Manus was all that is good about Irish rallying. A gentleman, whose masterful driving was only topped by his own amazing personality.
Three-in-a-row. They were special years, the finest years the Donegal Rally has had in the last decade. He conquered the stages. He captured the fans.
A driver the locals could relate to. Humility, care and a bit of craic. He was impossible not to like.
I barely knew Manus, in fact he probably didn’t know me. I first approached him in February during one of Galway’s busy services. Tasked with finding out his plans for 2019, I was anxious of pestering a man who had much bigger fish to fry that day. As I approached Manus’s new car, the gentle giant turned my worries into smiles and I soon forgot my initial concerns.
Manus had mastered the World Rally Car, he could have rested on his laurels, but he was more than up for the next challenge. Right-hand-drive was on the table, but no, he was going to go the whole way.
“We’ll give it a go to see how we get on.”
New car, new side of the cockpit, new rallies. Manus wanted to race the guys on a level playing field. He was under no illusions of it being easy, he knew the challenges, but he faced them like a champion.
Donegal’s friday evening Parc Ferme was a buzz of excitement. WRCs and R5s littered between a perfect selection of Ireland’s best rally drivers. I was walking through the maze of cars when I noticed Manus calmly leaning at the door of his Hyundai i20.
My cautious “how are you getting on” was met by another incredibly considerate explanation of the day’s events. Before I left Manus I wished him all the best expecting a quick goodbye from the 3-time rally-winner. No that wasn’t Manus, a wholehearted thank you and an “I appreciate that” was finished with a warm handshake.
Irish rallying has gentlemen, it also has a multitude of fast drivers, it has entertainers and it has plenty of all-round decent people. But none of them were Manus, he was at a different level. The stories shared are testament to a man who put others in front of himself. A rally driver of his calibre had every chance to take advantage of the situation. Manus did the opposite.
My final words with Manus were exchanged on Saturday. Taking his lunch with his overalls wrapped around his waist, he started, “I hope you’re not videoing this!” He instantly made you feel at ease.
As he explained his Donegal heroes and his journey from Twincam to R5 you could tell he was proud. Proud of his journey. He had earned it and along with his team he had conquered his rally. Donegal.
Manus was more than a rally champion. Manus was the people’s champion. His caring nature didn’t go unnoticed. His smile, his thumbs up, it all added to the ease of being in his presence.
Taken too soon, the fond memories will bring many a heartache. All we can do is to learn from his life, his actions and his championing character.
Irish rallying has lost a great driver, a great ambassador but he will always remain a hero in each of our hearts. Manus Kelly represented everything good about Irish rallying.
As I reflected on my memories of Manus my heart went out to his wife, children, family and close friends. My prayers are with you all and of course for the recovery of Manus’s close friend and co-driver Donall Barrett.