Thursday, 17 May 2012

Joey Boy

What with a Champions League final, the arrival of the Olympic Torch, the countdown to Euro 2012 and even an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final going on, it's possible that many will overlook the fact that this is a huge weekend for Northern Irish sport.
Of course the Heineken Cup final will be noticed, especially if Ulster manage to upset the odds on Saturday (here's hoping). But the other huge Irish sporting event of the weekend, the North West 200, may not get quite the same coverage. And yet the motorbike road race will attract tens of thousands of people to Northern Ireland's north coast attracted to the speed, roar and rush of the race.
That roar is a soundtrack of my childhood.Growing up in Coleraine as I did, the race was an annual event in the town. But if I'm honest it was never something I looked forward to particularly. There's a family story that as a kid I went to see it and then came down with Mumps the next day. But I doubt that association really explains my disinterest. It's more, I suspect, that motor sports are one of my blind spots. I'm even more indifferent to Formula One.
Even so, I was always aware of the North West 200. It would have been impossible not to be, given how large it figured in local culture. And of course that wasn't just because of the race itself. There was also the fact that one of the greatest motorbike racers lived just down the road.
In Northern Ireland Joey Dunlop is one of the most important sporting figures of the last 40 years. And yet his name is little known outside the province and motorbike circles.
Perhaps that just makes their affection for him all the stronger. A five-times world champion, Dunlop could ride a bit. That was a part of his appeal. But I always thought the fact that he was so Northern Irish helped too:  Northern Irish in his thrawnness, his unwillingness to put on airs and graces and his sometimes comically monosyllabic interviews. And when he did speak the broadness of his Ballymoney accent only cemented his down-home image.
Dunlop is, it's worth adding, the reason I wrote Whose Side Are You On? in the first place. The book began when I read an obituary of Joey's brother Robert during a practice session of the North West 200 in 2008. Robert's death came eight years after his brother's. Joey died when he came off his bike during a race in Tallinn in Estonia in 2000. In Robert's obituary it mentioned that when Joey died his body was brought back to Dublin and then the funeral cortege headed north to Ballymoney.
The journey, though, coincided with a spasm of violence in the north. It was marching season and the refusal to allow Orangemen to march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown had led to widespread road blocks and confrontations between loyalists and the security forces. As a result the cortege struggled to get to Ballymoney and Robert had to make a public plea to allow his brother's body to be brought home.
Reading that obit in 2008 I suddenly thought that here was an example of how the Troubles had impacted on a Northern Irish sporting story. How many more had that happened to? Very, very many, it turned out four years and more than 300 pages later.
Ironically, though, Dunlop's story is actually one that for the most part was not touched by the Troubles. He was an apolitical figure and motor bike racing was not associated with one side or the other. It was allowed for the most part to just be a sport. The North West 200 itself was only cancelled once because of security fears prompted by the Troubles. Numerically foot-and-mouth had as much of an impact.
 For that reason alone, I'd argue, the race should be celebrated. I hope the weather's kind to those who are going to Coleraine, Portstewart or Portrush this weekend. And have an ice cream in Morelli's for me.

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