Sunday 21 July 2019

Birrane kept his foot on the throttle all the way to chequered flag

Irish motorsport giant leaves a massive legacy of achievement in all aspects of his life

Martin Birrane (centre) with david Kennedy (left) and Russell Murphy
Martin Birrane (centre) with david Kennedy (left) and Russell Murphy

David Kennedy

When Martin Birrane suddenly passed away last weekend, his family, friends and the motorsport community were united in grief. The only vestige of salvation is he did not suffer.

Up to the 11th hour it was business as usual in a typical Martin schedule that was packed to the rafters. He was visiting Ireland for an event at his beloved Mondello Park. He was overseeing plans for the circuit's 50th Anniversary scheduled for August 18/19, which would have coincided with his 83rd birthday - this will now be a tribute weekend in his memory. He was attending a political lunch. Downtime didn't exist in his vocabulary. We used to joke his epitaph would be 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office'. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth; Martin treasured time with his family and they with him.

The man had an invincibility about him. Dying simply wasn't on his radar, he was too busy for that. Ironically, he cheated death many times. He broke his back in a parachute jump. He was run over in a pit lane and hospitalised. He had an accident at Le Mans that should have killed him. Most people would have got the message that the grim reaper was after them. But not Martin. He always got back in the saddle.

Much has been written about 'Martin the businessman' and how he left Ballina, Co Mayo as a teenager with a fiver and a plastic bag and built up a substantial property empire in the UK. But that is a nod to just one aspect of the man.

Martin began his racing career in 1967 in a Ford Anglia, followed by British Touring Cars, Formula 5000, Sportscars and finally historic cars, a category he raced until well into his seventieth year. Add ten years of competing at Le Mans, an Irish land speed record in 1990 and you get the picture of a man who would have turned professional if he wasn't so preoccupied with the property empire he was building in a parallel world.

He loved Le Mans with a passion. In some ways it mirrored aspects of his own personality. Endurance, professionalism, perseverance, risk, excitement and, above all, discipline. Unlike business though, it didn't make money, it leaked it, but he was quite happy with the quid pro quo, although too many quids were spent on it than he cared to count.

We met over 40 years ago in what was then a small community of Irish racing drivers based in the UK. We first raced together in a world championship sportscar race at Brands Hatch in 1982. The following year he kindly invited me to share a drive in his Ford C100 car at Le Mans.

His generosity opened up a whole new career for me and I was offered a contract to race for Mazdaspeed. It was a collaboration that ultimately culminated in them winning Le Mans outright, the only Japanese team to do so in the circuit's history. Martin also went on to great success when he won his class in a BMW M1 in 1985.

'Martin the family man' on the other hand was the marshmallow we knew that lurked behind his strict business facade. He was devoted to his wife Susan and their children, Lis, James, Bridget and Amanda and he cherished his five grandchildren who he was lucky enough to see blossom into adults.

The family had their share of triumph and tragedy. The good times were the weddings, anniversaries and parties which were inevitably held in a marquee at home, or in one of London's most iconic buildings, the company headquarters the 'Hop Exchange'. There was always an intimacy about those gatherings, a window to a relaxed Martin, the proud patriarch of the family.

'Martin the Philanthropist' supported causes close to his heart, especially St Muredach's school in Ballina. He held education in high esteem and never forgot his former school provided the gateway to his success.

He and Susan were patrons of the arts too. They held a fundraiser at the Hop Exchange in collaboration with the director Sam Wanamaker, who was behind an initiative to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe theatre which was a stone's throw from the Hop Exchange. It helped raise much-needed finance and the Globe reopened in 1997.

Indeed his sudden passing brought to mind Shakespeare's Sonnet no 18: 'And summer's lease hath all too short a date'. And yet it seemed indulgent to wallow when you consider how eclectic and interesting his life was; as a crooner, butler, actor, property developer, racing driver and family man. Martin's eternal summer will never fade because he embodied the sonnet's final lines:

'So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee'

When Martin passed away last Saturday an unshakeable sadness filled the air that shows no sign of abating. Apart from anything else the timing was all wrong. His beloved Le Mans was on this month. The invitations had been sent out for his and Susan's Diamond wedding anniversary celebrations in July. The 60th anniversary of Lola cars at the Goodwood Festival of Speed was coming up. Mondello's 50th anniversary was in August. The publication of a book on Mondello was imminent. Martin and Susan had plans to spend more time in Ireland and had purchased a house in Dublin. Martin lived as he thought, with the mindset and energy of someone half his age.

Irish motorsport in general and Mondello Park in particular are indebted to him. Thank you my friend, you were generous and graceful to a fault. We may never forgive you for giving us no prior notice of your departure. We salute you; the family man, friend, gentleman, businessman and especially in the world of motorsport, the racing driver. You kept your foot on the throttle of life all the way to the chequered flag, like the winner we always knew you were.

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