Kanturk rally ace Liam O’Callaghan was simply born to drive

Kanturk rally ace Liam O’Callaghan was simply born to drive
Kanturk's Liam O'Callaghan pictured on the 1998 Shell Donegal International Rally in a Ford Escort Maxi. Picture: Martin Walsh.

FOR Kanturk’s Liam O’Callaghan his introduction to motorsport came from the cradle.

That he would choose rallying as his sporting passion seemed the natural progression within the family home where his father, Paddy O’ (a leading rally driver in the 1960s and who passed away in 2010) was an icon.

“In the mid-1970s, anybody that was rallying, be it driving or co-driving, passed through the kitchen of our house. Billy Coleman and Ger Buckley were regulars, it was different, everybody was involved, I was about eight at the time.”

Liam’s first rally was in 1986 in an ex-AJ Keating Group A 1600cc Toyota Corolla in an event in Glenville. Kanturk’s Jimmy Lucey, who had navigated for Paddy’ O and Frank Hogan, was his first navigator. Liam quips: “He was put in to mind me.”

It’s scarcely a surprise Liam’s childhood memories evoke images of a different era. “Probably every weekend, but certainly every second weekend Paddy’O did everything, he would go autotesting, autocrossing and would drive the car to them. We were put in the back and off we went.”

There wasn’t an element of choice.

“There wasn’t a hope that I was going to be taking piano lessons.”

Different versions of a Daihatsu Charade, including an Andy Dawson built car, followed as Liam contested several events including the Circuit of Ireland. But he grew a little despondent for a time until late 1993 that signalled the arrival of a Ford Sierra 4x4, an ex-Enda Nolan car. “That was a proper car, it was one of my favourite cars.”

Kanturk's Liam O'Callaghan was glad he rallied in a golden era. Picture: Martin Walsh.
Kanturk's Liam O'Callaghan was glad he rallied in a golden era. Picture: Martin Walsh.

Within a few months he had secured his first outright win - on the 1994 West Cork Rally. “It was a great occasion, I was hoping it would be the first of many.”

“In 1994, the Escort Cosworth was the car to have really, but it was a big step up in money and I really couldn’t justify it and certainly not as I was a Toyota dealer at the time.”

The Sierra was replaced with an ex-Didier Auriol Toyota Celica ST185 with support from the importer and Toyota albeit with a proviso.

“I could only keep the car for the year and knowing it had to go at the end of the year wasn’t ideal.”

But times and models changed and Toyota were keen for Liam to have the latest ST205 specification car. “Toyota wanted the latest shape from a marketing perspective and they were offering more money in sponsorship, in a way we were forced into getting the Toyota Celica ST 205.”

All the time O’Callaghan was being noticed, as was his distinct style when approaching junctions when he appeared to weave the car considerably.

“Bertie Fisher discussed it with me and he knew exactly why I was doing it and what was wrong. I couldn’t feel the car and what it was likely to do next. It was very much like a racing car, it had very little suspension travel and when you were heading for a junction at high speed and needed to brake you just couldn’t feel you had traction.

“As a driver I needed to feel what was going to happen next. It was my way of dealing with it.”

Whatever the eccentricity, it brought a second West Cork victory, this time in 1996. Aside form the domestic scene, Liam also took part in European events including the Ypres Rally. “They were great, there are moments you look back on and not ones necessarily based on results.”

Although Liam never won a round of the Tarmac championship during his tenure, he came agonisingly close in both the Cork 20 Rally (1996) and the Rally of the Lakes (1997) where he led until he was forced out with a broken suspension in his home event and a puncture across the county bounds in Killarney. But there is no hankering on what could or perhaps should have been. “I know why I didn’t win them so it doesn’t bother me. Yes, we had good cars but all our finances went into acquiring the cars, we didn’t have the wherewithal for the spares, but that wasn’t obvious to the outside.”

From a co-driving perspective, James O’Brien and David Hogan were the principals but the likes of the late Maurice Nagle, Hugh McPhillips and Steve Harris also played great supporting roles.

“Really, I had some of the best co-drivers for sure.”

Towards the end Liam drove VW and Ford Escort Maxi kit cars that were the new mode called Formula 2 that was dominant in the British Rally Championship.

“There was a lot of work in driving them and it appealed to me.”

He certainly enjoyed the distinctive yellow McKinstry prepared Ford Escort Maxi that he campaigned in 1997 culminating with third in the Cork 20 Rally.

“It was probably the best year I would say and the most enjoyable. For the first time I didn’t have to worry about the car or preparation.”

Liam ended his competitive rallying in 2002 with outings in a Group A Subaru 555 on the Circuit of Kerry and a Subaru WRC on the Rally of the Lakes.

“I was awfully lucky really to be competing against drivers such as Stephen Finlay, the late Bertie Fisher and Frank Meagher, Austin MacHale, Andrew Nesbitt and those guys, all at the top of their game and ok, I don’t have the results to back it up but yes, we were competitive. It was a golden era and it’s magical even now. It was an absolute privilege.”

O’Callaghan has no regrets and would have resisted the opportunity to return as it was those drivers that he derived so much satisfaction from competing both with and against. Special times for sure, but cars and even kitchens change as Liam concluded, “I’m glad I did it.”

“I know why I didn’t win them so it doesn’t bother me. We had good cars but all finances went into buying them

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