In a quiet churchyard in rural Northern Ireland lie three graves bearing one name: Dunlop.
Joey, Robert and William. Buried next to each other by the same minister, all killed on two wheels pursuing the sport that made them and broke them.
For more than 40 years, two sets of brothers have dominated the dangerous, thrilling and brilliant world of motorcycle road racing.
First came Joey and Robert, and then Robert’s two sons, William and Michael – who races on.
Less than a year since his older brother William was killed in a race just outside Dublin, Michael Dunlop is back on the roads of Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, hustling a £70,000 superbike at speeds of up to 200mph.
From the outside, you might wonder why.
Why doesn’t Michael hang up his leathers after losing a brother, a father and an uncle?
It was a last-minute decision. In May 2018, William Dunlop pulled out of the Isle of Man TT to spend time with his partner Janine, who was six months pregnant with their second child and having difficulties.
The TT in early June dominates the calendar for road racers – but William was sure he was doing the right thing. Family had to come first.
William had, understandably, struggled to truly enjoy the sport since his father Robert was killed in an accident in 2008. Some say he was planning to walk away from racing.
He and Janine spent a weekend away with their daughter Ella.
“It was the most lovely weekend; it was so relaxed,” Janine says. “As a family it was so lovely to spend proper quality time together.
“When William had got back into a better head space, when he said he was going back to another race that weekend, I didn’t even feel like I had to worry. At hospital too, things were looking better with the pregnancy, and the morning he set off to the race he was on such good form.
“And then, obviously, things end up the way they ended up.”
William Dunlop was killed at the Skerries 100 road race just outside of Dublin on 7 July 2018. He was 32. A mechanical failure caused oil from his bike to pour on to his rear wheel at huge speed. He was thrown from his bike and died instantly.
Tragically, he would never meet his second daughter Willa, born two months later.
“He was a natural as a racer but goodness he was a natural as a father,” says Janine. “Being a dad helped heal William in the loss of his own dad.
“I can see their daddy in the two girls we have. I know that is only going to develop and get stronger as they get older, and it is beautiful and it is heartbreaking in equal measures, because he was denied the opportunity to do something that I believe he was born to do, and that was be a dad.
“Racing came before I did and it was very much ingrained in who William was. People have told me that his style, the way he rode; it just all seemed very effortless. So I can imagine the thought of giving something like that up would have been incredibly difficult and certainly not something I was going to ask him to do.
“However I could see, especially when he became a daddy, I could see a shift in William.”
Liam Beckett is a close family friend of the Dunlops. He helped Robert throughout his career and saw William and Michael grow up to be world-class talents. He describes William’s death as “unthinkable, unimaginable”.
He says: “William was seriously contemplating stopping racing, I know that for a fact. He was so engrossed in his young family that that season would have finished him. Sadly he didn’t get the chance to step away.
“I was heartbroken. I was there when he was born and it’s not right that he should be away before me. For him to be taken at such a young age – I was full of deep sadness and anger, but who could I blame? We all know the risks.
“Maybe I was as much to blame myself, for being part of racing and a big supporter of road racing when something like this could happen again.”
Beckett is working with William’s mother Louise to look into ways they can make the sport safer – including restarting some of the smaller races in Ireland so young riders don’t have to “find their limits” at particularly unforgiving events like the TT.
But as the Dunlop story shows, it’s not only young riders starting out who are vulnerable.
Joey Dunlop remains the most successful rider in Isle of Man TT history with 26 race wins. Third on the list with 18 is his nephew, Michael, who won three races last year and will expect to be back among the victors this year. The Dunlop name is never far from the top step on the famous island circuit.
A reluctant superstar, Joey was a race winner across several generations who was awarded an OBE in 1996 for his out-of-season hobby of filling up his van with food and blankets and driving to orphanages in Romania, Bosnia and Albania. All done with a minimum of fuss and fanfare.
He was killed at the age of 48 while competing at an obscure road race in Estonia on 2 July 2000. He collided with trees after being thrown from his 125cc bike in the rain.
Despite being twice the age of some of his rivals, just a month earlier he had won three races at the TT, a fortnight of glory that suggested he was once again back at the top of his sport.
