As a youth Joey had an ambition to join the army, but that changed when, at sixteen, he bought his first motorcycle, a 250 cc BSA. From then he financed his passion for motorcycling by working in various jobs, including as a diesel fitter, lorry driver, steel erector, and roofer, and latterly as the publican of the Railway inn in Ballymoney. On 22 September 1972 he married his childhood sweetheart, Linda Robinson. They had three daughters and two sons.
Motorcycle racing in Ireland evolved differently from that on the UK mainland. Since the middle of the twentieth century motorcycle racing on the mainland had been conducted almost exclusively on purpose-built tracks whose safety had been continuously improved. This was known as ‘short circuit’ racing, as opposed to road racing, in which public roads were closed off to create a temporary circuit. Although there were short circuits there, Ireland had a long tradition of road racing, especially in the north. In road racing there was very little protection for riders, who raced at immense speed on bumpy back roads, on the limit of control, past trees, walls, telegraph poles, traffic islands, and houses. Deaths and serious injuries were regrettably common.
Joey Dunlop raced successfully on the short circuits, but it was in road racing that he shone. He began racing in 1969, on a 192 cc Triumph Tiger Cub which he had bought for £50, fired with enthusiasm after seeing the local rider Mervyn Robinson racing. Robinson became Dunlop’s brother-in-law, and along with Frank Kennedy they formed a triumvirate of Irish road racers known as the ‘Armoy armada’. Dunlop came close to quitting motorcycle racing when Robinson was killed in a racing accident in 1980. Kennedy also predeceased Dunlop in a racing accident. Dunlop was seriously injured in crashes in 1989 and 1998, and his brother Robert [see below] was seriously injured in a racing accident in 1994 (and eventually killed in another).
It was not until 1976 that Dunlop became a regular winner in Irish events. His road racing experience stood him in good stead when he entered the tourist trophy (TT) races on the Isle of Man. The TT circuit is a public road circuit, 37.73 miles long and tremendously fast. After 1976 the Manx course was deemed too dangerous for use in the motorcycle grand prix world championship, and it was thought that this would spell the end of the TT races. In fact they became the focal point of a week-long festival of motorcycling, attracting 40,000 or more riders to the island every year, and in a series of heroic rides Dunlop won their hearts. He won the jubilee TT in 1977, the first of twenty-six TT races he won in the years until his death. The next most prolific TT winner, Mike Hailwood, reckoned almost universally to be one of the most talented motorcycle racers ever, won fourteen. Among many other successes, Dunlop won the North-West 200 thirteen times and the Ulster grand prix twenty-four times: these were the most prestigious of the Irish road races. Altogether he won more than 160 road races in Britain and Ireland, and numerous others elsewhere. In 1982 he won the first of five consecutive motorcycle formula 1 world championships.[caption id="attachment_28" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Joey Dunlop - Motorcycle Racer Supreme"][/caption]
It was not the number of his wins which endeared Dunlop to racing fans, but his modesty and his evident love of the sport. He was a shy man of few words, and he rarely gave interviews, although he was always happy to spend time with the fans. He never accepted the trappings of fame, and he shunned the limelight. He always worked on his own machine, even when it was the latest high-tech equipment from the Honda factory (whose motorbikes he raced from 1983). The fans knew he was one of their own, and perhaps it was this which led to his nickname: Yer Maun. In 2000, at the age of forty-eight and against men many years his junior, he won three of the most prestigious TT races. It was a prodigious feat. His average speed for the 175 mile formula 1 race was 121 m.p.h.
Dunlop was appointed MBE in 1985 for his services to motorcycling, and OBE in 1995 in recognition of his singlehanded van trips, twice to Bosnia and once each to Albania and Romania, to distribute food and other aid he had collected for the needy. For this latter work he became all the more respected by the people of Ireland, and by motorcycling fans all over the world. He once polled more than 60 per cent of the votes cast in an Irish sportsman of the year competition. In 1993 he was given the freedom of Ballymoney.
It was Dunlop’s love of the sport which kept him racing into his forty-ninth year, and which in the summer of 2000 led him to Tallinn, Estonia. He drove alone with his bikes in the back of a van to race on the road circuit there. He had won two races and on 2 July was leading a third when he crashed and was killed instantly. Five days later 50,000 people attended his funeral at Garryduff Presbyterian Church, which was broadcast live on Irish national television, and at which government ministers from London, Belfast, and Dublin were present. It was a state funeral in all but name. He was survived by his wife, Linda, and their five children.
Dunlop’s younger brother, (Stephen) Robert Dunlop (1960–2008), racing motorcyclist, was born on 25 November 1960 at the Robinson Hospital, Ballymoney. He made his road race début in 1979, in the Temple 100, and his professional début at Aghadowey in 1981. In 1985 he won the first of eight victories in the Cookstown 100 race; he would also win a record fifteen North West 200 races. In 1983 he won the newcomers’ 350 cc Manx grand prix, and went on to win the 125 cc Isle of Man TT race three years in succession, from 1989 to 1991 (and in the latter year also won the junior TT). He finished second in that race in 1992 and 1993, but the following year a serious accident in the formula 1 TT, when the back wheel of his 750 cc Honda collapsed, almost killed him; he remained out of competition for the next two years, and was left with a shortened leg which required extensive operations. He nevertheless resumed racing in 1996. In 1998 he won the 125 cc TT race (his fifth TT victory), and in 2000 and 2002 achieved third place in the same event; in 2004 he came second. He again retired from racing in 2004–6, while undergoing further operations on his leg, but in 2006 he returned to win the 125 cc North West 200. During practice for the 250 cc race at the North West 200 on 15 May 2008 he was flung from his bike when it seized at over 150 m.p.h. He died later that day from injuries sustained in the accident. He was survived by his wife, Louise, whom he had married around 1984, and by their three sons, two of whom had themselves become racing motorcyclists. (Michael went on to win the North West 200 250 cc race in which his father had been killed in practice, dedicating his victory to his father’s memory. Michael subsequently became a TT winner himself.)