Belfast Telegraph

Unique Dunlop dynasty built on skill and bravery beyond compare

Motor-cycle racing legend Joey Dunlop
Motor-cycle racing legend Joey Dunlop

By Mike Gilson

We all think we know the Dunlop story, don't we? The incredible bravery, the death-wish need for speed, the diffidence in the face of imminent tragedy, oh, and the incredible on-the-edge sportsmanship, the overwhelming desire to win.

The Dunlop family could only be from Northern Ireland, couldn't they? Is there another sporting dynasty like theirs anywhere in the world? I'm struggling to think of one. But do we really know them?

Those inside the ultimate outsider sport, motorcycle racing, certainly do. In that place, unloved and strangely disregarded by the rest of the world of sport (see much of them on Sports Personality of the Year?), the Dunlops are gods up there with Zeus.

The truth is, even here, many (in Belfast) regard the Dunlops and their unfathomable world as a peculiar quirk of their place, the Ballymoney rarely visited, "them up north".

For much of the greater Belfast population, the North West 200, the biggest sporting event on this island, passes without notice. I thought I was a bit more knowledgeable than that, had half-laughed, half-marvelled at Michael's shy, self-deprecating appearances at our sports awards, where fellow heroes are quick to understand his true worth.

But then I saw Road, the film released last year about the family's story. I'd sadly missed it when it hit our cinemas, but got the DVD for Christmas and watched it last weekend.

I now understand I didn't really know the Dunlop story at all. It is truly an incredible one and I apologise for those shaking their heads at my hitherto ignorance.

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Have there been many more complex sporting heroes than the King of the Road himself, Joey, the restless champion of champions slowly being drawn to his inevitable road racing death, but just as happy taking his old battered van loaded with goodies for the orphans of Eastern Europe?

Little brother Robert, oozing charm where Joey raised barriers, in thrall to big bro, but just as brave, or foolhardy, depending on your point of view.

And Robert's sons, Michael and William, still defying the Grim Reaper out there on the course, driven by considerable skill and bravery, but also the ghosts of their famous father and uncle.

We probably all know a little about the story of Michael's still-amazing win at the North West in 2008 in the race whose qualifying laps had claimed his father's life just two days before. But in Road you see it for what it is. One of the greatest sporting feats ever seen on this planet.

Watch Michael and William defy the stewards to take their place on the starting grid and then hold your breath as Michael duels out on the edge of everything with John McGuinness to take the chequered flag.

Away from the sterility of Formula One, this is real heart-stopping racing, primeval even, enough to stun the most hard-hearted towards the sport. "This was for Dad" is about all Michael can get out before disappearing in a flood of tears. The Dunlops, a family dynasty who should be more lauded across this land, don't really ask for much. They know they have the love of the followers, although I suspect the boys sometimes wish we could see what they do for what it is, bravery and skill beyond comprehension.

But the rest of us have no excuse. The Dunlops are part of who we are in this tiny benighted corner of the world. And we are the better for it.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph


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