He had spent his last night sleeping across the front seats of his van, preferring that to the hotel suite that had been laid on for him.
Joey’s death shook the world of motorcycling and brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. It was estimated more than 50,000 people attended his funeral, from as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Africa. So many stood in the tiny country lanes around Dunlop’s modest bungalow that it took the undertakers an hour to carry him through the crowds to complete the mile-long trip to where he is buried.
Rev John Kirkpatrick buried Joey Dunlop. Years later he would bury Joey’s brother, Robert, and Robert’s son, William. Three Dunlop funerals, all at Garryduff Presbyterian Church, all carried out by the same man.
Kirkpatrick’s office overlooks the Portrush golf course but despite having a membership he has never played there. Instead – you may have guessed – he is a lifelong biker who grew up watching Joey before becoming the pastor of his local church in 1987.
“When you’re in motorcycle sport, life-and-death issues are very real, very close,” he says.
“You have friends who are killed. In that sport, all of us who work in it have been there. I have been chaplain for 26 years with the motorcycle union of Ireland and unfortunately we have conducted around 30 funerals for riders.
“Just think about that. Young riders. Sudden deaths, families. Lots of questions.
“In the back of my mind I had thought, I hope I never have to deal with Joey’s funeral. I have thought of that with every rider. You can’t not.
“And now I have done three of them for the same family. But when I committed myself to do this I committed to do whatever it involves. That’s the mindset I have. I committed to serve this sport and I know there will be lots of days when you say ‘why is it like this?’
“It’s in my head that whatever happens, happens, and I will meet that when it comes.”
The greatest TT racer to date died in 2000. But his legacy and name live on. His brother Robert had emerged from the shadows of Joey’s success to become a world-class road racer in his own right. He too would meet a tragic end.
Robert Dunlop was more charismatic in front of the cameras than his older brother Joey. A magnetic personality.
He won five TTs but would make the North West 200 – held between Portstewart, Portrush and Coleraine in Northern Ireland – his place to shine. There, he won 15 races around the circuit that would later claim his life.
At the peak of his powers, Robert suffered serious, life-changing injuries in a freak crash at the 1994 TT when the rear wheel of his Honda RC45 superbike collapsed at high speed. He sustained horrendous damage to his right arm and leg and was told his career was finished.
Instead, he returned almost as soon as he could stand unaided, albeit only on the smaller 125cc and 250cc bikes. He now lacked the physical strength to wrestle the bigger bikes from side to side at such high speeds.
Unable to close his right hand properly and move his leg fully, he modified his machines to enable him to get back racing.
“Robert was a soldier. Some of the injuries he came through were ridiculous,” says Liam Beckett.
“I struggle to count on one hand the number of times he fell off through rider error in 20 years – all the other accidents were bad luck or mechanical failures. Joey remarked to me a few times, ‘Robert is very unlucky. Every time he falls off he hits something hard.’ He never had a great deal of luck.
“Robert decided to keep going on but if the truth be told he never got over Joey’s death. He was never the same. He just couldn’t take it in.”
Robbed of an older brother, Robert nonetheless could look the other way down the family tree, to his sons, William and Michael.
By the time the 2008 North West 200 rolled around, there were three Dunlops on the grid. Robert and his two boys, all racing in the same 250cc event.
As the riders fired away from the start line for a Thursday evening practice session, Rev Kirkpatrick was among those watching from the grid.
“I had walked round the front of the grid, Robert was on the second row, laughing and carrying on. I can remember that like it was yesterday,” he says.
“There are wee things you recall later. It was a cold evening, it was a bit later in the night than they usually ran. I know people say ‘we should have done this, we could have done that’ but that’s the way it was. From the start line to Mather’s Cross, where he came off, is a few minutes. It was all live on the big screen.
“As soon as you saw a puff of smoke you knew it was an engine seizure and then there was a terribly hard impact. Just a sense of silence and shock.
“Then that catapulted me into the hospital, the morgue, the family. There really are no words to describe being in there and I’ve been in that position a number of times.”
Robert was thrown from his bike at 150mph into the path of a fellow competitor. He suffered severe injuries and died later that night in hospital.
