THE CAMERAS flashed as the lone candle flickered on Ezra Kelly’s first birthday cake on Thursday.
They are the priceless moments of joy and celebration and a family bonded as one. Little Ezra giddily played along with the excitement, as if he knew precisely how to roll with it.
For the Kellys, this week in June has always been a circle in the calendar.
Brothers Manus, Donal and Teighearnàn were annual competitors of their home rally and, since 2015, the third day of the event had been champagne Sunday for Manus
When the lights dimmed on Thursday and the camera stopped clicking, Caolán Kelly’s eye was drawn to another image from 2019.
It was the day before the Donegal International Rally. Bernie Kelly called to visit the newborn Ezra, just two days old, when she took a call from her husband, Manus.
‘I’ll get up and see the wee buck.’
Manus ventured that the chance wouldn’t present itself for another week with the madness of Donegal.
Bernie captured a video and a few images of the night and off they went.
Three days later, Caolán Kelly’s wife, Sheila, was just getting ready to head for a Sunday shop when the Snapchat tone rang.
Leon Kelly, from Thailand, was to the point.
‘Kellz, is Manus off the road?’
So began a living nightmare.
“I went from the best day of my life to the worst day of my life,” Caolán Kelly says now, a year on after the death of his brother.
In tragic circumstances, Manus Kelly was killed rallying on one of his favourite stages, Fanad Head, at around 12.30pm on Sunday, June 23.
A family lost a husband, a father, a brother.
A vibrant business lost its founder.
A political party lost one of its brightest prospects.
A community lost its heartbeat.
But just who was Manus Kelly?
DONALL Barrett visited often.
His cousins Shane and Martin Sweeney lived in Churchill and he ventured regularly from Milford to play.
He got to know Manus Kelly in those innocent days and an unbreakable bond was struck.
“Manus was Manus from a young age,” Barrett says now.
“He was an unbelievably personable man who had time for everybody. He was infectious. I spoke to Manus at least once, if not twice a day. I always came off the phone smiling.
“We had so much in common anyway. He started to go out with Bernie and I was at school with her. I used to work in Colm Friel’s and Donal senior bought cars in there.
“Later, Manus and I were both in London at the same time; we played football together; drank together; messed about together.”
POLITICS was, to those beyond his own circle, a little-known love of Manus Kelly.
Until, that was, last spring when he was confirmed as a candidate for the 2019 local elections.
James Pat McDaid formally stepped down 10 days before a selection convention and Fianna Fáil needed a strong candidate.
Kelly ticked the boxes and when the boxes were opened, 906 first preference votes set him on the way to election into a set he would never get a chance to fill.
“He was the ordinary man who came good no matter what he done,” says Councillor Ciaran Brogan, the Fianna Fáil party whip on Donegal County Council.
“Manus had an awful lot of politics in his blood and he enjoyed it. He was a fabulous people person and politics is about people of course.
“I have no doubt that Manus would have been an excellent politician. I sat down and discussed it at length many many times.
“We talked about his time management and I gave him every assurance that he could do it because I knew he could do it. He would have been a very strong voice for his people. He would have been a great asset for the Fianna Fáil party.
“Manus would have been very much involved in my campaigns going back as far as 2009. He was very active in canvassing and he was involved with James Pat in 2014.
“When he went into a room, any room, he lit it up. When Manus went to a door, the door was opened waiting for him as opposed to knocking and waiting for an answer. He was so affectionate. ‘What’s the craic?’ and ‘How are yiz?’
“He had a special way with him. He could get a strong team around him. Manus could get strong, loyal people and some of the individuals he had were involved in every facet of his life. That spoke volumes for Manus Kelly.
“He was more professional than most people realise. He made sure he had all the right ingredients in place to do what it would take.
“He had a huge determination. Some people are gifted and special in many things and Manus was one of them.”
MANUS Kelly was from Glenswilly. He never let that not be known.
Staunchly proud of the Glen, he carried home with him everywhere he went.
Johnny McGinley was a couple of years younger than Manus but, numbers being low, found himself on the same Glenswilly underage team.
“We had a very good minor team and won a Division 2 title,” McGinley remembers.
“I’d have known him from that. Manus was a very clever footballer. He had a talent. He was up with the Donegal minors at the time.
“He was one of those players you just loved working with. He didn’t do second place. It was first or nothing. Manus Kelly was a natural winner. He was so joyful to work with.
“He was such a proud Glenswilly man. He was torn with sport at a time between rallying and football.
“Any time he had free time he was out helping at the club. Even those times the Glen won the Senior Championships, you could see the emotion on his face.
“He was as emotional as the rest of us. He was just a part of what we were doing. He was just built to win.”
