William Dunlop: Tears and tributes as fans and friends pay homage to 'gentleman' and 'legend'
As the remains of tragic motorcycle racer William Dunlop were taken to his mother's home outside Ballymoney, Victor Gibson sat near to tears in the Dunlop Memorial Garden in the north Antrim town.
Although Louise Dunlop had opened up her Gracehill Road home to friends and fans wishing to pay their respects to her 32-year-old son, who was killed during practice for a race at the Skerries circuit near Dublin on Saturday, Victor had decided to spend some time in the garden instead.
The Clough man is more than a fan of William, his father Robert and uncle Joey - now all dead after racing accidents.
"I've known the Dunlops since I was that high," he says holding his hand a couple of feet off the ground.
"I acted as marshal for them at races in later years. In my youth I was a big fan of the Dromara Destroyers - Trevor Steele, Ian McGregor, Ray McCullough and Brian Reid - all legendary racers from the 1980s.
"And, of course, I knew Joey and Robert and followed them as well. And then later I got to know William. I have all his replica racing gear and I will wear it tomorrow at the funeral.
"William was a great lad. I was able to speak to him many times and he was a really nice person. William would go out of his way to allow a fan to get a photograph taken with him or to give someone an autograph. Indeed, the whole family were like that."
Victor is visibly upset at the latest death. "I still haven't got over it since I heard about it on Saturday. I have been down at this garden many times, as I don't live that far away, and I just had to come back today to pay my respects."
He adds: "The Dunlops just wanted to do what they enjoyed doing. We all thought they were brilliant racers, but they just regarded it as their job and never got big-headed about their accomplishments."
As he spoke, friends and fans had gathered at the Dunlop home to pay respects to William. His remains had been taken up from Dublin to James Mullan & Son, undertakers in High Street, Ballymoney, just a short distance from the memorial garden, in mid-afternoon and then transferred to a hearse for the journey to his mother's home.
Although Louise had opened her house to friends and fans, the family were adamant that the media should keep its distance and be as unobtrusive as possible.
We were asked not to enter the lane leading to the house or even an adjoining field where those attending the wake parked their vehicles.
A particular request was made that no photographs should be taken of William's partner Janine, who is expecting their second child. They had a two-year-old daughter, Ella. In the event she stayed indoors when the hearse drew up outside and was wheeled into the house by the undertakers and William's brother Daniel.
While the family made it clear that they wanted as little media intrusion as possible, the auld decency of families in such circumstances emerged when Louise sent out two platters of sandwiches to the four journalists and photographers gathered on the roadside. It was a muted homecoming for a legendary racer, but today's funeral promises to be a much more public affair. The funeral service will be held at Garryduff Presbyterian Church, the same church from where the funerals of William's father Robert and uncle Joey took place.
One of the many bikers who will be there is Adam Carroll from Holywood.
Yesterday he recalled how his friendship with Joey Dunlop's son and daughter, Gary and Joanne, led to him meeting William and become friendly with him.
"I used to come up to Joey's Bar and I remember one night being there with William. He was a massive fan of Tottenham Hotspur and that year they had qualified for the following season's Champions League competition," he says.
"On that night Chelsea were playing in the final of the Champions League and won it, and that put Spurs out of the competition the following year because England was only allowed four teams in the competition.
"William was gutted, and I remember he ordered a whole host of shots and decided to get drunk.
"In later years we used to go to the same gym in Belfast and train together.
"I still cannot get over his death. It is just devastating. I cried all day Sunday. He was a man who would go out of his way for everyone, just like Joey."
Victor also recalled William's great interest in football. "Indeed, he used to talk as much about football as about bikes, maybe even more. He played for the local soccer team, Clough Rangers, in the village where I live and many of the players will be at his funeral tomorrow. They all loved him."
Biker Raymond Campbell, who lives near Kilrea, is also hoping to attend the funeral today, even though he was working last night.
"I went down to the memorial garden as a way of remembering William. I have been here many times before and I also went to Joey's funeral. I will certainly go to the church tomorrow for the service for William.
"It is terrible what has happened to this family. Three of them dead. It is hard to believe that such tragedy could follow one family so closely. And Joey's brother-in-law Mervyn Robinson was also killed in a racing crash.
A book of condolence - one of several around the province - has been opened in Ballymoney Town Hall by mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Brenda Chivers.
She said: "The entire borough has been left shocked and saddened with the tragic events that unfolded at the weekend. I wish to extend my deepest sympathies to the entire Dunlop family at this very sad time. William was a fantastic sporting legend and he will be remembered for his many achievements."
Among the many entries, the words "true gentleman" and "biking legend" are repeated over and over.
One couple recalled meeting William at the North West 200 races earlier this year and enthused about how he had spent time talking to them and making them feel welcome.
Another entry described him "as the nicest sportsman I have ever met".
The book of condolence sits alongside the North West 200 museum in the town hall which naturally contains many references to the Dunlop family. One rack of sporting fleeces bear the logo of the Armoy Road Races, an event held on the roads where Joey and Robert honed their racing craft in the days before they became legends.
Visitors can buy postcards, magnets, pins and other assorted mementoes in the museum.
From the front door of the town hall, the undertakers, where William was brought, is clearly visible across the street. The arrival of his remains brought a chilling dose of reality to the glamour and excitement of road racing.
Three of the finest riders ever to race on Ulster's roads - all members of the one extended family and all local men - gave their lives to the sport. Today, family, friends and fans will gather to pay their last respects to one of those men.