Joey Dunlop - a short Biography

You would need to write a book about Joey's biography, so we've chosen one chapter from his Authorised Biography by Mac McDiarmid called "Windmills and Drainpipes" (used with the permission of Mac and Haynes Publishing).......

Windmills and Drainpipes

If there were any certainties about the future life of the young William Joseph, one was that somehow or other it would involve messing about with engines. His father, Willie, was a motor mechanic by trade and a practical if unconventional fixer by temperament. In the days before mains electricity was universal, he had once provided the family home with power by rigging a home-made windmill 65 ‘very scary’ feet up in a nearby tree. When the North Antrim wind blew, the windmill turned the generator below and the Dunlop home glowed. It was Joe’s job every night to check the batteries and if they were low, start up the generator. So it could be said that as far as motive power was concerned, Joe’s first works contract was with the Almighty.

Joey Dunlop
©Billy Gillen

The future King of the Roads was born at 8.00am on 25 February 1952, possibly the one prompt Monday morning arrival of his life. Home at the time was a humble cottage without running water at Unchanaugh, a mile or so from the village of Dunloy. He weighed a healthy 7lb. Willie and May Dunlop would have seven children in all – four girls and three boys – of whom Joey was the eldest boy, two and a half years younger than big sister Helen. They were followed by Jim, Virginia and Linda. The last two children were twins, Robert and Margaret, although one even younger child died of cot death aged six months. "The wife did most of the bringing up", admitted Willie over a jar in the Ballymoney bar named after his son. "I was busy earning money, and not much of that. We weren’t the poorest family in the country, but not far off."

They were hard times. Post-war rationing was still in force, and even for more affluent families, luxuries were scarce. As the windmill tale suggests, it was a time of improvisation and making the best of things. Perhaps spurred by necessity, Joey seems to have inherited his father’s instinctive talent with machinery. The familiar name, however, came much later. "All our children are known by their middle name," explains Willie. "Joey is William Joseph and Robert is Steven Robert. He was named after his Uncle Joe and when he was at school he insisted on that. He hated being called Joey. Wouldn’t have it at all."

Those who knew him best speak of the young Joe’s even, somewhat reserved temperament and the same stubborn determination which would mark his race career. "‘I only had to go to school because of him once," remembers May, "when he knocked a tin of black paint over another wee fella. But I don’t think it was deliberate. And as a wee’un he was good, even as a wee tote in a carry cot. He was a good sleeper – and he never lost that! And he was always a determined wee tote. He’d get into something and not let it go until he’d done with it. We used to cut a lot of turf, about 11/2 miles from the house, and even when he was tiny he’d always insist on coming with us."

There were just the usual childhood illnesses, and a propensity for bloody knees and noses that will surprise no-one familiar with Joe’s later escapades. Both Unchanaugh, and later Bravallen Road, where the windmill stood and where brother Robert now lives, were quiet and out-of-the-way. Even when the opportunity arose, which was rarely, he wasn’t one for ‘running around with a crowd of people’.

The market town of Ballymoney – Ulster’s best kept medium town of 1996 – was largely spared sectarian violence and not the worst of places in which to grow up. For much of the time Joey’s most available playmate was Helen, who would later marry Merv Robinson, mentor of his early racing career. Both children shared the Dunlop self-reliance, the same quiet ease in their own company. "When mum was in hospital having the younger ones, me and Joey used to have to look after things," explained Helen. "But I like being on my own, just like he did. Maybe we both appreciated peace and quiet because we got so little of it at home. But the best time," she adds in contradiction, "was in our teens, when we were at the dances. Me mum used to send Joey with me to look after me, but it usually ended up the other way round. We’d get on the bus and go to Quay Road Hall in Ballycastle – the “in” place then – or The Strand in Portstewart … see the Dave Clark Five, The Tremeloes, The Troggs … although Joey wasn’t really into music."

Earlier Helen had been responsible for breaking Joe’s nose. "‘It was an accident – I pulled a tractor harrow on top of him. There was a lot of blood – he always took terrible bloody noses. He was accident prone … always falling off roofs and things like that. He once threw a load of paraffin in the stove and burnt his face. We tried to keep him away from mum until his eyebrows and hair grew back."

Minor bangs and bloodshed were normal fare in an active household that didn’t boast its first television until Joey was in his teens. ‘We weren’t spoilt as kids, because my mum and dad never had anything,’ offers Robert, only for his wife Louise to say: "They were all spoiled. Not with money – there was none – but indulged and supported in other ways."

"In the evenings, when they were little," May remembers, "we’d either read them books or they’d play games around the fire. We were at Culduff before we got our first TV."

"Aye," agrees Willie, "‘we took them out most Sundays, but not to the towns, because that cost money. We took them all over the north coast instead." Whether it came from such family outings or elsewhere, Joey would never lose his fondness for Ireland’s wilderness places, or his apparent indifference to creature comforts. Donegal would be a welcome if windswept bolt-hole even in the last month of his life.

Not surprisingly, formal tuition was not a trait in a family more at ease with hands-on learning or watching the real thing. Even more than most kids, Joe seemed to enjoy taking things to bits. "I did quite a lot of work at home", explains Willie. "There were always bits of engine lying around. That’s probably where he picked some of it up." Virginia is more certain. "All I can remember him doing was working, out in the garage."


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