KELLY and Barrett were the kings of this tarmac for four years.
A life’s dream was achieved in 2015 when they won the national rally in a Mark II Escort.
A new world opened when they won the International Rally in 2016. Retention proved a point in 2017 and legendary status was conferred beyond doubt when they sealed the three-in-a-row in 2018, in the S12 B Impreza.
“To be a rally driver from Donegal and win it once was something else, but to achieve it three times in the international after winning the national was just brilliant,” Brogan says.
“He was the local man come good. An ordinary fella from Glenswilly who followed and fulfilled a dream.
“Rallying is one sport that is unequalled. All those fellas would, going into the last, crucial stage, give another man a drive shaft or a spare wheel before competing against them. Everyone in the rallying community in Donegal felt like they had won the rally when Manus achieved. That’s how close the community is.”
Caolán Kelly never had much luck with cars.
“I had a serious bad record with cars breaking down and had the cretter tortured,” he says.
“I had a turbo go in a Laguna at the bottom of the Glenshane one day. Manus happened to have a van in a garage down at the Glenshane getting fixed. I ended up coming down the road in the van with a bit of blue twine holding it closed.”
A footballer of note and a multiple senior championship winner with Glenswilly, Caolán had spent some time on the books at Finn Harps.
His game was different, but the sportsman in him recognised the stunning achievements of his brother.
“You be very single-minded only looking at your own sport at times or your own life,” he says, “but what he achieved in rallying was unheard of.
“The mental strength and toughness. David McGinley did an awful lot of great work on that. He worked so hard on his fitness.
“He developed a natural talent. He relied on that natural talent until around 2015. He realised then that if he got the body right and the psychology right, he could go places.
“He was talking away about hydration, how you can cramp up in a rally car. All of that opened up my eyes about what was involved.”
Johnny McGinley touches on the same point when he says: “We didn’t probably appreciate what Manus was in regards to rallying. It wasn’t our sport. Sadly it’s only now we can reflect, look back and see what he really did achieve.
“We look at what Michael (Murphy), Neil (Gallagher) and ‘Copper’ (Gary McFadden) did in 2012 winning an All-Ireland.
“Manus would be right up there with those boys with what he achieved.”
DONALL Barrett always knew Kelly’s talents were above what they were showing to the eyes of others.
Their partnership began with a shared drive event in Agadowey in a yellow Corolla. Around that time, Barrett – with driving notions himself – purchased an Evo, but the pair quickly realised their potential with Barrett on notes and Kelly on controls.
“We did the Galway International and we came second,” Barrett recalls.
“Brian Brogan actually won that event. Manus was building the Escort, I sold the Evo and that was that.
“Manus was very competitive, even then. He had an unbelievable talent. He never prepared himself as well as his talents deserved to be prepared. Once he started preparing himself from 2015 on the results spoke for themselves.
“All we ever wanted to do was to win the national and we did that in 2015. “We had soldiered for so long.
“The black Escort that was sold and we always hired a car for Donegal. With no preparation, Manus was always unbelievably competitive.
“Life is all about taking on challenges. He was never scared to do that in any facet of his life.
“He used to stay with me in Dublin a good bit and said at one stage: ‘Jesus it would be good to get into a world car’.
“We talked about getting a budget together and our sponsors came on board.”
BARRETT can hear the words yet, as if Kelly is in the seat beside waiting on the countdown.
The 2016 Donegal International Rally was only the second time for Kelly and Barrett to compete in the Melvyn Evans-hired Impreza.
They had won their debut event in the car in Carlow.
They’d competed well over the weekend in Donegal, but life changed across 19km of Fanad Head in 2016.
Keith Cronin, an experienced, accomplished WRC driver, led by 9.3 seconds heading for Fanad. As Kelly and Barrett sailed over the Harry Blaney Bridge, crucially with slick tyres on the car,
they could feel history in sight.
At Cashel Glebe, Kelly buckled closed the helmet.
‘We’re going for gold here, Barrett’.
When the sums were totted, Kelly and Barrett had just 0.5 seconds to spare. They won. By half-a-second. Inches.
It was regarded as the best ever finish to the Donegal International Rally.
Just 30 hours beforehand, the pair sat cursing in a Garrygort field, fearing their chances of glory had gone.
“Manus didn’t get the credit he deserved in 2016,” Barrett says now.
“I was nervous going to Fanad that day.
“The notebook was wet, I turned over two pages instead of one. We nearly lost it. There were a few expletives.
“I went back to Manus and I said: ‘I think we’ve won by half-a-second.’
“We were in the middle of nowhere in Fanad. Manus, very calmly, said to me: ‘Go you back up there Donie and don’t come back ’til its aye or naw!’