“The lights have gone out for us,” his wife Louise told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Robert would never give up racing. It was his life. But at the same time he knew it would eventually kill him.
“It’s not being dramatic to say he had a premonition of death.”
Robert had returned to racing after Joey’s death. But perhaps the most incredible chapter in the Dunlop story was about to be written.
As friends and family converged on the Dunlop household, hours after Robert’s death, William and Michael were already away in the workshop, preparing their machines for racing the very next day.
Organisers tried to stop them. For their own safety, and that of their fellow competitors. Instead, Michael went out and won.
“That’s not racing. That’s something else,” says Kirkpatrick.
“A lot of people at the time were saying that it shouldn’t be allowed and I am sure everyone had a bit of that, for different reasons.
“I was looking at Michael saying: ‘I don’t want anything to happen to you. Your mother’s at home. She’s just gone through this.’
“He wins, and then he goes home. He doesn’t hang around, doesn’t celebrate, that’s not what it was about. It was a very inspirational moment.
“How do you explain it? There are different ways in which people express their respect, their appreciation, love, devotion. Some people couldn’t identify that win as a way of expressing that, because they couldn’t understand it. I look at it and say, this is the way he does that.”
Michael dedicated the win to his father, and in the decade since has established himself as one of the greatest road racers on earth.
He has lost a father, a brother and an uncle to the sport he loves. And now – along with rivals Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison – he has raised it to a level never seen before.
Michael Dunlop is this week back racing on the famous Isle of Man circuit. Joey Dunlop has a statue overlooking the course, and Michael has his uncle’s race win record of 26 well within his sights. Michael has won 18 and is only 30. When Joey was his age he’d won just one.
We meet on the island, a few months before the streets are converted from suburban communities to racetrack. Michael has kept himself busy since William’s death, helping friends set up a veterinary surgery and renovating a bar and restaurant in Portstewart, but he had only sat on a bike once since.
The waiting members of the media are told that Michael will not talk about William – and who can blame him?
“I deal with that in my own personal way,” he says. “I am staying away from that kind of thing. I made a decision to carry on on my own behalf.
“Racing always has been in my life; motorbikes are what I’m used to. We’re ready to rock and roll.”
The flag bearer for the Dunlop name is happier to talk about the dynasty as a whole, and his place in it. He thinks he has plenty more in the tank.
“My dad and Joey made the name – it’s worldwide. A lot of people are famous in their own town or in their own country but I’ve seen Joey and my dad’s stuff in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong.
“The name is massive and you need a big set of shoulders to carry it too. Everyone out there seems to know us one way or another and we’ve done a good job of it.
“I think I could have done a lot more in a lot of areas but yeah, we always try to strive for more. I’ll come back and try to keep the name somewhere along the line somewhere up near the top and try to push on.”
Why is he carrying on? Michael himself won’t directly address the question but it is a natural thing to wonder – except perhaps to those most closely bound by the sport.
Speak to the people who know the Dunlops, who have traced their fame from Northern Ireland to New Zealand, who have revelled in their victories and gathered in their grief, and you’ll find no sense of surprise.
This is road racing – it’s what Dunlops do. After all, Michael won a race 48 hours after the death of his father Robert. He’s hardly going to stop now.
“I was back out on the bike two weeks after William’s accident,” says Gary Dunlop, son of Joey. He too is a road racer – though he will not be competing at the TT alongside his cousin Michael.
“If it had been me who was killed, William would have done the same. William would have carried on if Michael had gone – he wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss.
“It’s the best thing I did to be fair. It gave me a perk up, cleared my head a bit. I found it helped.
“People who haven’t raced won’t understand and sometimes I think there’s no point preaching to people who aren’t willing to listen.”
Perhaps actions speak louder than words. And there will be plenty of people willing to listen to Michael, to Peter Hickman, to Dean Harrison, to the great John McGuinness, to the remarkable Ian Hutchinson, to them all on the Isle of Man this week.
All of the men and women racing in this ruthless sport deserve to be considered heroes. But there will only ever be one first family of road racing.
|2019 Isle of Man TT|
|Race dates: 1, 3, 5, 7 June|
|Coverage: Reports on the BBC Sport website|