GOODBYE TO A TRUE HERO; ROBERT DUNLOP: 1960-2008.
MOTORCYCLING mourned one of its most beloved sons yesterday when it said a sad farewell to race legend Robert Dunlop.
More than 5,000 fans joined family and friends for an emotionally-charged service for the champion rider who was killed on Thursday night.
The 47-year-old died in a practice race for the North West 200 in Portrush, Co Antrim. He was laid to rest amid colourful scenes as swathes of bikers gathered in tribute to a sportsman who for many, embodied the very spirit of road racing.
Inside Garryduff Presbyterian Church near Ballymoney, Co Antrim, First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were among the 230 mourners who were told the "true hero" was a cut above some celebrity sports stars as epitomised by Premiership footballers.
Barry Symmonds of Honda UK, the company which put him on its championship-winning JRS Norton, hailed Robert as "the kind of hero who overcame great pain and tragedy to still raise a family".
He said: "It is time we honoured our heroes, and by heroes I mean people like the Roberts and the Joeys of this world and not the overpaid celebrity heroes in Hello! and OK! magazines.
"I'm not talking about the footballers who spit and swear and who start fights on planes and in bars.
"I am talking about real heroes, the likes of Robert.
"These are the real heroes. Let us honour our true heroes and build a future fit for them."
Thousands more mourners surrounded the perimeter wall of the grey pebbledashed country church and listened to emotional tributes relayed by two banks of three loudspeakers.
They heard Mr Symmonds tell how Robert and the entire motor racing fraternity were different from today's politically-correct world.
He told the congregation that Robert would have had no time for a sad and solemn service because he saw the world through different eyes.
He said: "Robert was one of those freethinking men, like all of us in the motorcycling fraternity, who believed that PC should be left to the world of personal computers and that human rights should not apply to a man who has just burgled your house."
Robert's mechanic Liam Beckett described the racer as a "5ft 2ins giant" before recalling how the man he called "the Mighty Micro" was most happy winning a cup that didn't already have his late brother Joey's name on it and wearing a suit from China which described him as "medium" sized.
In a poignant recital of a poem he had penned just hours before the funeral, Liam raised his head to the heavens and said: "If you could just see how many had come to say goodbye you would also see how it was OK to cry."
Chaplin of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland Rev John Kirkpatrick recalled not the rider, "but the man that he was - the husband, the father, the son and the brother."
He said: "Beneath that determination was a man of depth and sincerity - clever and skillful.
"He believed that you should do something with your life and he was always at something.
"We live in a world where few people finish what they start, not all persevere in adversity or push themselves to their potential and this makes those such as Robert stand out from the crowd.
"Yesterday when William and Michael set out to race which became a win I don't believe anyone who witnessed it has experienced the like of the emotion, relief and admiration."
Rev Kirkpatrick explained how, in his eyes, Robert had spent the final years of his life more as a brother than a father to the pair.
Robert's third son Daniel, a soldier who travelled back from Afghanistan to bury his father, was also praised by the minister who said the hero racer was immensely proud of all three of his sons.
Addressing the boys he said: "I can imagine him telling you to look out for each other and look after your mother."
Garryduff minister the Rev John Gilkinson thanked Robert's wife Louise for letting "so many people share in this day today".
He spoke with deep relevance about time and how it defined Robert life.
He said: "We constantly hear how time is so important, how time quickly passes and how time is precious.
"For Robert time was important. Race times, lap times, family time, time for friends, he was a man who made time for people.
"He had time for charity work, time to encourage others and time to help out yet his tragic death was so untimely.
"There is time for everything, a time for mourning and a time to weep and today is our time for doing that.
Today is a time to become aware of God. We are reminded not only is there a time for everything, but we are reminded that there is a last time for everything.
"We are here to say our last goodbyes, to pay our last respects. There is a last lap on the race track and a last time for all of us.
"One of the greatest follies of life is to say there is plenty of time. The fact is life is brief and life is uncertain.
"It should be that the business of every day is to prepare for our last."
After the service Robert was laid to rest in the adjoining graveyard alongside his world champion brother Joey who was killed while racing in Estonia in 2000.
'It is time we honoured our heroes.. like the Roberts and the Joeys of this world' - BARRY SYMMONDS YESTERDAY
PRIDE & JOY Robert's sons, from left, Michael, William and Daniel; TEARS Pain etched on face of mum May Dunlop; THE FINAL JOURNEY Robert's sisters Helen, Margaret, Virginia & Linda help carry coffin yesterday; HEARTACHE Robert's distraught sisters comfort each other at service; CONDOLENCES Rev Ian Paisley; RESPECTS Martin McGuinness; SOLEMN Sons carry coffin into Garryduff Presbyterian Church near Ballymoney; GIANT AMONG MEN Robert