“To go into the field and fight back like that against a driver like Keith Cronin was unbelievable.
“Deep down, we felt that perhaps people saw it as a fortuitous win. We wanted to come back and prove ourselves.”
THE same year, Kelly was the joint manager of the Glenswilly third team.
They reached the Senior C final against Naomh Conaill in October and a whirlwind year for Kelly ended with Championship glory.
“He hugged me after that game and it was like a vice,” McGinley, who scored 1-2 in the game, says.
“He hugged me so hard. You don’t get them from too many people and it’s something that I’ll always remember.
“He was over the moon. I thought at the time: ‘All you’ve achieved in life, what’s this about?’ But that showed what he was about.
“That game meant so, so much to him. People might look and say it was ‘only’ Senior C, but that was the mentality of him.
“It didn’t matter what it was, even if he only went go-karting it would be the same. He was so passionate.
“You got the winning mentality when he was coaching us. We were very privileged to have Manus and Sean Bonner, they worked well together.
“We had a meeting that morning of the Senior C final. We met in the clubhouse before we went to O’Donnell Park. When Manus spoke, he had the whole place just hanging off his word.
“The winning mentality that Manus had just thundered through us that day. Manus was such a winner. He wasn’t going out to participate; he was out to be first. That was the character he was and that’s how and why he achieved so much in life.”
FAMILY was Manus Kelly’s number one.
He adored Bernie and doted on their five children – Annie, Mandy, Charlie, Conan and Bella. He used to joke with Bernie about Conan and Bella, who were born ten-and-a-half months apart in 2016, who were ‘161’ and ‘162’.
The strong family unit was carved by parents Donal and Jackie.
His brothers, Donal, Caolán, Teighearnàn and Leon, and sisters Bridgin, Kelda, Ciara and Shannah share a unique bond.
Even the front grill of his car bore a familiar name; ‘Mandy’ was in honour of his late grandfather whom he himself had looked up to.
“He was very proud of ‘Mandy’ from his grandfather and he wore that name as a badge. He always wanted to be known as ‘Mandy’,” Brogan noted.
The inspiration came from an early age.
“Manus led the way and he instilled a real belief in us,” Caolán says.
“When he put his mind and head to something, he just went and achieved it. That filtered down to us.
“Manus would have given you the shirt off his back. That was just the kind of him.
“We tortured him. If you had any bother, you didn’t want to put it onto the aul pair. Manus had a way of sorting bother without it seeming like a bother to him.
“We just idolised him to be honest.”
Manus studied nursing in London and for Donal’s 16th birthday he took two his siblings, Donal and Caolán to the big smoke.
“He took us down to Leicester Square and into the arcades all day,” Caolán recalls.
“The man didn’t have 20 pence to rub and he paid for everything.
“PJ Gallagher was there at the time too, we went to PJ’s flat that night and he had a cake and all ready for Donal. Manus was leaving us to the airport the next day, but we slept in and missed the flight.
“Manus was bulling. I was afraid to speak and Donal burst out laughing.
“I’ll never forget Manus just eating him: ‘What the fuck are you laughing at, sir?’
“Donal said back to him: ‘When I was blowing the candles out on that cake, I wished for one more day in London’.
“The whole car just burst out laughing and Manus took us back down to Leicester Square. For us from Glenswilly, to get into the middle of London like that was just unreal.”
THE day began like most other rally Sundays.
The Kelly house was a hive of activity and the crew was readying for another busy day.
Manus carried Gartan Clay with him at all times.
As fate would have it, Manus’s wallet wasn’t on his person when he set off from Parc Ferme on June 23, 2019 for day three of the Donegal International Rally.
There were to be six special stages on the Sunday, two loops each of three stages.
Midway through Fanad, the worry began.
Bernie Kelly has told previously how she knew Manus was to be the sixth car to come around. Five passed, then a pause. More cars came around and there was no sign of the Hyundai i20 R5 Kelly and Barrett were in.
The Kellys, accompanied by the McElwaine brothers from Fanad and with the assistance of Garda Inspector Michael Harrison, were able to get to the scene in a matter of moments.
The gravity of the situation was as clear as the waters of Shanagh Lake just below them in the near distance.
Leon Kelly’s Snapchat message raised the alarm bells for Caolán.
It was a simple question: ‘Kellz, is Manus off the road?’
“Manus has had offs in the past and at that moment I wasn’t overly concerned,” Caolán says.
“My biggest worry was ‘ah shite, he’s out of contention and he mightn’t finish’.
“We all knew by Saturday night he wasn’t going to win, but finishing in the new car would have been nice.
“I hadn’t heard a thing. I started ringing around and couldn’t get anyone.”
