WHEN motorsport fan Donal O’Brien died in a road accident last Sunday, his family requested a fitting vehicle for the funeral ceremonies.
They wanted his beloved Mark II Ford Escort to accompany him on his final journey on the following Wednesday.
But the old car had been badly damaged at a rally a few months ago and required a fortnight’s worth of work to have it ready — and the funeral was just three days away.
Given the tragic circumstances, the mechanics and motorsport fans of Cork went into overdrive and three separate garages launched a day-and-night, 30-hour operation to have the vintage Escort ready in time for the funeral.
It is a poignant story that sums up the respect in which Donal was held across the city and county.
Father-of-one Donal, 45, from Ovens, died when his bicycle was in collision with a vehicle on the Ballincollig bypass last Sunday. He owned a garage as well as being a motorsports follower.
That night, his brother, Jason, asked Donal’s friend and rally navigator, Liam Brennan, owner of Brennan Crash Repairs in Blackpool, if the car could be prepared in time for the funeral.
“We said it couldn’t be done,” said Liam. “I’ll be honest with you, there was at least two weeks work in that car. It was a total shell.”
But the motoring community rallied round. It is the kind of story that shows the spirit of humanity at times of great tragedy.
“There was no hesitation at all,” said Liam. “All my team came in ready to go just after dawn on Monday, at 5am. They were fighting each other to get at a square foot of the car to work on. They operated on adrenaline, they were like ants.
“It was amazing to be part of it. I am really proud of my team. I made the calls Sunday evening and everyone responded without any hesitation.”
Liam and his team were helped by ACE signs, Denis Healy, and good friends Shady Shay (Mulcahy), Des Golden and his son James, plus many others who knew and loved Donal.
“The Escort had been rolled over in the West Cork Rally in March,” said Liam, who was sitting in as navigator at the time with his pal of over 20 years.
“Donal loved his Ford Escort. He called it his baby. It was an ultimate vehicle, at the very pinnacle of motorsports.
“When we crashed, there was a fair bit of damage done to the car. It was sitting there for weeks.
“Donal and I made the decision to try and have it ready to go for the Bank Holiday June weekend.”
Sadly, circumstances meant Liam needed to have the car spruced up far sooner.
“There was five or six hours of body work to be done on the car before the primer, paint, or assembly,” he said. “The atmosphere was absolutely mental.
“It was amazing to be part of it. I am really proud of my team. We worked non-stop for over a 19-hour period. My guys ripped into it.
Donal and Liam were good friends.
“Donal asked me to navigate for him a year ago,” said Liam. “He was a lovable guy, larger than life; a big strong man. Donal was a real character and he was a winner. Second place to him meant that you lost.”
Donal had great ambitions as a young man, said Liam.
“An eye injury at 21 put a halt to his hope of becoming a professional racing driver,” said Liam.
But Donal’s love of cars meant he ended up working in the profession, and he was director of a car sales business at the Kinsale Road industrial estate.
“I took in three or four a cars a week for him for bodywork,” said Liam. “We were great old buddies.”
After Liam’s team had done their 19-hour shift, they handed the Escort over at midnight to Neil Phelan of ACE signs.
“Neil would have always done the stickers and signage for Donal,” said Liam. “His staff are amazing and they worked through the night to get the car ready.”
It was a real team effort.
“Guys who came out of nowhere went out for food to keep the lads going,” said Liam.
““Link men saw to the odds and ends. There were eight men constantly working on the various stages.
“Seamie O’Gorman drove to Tipperary for parts for the Escort. Shady Shay, who is a great pal of ours, is a panel beater. He has his own garage and would be a competitor. That didn’t matter. He fell in with us and worked tirelessly.
“Des Golden and his son James collected the parts and delivered them to Denis Healy for the mechanics. There was some mileage done, I can tell you.
“Peter Willoughby, from Lismore, drove all the way to Galway for parts.
“Denis Healy took care of the engine, gear box and suspension. He did the tracking and balance. There was another week’s work in that.”
Finally, Donal’s pride and joy was painted, primed and polished.
The car’s journey was completed in record time.
“The escort was done in three legs,” said Liam. “We had it in Brennans for 19/20 hours. Neil had it after midnight until 5am. Denis completed the job from 6.30am to 4.40pm. The car is pristine.
“Three garages came together for the O’Brien family.”
For the funeral, Donal’s daughter, Nicole, drove the car past the house on the Tuesday night and to the graveyard ahead of the cortege on Wednesday.
“Nicole is one of the top recognised female drivers in Ireland,” said Liam, whose father, Bill, opened Brennans Crash Repairs 51 years ago. “She is one of the elite drivers.
“All we hope is that Donal is proud of everyone involved.
“We were so touched by the appreciation of Donal’s parents, his brothers, Jason and Jonathan, and his wife, Sandra, when we handed over the car. It was worth it all. ”