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How William drove into the Irish history books

Every morning, William Loughnane steps behind the wheel of his Toyota Yaris, turns on his favourite radio station, Spin South West, and drives the short distance from his home in Clooney-Quin to his workplace in Ennis, Co Clare.

Like most 26-year-olds, William enjoys the freedom his car affords him and he takes considerable pride in its upkeep. But this careful driver is not your typical motorist: William has Down syndrome. Last month, the Clare man became the first person with the condition in Ireland to pass his driving test.

His achievement was widely acclaimed by disability groups, but William took it all in his stride.

"I like driving," he says, smiling. "I felt no pressure doing the test. The only pressure I had to worry about is the pressure of the tyres." Remarkably, he only took up driving last November.

Any passenger will attest to his motoring skills. Go for a spin with William around the back roads of Spancil Hill -- yes, it's the very place made famous in song -- and you'll find a young man completely at ease in the driver's seat. He negotiates the narrow, twisty lanes with great assurance, and is unflappable when impatient drivers overtake him on dangerous bends.

"They can pass me out if they want to," he says. "I don't feel I need to go any faster."

His father Liam and mother Rose are, understandably, very proud of William's latest achievement but it's by no means the first time their son has captured the headlines.

He represented Ireland in the Special Olympics of 2003 and 2007, and returned home from the latter, in Shanghai, with six gold medals. He's a gifted gymnast, and photos of him in competition hang proudly in the kitchen of the family home.

"We have never treated William differently to his two brothers, Ger and Colm, because we don't consider him to be different," Liam, an OPW ranger, says. "Yes, he has Down syndrome, but he lives as normal a life as possible with us. And, to be honest, when people meet him they forget about the Down syndrome after a while."

William works in the Centra on Gort Road. He stacks shelves, deals with recycling and does odd jobs. He enjoys the banter with his fellow staff and occasionally socialises with them.

His parents are anxious to point out the generosity of shop manager Barry Lynch, who took William on three years ago.

"A lot of people are out of work in Ireland right now," Rose says, "so it's great that William has a job. And he's treated the same as anyone else there. If he makes a mistake, he's told about it.

"People like Barry Lynch have helped make William's life as normal as possible," Liam says.

"Another is Sr Eileen from St Clare's school in Ennis. She believed that William had athletic abilities and without her he probably wouldn't have gone on to compete at the Olympics," he adds.

Almost on cue, William goes to another room to retrieve a photo album from the Shanghai Olympics and proudly points out photos of him and his family with celebrities like Colin Farrell.

"I loved going to China," he says, "because I love going on holidays. I'd love to go to Turkey this year."

"We look on William as a blessing," Liam says. "You can rely on him for anything. If you ask him to pick you up at 1.30, he'll be there on the dot. The other lads [his brothers] wouldn't be as reliable."

Rose adds: "There's never a dull moment with him and he's always so cheerful and funny." Spend even a short time in William's company and it's easy to see what his mother means. He's unfailingly charming and has a gift for delivering one-liners to make your sides split.

Several times in our conversation he comes out with phrases that makes Rose cry with laughter, not least when talking about a recent visit to the pub with his father. Liam was the designated driver and after William had finished his pint, his father suggested they go home. William was having none of it, and ordered another Budweiser.

"A bird never flew with one wing," he says, repeating the very words that came into his head that night.