This year for the very first time I had the privilege of attending the Joule Donegal International Rally.
And what an experience and eye opener it was.
As a youngster I grew up loving rallying and rallying only which may seem strange to many who think that GAA was my first love.
My father followed the sport up and down the country and I regularly looked forward to going to the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney with famed stages such as Molls Gap, Healy Pass and many more.
The Carlow Stages Rally was always the week after Killarney which made the month of May the most exciting few weeks of the year.
The West Cork Rally was what Paddy’s weekend was all about and equally in early October it was all about the Cork 20 International Rally, which thankfully wasn’t a million miles away from Mallow where I have loads of relations on the Mothers side who were also keen Rally followers.
I spent countless hours watching Rally tapes from the 80’s and 90’s which were constantly supplied by Pat Sullivan and anytime there was a chunky envelope arriving to the house I knew it was one thing and one thing only and those tapes are well worn at this stage!
The one event I had never got to was the Donegal International Rally.
On those tapes I had watched many special moments from that event including special victories for local men Vincent Bonnar and James Cullen which meant the world to those guys.
There was also moments which were less favourable for the local contingent such as James McDaids huge crash and Bonnar’s off on the famed Wilhare’s Corner on Knockalla which also saw Austin McHale go off in his Sierra and unfortunately Kevin Eves this year in his Toyota Corolla for whom I wish a speedy recovery.
The opportunity arose this year purely by chance.
I sat down with my KCLR colleague and friend James Lakes just before we were to take to the MIC for Saturday Scoreline and he had said that he was going to the Donegal Rally.
He asked would I go and I didn’t need to be asked a second time!
So off we went on Thursday the 15th of June with Derek Cummins – who marshaled at over 40 Rally’s in one calender year a couple of years ago – and headed for the Hills of Donegal.
The reason we went on Thursday was because Donegal is the only three day Rally event left on the Irish Rally calender and that in itself is a testament to how big an event it is.
We arrived in Ramelton just outside Letterkenny at our B&B and settled in for the night. Not before a quick tipple or two at Conway’s Pub!
We were well behaved however as their were stages to be marshaled the following day.
On Friday we were on the Trentagh stage and it proved to be rather eventful.
On the first run we had a car on its roof and on the second run a car ended up leapfrogging a ditch and the search for a gate out of the field was an interesting one to say the least!
The same crew ended up on their roof not far from where we were marshaling on the Saturday and funnily enough they ended up spectating with us on Sunday on the Glen Stage!
Martin Kerley from Cavan is another man who is quite a character! He along with Cummins can be seen marshaling events up and down the country and Kerley has built up a great relationship with spectators down through the years with most fans understanding that the marshals are there for their safety only.
The Friday evening was arguably the most enjoyable of the weekend.
Derek brought us around Knockalla, Fanad Head and Atlantic Drive which are among the best stages not just around Ireland but all over the world.
To finally get to see these stages in person was very special for me personally as gave me as much of a kick if not more than seeing the sights in New York earlier this year.
We called in to the Singing Pub and The Glen Pub in Glen Village as well and they wouldn’t be long about making a Guinness fan out of you!
But the stages are simply incredible and Rallying really is a religion in Donegal along with Gaelic Football.
There were over 60,000 genuine Rally fans on the Stages throughout the weekend with the motor club organising shuttle buses to take spectators to viewing points around stages that were difficult to access.
You wouldn’t see this anywhere else in the country!
The one thing that I find great about Rallying is how accessible and down to earth some of the top competitors are.
In other sports the cream of the crop can be hard to get near but the Rally lads are genuine men, and to finally have a chat with Rally legend Rory Kennedy was fantastic.
Rory was Co-Driver to the late great Bertie Fisher who I was a big fan of growing up and couldn’t have been friendlier when I spoke to him at service.
Roy Jarvis and Co-Driver Adam Milner also stayed at our B&B, and were really nice lads too who came over from North Yorkshire for the event.
Jeff Case from Abbeyleix was navigating for John Mulholland and it was great to have chat with him and of course to Local man Joe Connolly.
Manus Kelly ended up winning the Rally and we met him on Friday as well and again he was very down to earth and we were glad to see him win.
So all in all it was a great experience and I have already penciled it into the diary to again next year!
For anyone looking for an excuse to have a mini holiday, take in a sporting event and see all the beauty that Donegal has to offer then I would highly recommend going to this event.
I now feel the grá for the Sport that I felt as a very impressionable youngster growing up and I never thought I would be saying that again to be honest.
Thank you Donegal!