He called his sister, Kelda, who was on her way to the scene.
‘It’s not good, Caolan.’
He says: “If any of the rest had said it wasn’t good….When Kelda said that, my heart sank.”
“I got a phone call from Shannagh and she couldn’t speak. Teighearnàn pulled the phone off her and….that was the news.”
Ciaran Brogan was on his way to the Port Lake stage when the call came from his brother, Brian, the Chairman of the Donegal Motor Club.
“I knew by his tone that it wasn’t good,” he says.
“I turned the car and headed back for Letterkenny. One of the hardest things I had to do was tell my own two wains.
“It was one of those times you’ll always remember where you were when you lifted the phone and what was said. It took so much out of so many people.
“Everyone just downed the tools. There was a dark cloud over the town, over the county. People just came from the whole world of motorsport.”
DONALL Barrett had been in many scrapes with his comrade before.
By comparison, this one hadn’t been on the upper end of the scale.
And, yet, by cruel fate it was the one that claimed the life of the man who had become the ‘King of the Hills’.
“We were in a lot worse accidents,” says Barrett, who broke a shoulder in the accident.
“It was an absolute freak that he died in that accident. It was a complete freak.
“If either of us thought we’d die in a rally car, neither of us would have got in there. You always think about breaking a leg or hurting yourself, but not that.
“It just happened and…It’s a bit of a blur from then on…”
FOR the next few days, four-hour queues formed at the Kelly family home.
Clubs and communities literally and metaphorically rallied around in support of the bereaved family.
“It was bigger than some State funerals,” Brogan says.
“I don’t think anyone in Donegal saw anything like that before. It was unbelievable. We saw everything that was good from everybody for those few days.”
Once more, the S12B Subaru roared through Glenswilly. This time, even its revs seemed sombre as Declan Boyle, one of Manus’s greatest friends and fellow competitor, drove through the foothills of a numbed community, leading the cortege.
Outside St Columba’s Church, the four Kelly brothers carried Manus one last time through the Donegal International Rally winner’s arch.
Fr Paddy Dunne, a family friend who had, along with Fanad-based priest Fr Michael Sweeney, administered the Last Rites, was chief celebrant at Manus’s funeral Mass in St Columba’s Church, Glenswilly.
His voice quivered as he recalled his own friendship with Manus and the indelible impact left by the 41-year-old.
The thousands who had gathered to pay a final farewell had raised a suggestion of moving the Funeral Mass to St Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny.
“That was never going to happen,” Fr Dunne told mourners. “This was his chapel. This is the land that he was so proud of and that is why we are here. We weren’t going anywhere else.”
It was just how Manus would have wanted.
“It had a huge affect on the whole community, a massive affect on motorsport and on the many people who met him,” Brogan says.
“He achieved more in a young life than people would achieve in several life times.
“Every time I see his company sign, TFS Tailored Facility Solutions, I always think on how that was ‘Mandy’. He always brought a positive contribution to every situation, no matter how big or small, with a view to getting a solution. He would have brought that to Donegal County Council.”
Johnny McGinley stood with others in a broken community 52 weeks ago and wondered why.
“He is so badly missed out here,” he says.
“We were all heartbroken. We still are. There isn’t a day goes by where I don’t think about Manus in some way.
“He was such a good family man. The Kellys are such a tight family unit.
“The Manus I remember never changed. Put aside the rallying, the football, the politics, the everything. He was the same Manus that I always remembered.
“He was just a loving, caring fella. He was the same man and the same person and that tells you a lot about him.
“If you were in a bar and got into a slagging match and stuff was flying over and back, you didn’t pick on Manus Kelly. He could have left you as red-faced as anyone. By God he’d have got you and tore you to shreds.”
The sheer scale of the outpouring of emotions appeared overwhelming. Donall Barrett was one who wasn’t in the least bit surprised.
“Manus didn’t realise how popular he was,” he says.
“He was very calm in the car. He was a very, very good driver. You need to be good friends with someone when you’re going to make pace notes. It’s a very boring, monotonous job, but we actually enjoyed that part of it. We had a great friendship.
“My fondest memories of Manus are outside the car. Motorsport was great, but the friendship and the bond that we had means more than that.”
EZRA Kelly only met his uncle Manus once – when he was just two days old.
Yet, he’ll grow up able to look back on a treasure trove of memories.
“He was one of those people who didn’t want attention, but the attention just seemed to follow him,” Caolán says.
“He could come into a room and the crowd ended up gathering around him. It was surreal to see that happen. He just had that charisma. No matter where we went, Manus was just a character.
“We knew what he was like. We knew how charismatic and funny he was; how great a family man he was. We didn’t realise how much other people saw that.
“We loved him.”Tags: