Remembering Manus Kelly, Donegal’s lost rally star

We remember three-time Rally Donegal winner Manus Kelly a year on from his tragic death

Manus Kelly, Donegal Rally 2018, Subaru Impreza S12B WRC 2007

The jewel that shines brightest in the crown of Irish motorsport is not running this week. COVID-19 made sure of that. Even if the Donegal Rally was going ahead you sense the conversation would not be geared around the people there, competing, but rather the absence of one particular individual.

The person in question is Manus Kelly. This coming Tuesday will mark a year since his passing. The reality of what unfolded during that fateful first run over Sunday lunchtime’s Fanad Head special stage is still hard to comprehend.

At the time Kelly was sixth overall in a left-hand-drive Hyundai i20 R5. His confidence was rising as the contest moved on to roads that he knew well in a car that was now much more to his liking.

Standing in parc fermé with a broad smile etched across his face before the final day was about to get underway, he was brimming with positivity.

“I’m looking forward to giving it a push today – it is going to be a massive day,” said Kelly.

It was that optimism and can-do attitude that endeared him to so many people. No matter what the situation, he always had time for a chat and a laugh.

I recall speaking to him at the Easter Stages Rally two months earlier. The meeting had thrown up all sorts of challenges, including a late misfire, but Manus refused to accept defeat having made the step across from old World Rally Cars to R5 machinery for 2019.

Manus Kelly, 2019 Galway Rally, Hyundai i20 R5

Kelly's first outing in an R5 car was on last year's Galway International Rally

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport

“I make no bones about it when I say I am serving my apprenticeship in R5,” he said. “The R5 class has had its ups and downs so far.”

At Donegal he was very much on the ascendancy before his car got out of shape and left the road.

Tragedies in rallying are thankfully few and far between in the modern era. But when they occur, journalists have a duty of care and responsibility to treat such events with sensitivity.

“The worst possible conclusion to what had been the best Donegal International Rally in recent memory,” was how I reported it. Everything up until the crash had been on point: the crowds, the weather, the cars and the craic.

Questions continue to be asked about what exactly happened and these facts will only become clear once An Garda Síochána (Irish police) has completed its investigation and a firm date is set for an inquest.

What is known is the indelible mark Kelly has left on Irish rallying.

Kelly was a three-time winner of the international section of the Donegal Rally, his local round of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. Only Cahal Curley and Billy Coleman have managed the same feat.

The first of Kelly’s wins came back in 2016 in a Melvyn Evans-prepared Subaru Impreza S12B World Rally Car. The same car would carry him and long-time friend Donall Barrett to success in 2017 and again in 2018.

Manus Kelly

Photo: Kevin Glendinning

The sense of achievement and pride was clear for everyone to see as they drove over the finish ramp each time in Letterkenny. Why? Many Donegal crews dream of spraying the champagne in front of their home supporters but by struggling to combine speed with longevity, few actually realise it.

Manus’ talents were not confined to the inside of a car, however. He was an immensely successful businessman who worked tirelessly throughout the Glenswilly area where he lived. His likeability was demonstrated when he was elected onto Donegal County Council at the first time of asking.

Hundreds of people attended his funeral with many more lining the route to his final resting place in Conwal cemetery. In his homily, Father Paddy Dunne summed up the moment perfectly: “It was something he would have been so proud of. He touched so many people’s hearts.” Amen to that.