, so we decided to leave the funeral open.
“It was such a great feeling to know that people must have loved him that much, and they had taken the time to come. It was very nerve-racking for us but such a good feeling to know how much he was respected.”
Linda’s understated nature, similar to her late husband, belies how much the people of Ulster had loved this ‘King of the Road’. Fiercely anti-sectarian and apolitical, Joey was followed by Catholics and Protestants alike. The continued popularity of Joey’s Bar is further testament to ‘Yer Man’s enduring legacy and appeal.
The appellation ‘legend’ may be tossed around inappropriately and too frequently at times but if anyone can be considered as such it was Joey Dunlop.
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