Damien Gallagher with his native Glenswilly in the background, pictured with his navigator, Mac Walsh, with the Den Motorsport Mk2 Donegal National award. Photo: Brian McDaid.
Damien Gallagher could have been forgiven for thinking the moment had passed him by. After the guts of a quarter of a century knocking at the door, he finally managed to push it in and walk right through to the winners’ enclosure that awaits the national champion in the Joule Donegal International Rally.
By his side was Mac Walsh, his tried and trusted wingman, who has been with him for so many escapades, hairy and otherwise.
The years hitherto are layered with tales of many sorts, from the unexpected to the hard luck, interwoven with the just not meant to be.
The trophy cabinet in the Gallagher household was far from empty. Yet the silverware and glassware handed out for the numerous second and third places in Donegal national championships and elsewhere were, in retrospect perhaps, tangible reminders of a mission never really accomplished.
When Damien called a meeting in his sitting room on one of the long, cold nights back in January, he was determined to build the best team he could around him, surround himself with can-do, will-do people and give himself the best chance possible come the third weekend in June of landing the ultimate prize.
He picked wisely, chose good counsel and did the business, thanks to a loyal and committed support crew of whom he thinks so much.
It's exactly 24 hours since Damien Gallagher and his co-driver, Mac Walsh, were officially declared Donegal Rally national champions for 2017 on Fanad Head. As he sits on the stone wall at the side of the Tir na nÓg Bar at Ballymacool, where the now famous after-party is getting into gear, his mind rewinds to the afternoon before. The feeling of being champion at last among his own is still close to overwhelming for the Glenswilly native as he takes a moment.
Pride, happiness, relief, excitement and simple joy all combine as he wells up with real tears of joy. Sunday, June 19th, 2017 will be forever etched in the memory bank. Recollections of near misses of past glories roll off the tongue.
“We went very close back in 2006,” Damien says.
“I was just chatting to Phil Collins about it because that's who we had the battle with. We were within eight seconds on the Friday evening and on the Saturday evening, and I threw it all away myself on the Sunday morning. I spun on High Glen and lost a heap of time,” he recalls.
He learned a lot in the intervening 11 years. Older for certain. Smarter for sure.
“I gained a lot of experience since then,” he adds.
“And to be honest, I think all that experience stood me in good stead at the weekend. I reckoned if I was in the same position this time around, I wasn't going to fold. I had my head in gear even before the rally. It left me in a far better position when I needed it and had to go for it."
Going for it is something Damien Gallagher has always done. Full on. Flat. No slack. No what ifs. No regrets.
After the Harvest Rally last year, when he went close again to taking the honours, he had a good feeling about things. And a different feeling about things.
“I rang Mac and gave him a bit of a rundown about what was happening before the meeting. I told the lads I thought there was a good chance we could win the national event in Donegal this year, but that there were things I had to put in place first. The first thing I did was get in touch with Aoife McGill through Shane Lafferty. I knew I had to get fitter because I just wasn't fit enough - mentally or body-wise.”
He shed well over a stone and feels much better for it.
“I’m in top form and it really kicked in yesterday.”
He told Aoife what his plans were. She didn't know a lot about motorsport, but understood clearly what Damien wanted, and where he wanted to be.
“Andrew Harvey then got me in touch with John Hession. Basically, he’s a sport psychologist. I told him what I wanted to do. I know now that I had the talent in me, although I thought it was gone for a while. I told John what I could do and what I did. I wanted to see if I could channel all that into what I wanted to do. So I had a couple of sessions with him. And it’s so simple when it’s put to you the right way.”
Unlike in previous years, when he headed out from the ramp with the pockets full of hope, it was a confident Damien Gallagher that went to the start line on Friday afternoon. He had a pep in his step and no want of belief inside his rally boots.
“We went to Monaghan and put a flag up to the establishment, as the man would say, to let them know we are back again. Myself and Mac decided we'd give it a real good recce. We did a lot of intricate work on it to be sure that when the time came it would be there to rely on. We went into the first stage and bang - we were quickest by seven seconds. That just left a marker for everybody.”
Damien and Mac were never out of the top two places all weekend.
“Young Kevin Eves from Pettigo put up some battle, in fairness to him. I was chatting to him today and I told him there was a win coming. I knew from the start of the rally he was going to be a big issue.
“To be fair, Kevin Gallagher was a surprise to me with the Darrian. I didn't think the Darrian would be as good as some of the stages he was good on. I had a big battle with him, basically until he went out yesterday morning. Over Ballyare he put in a massive time - he took something like 10 or 11 out of us. My head dropped a bit then, to be honest. We went to Gartan and put in a reasonable time and he took 1.1 or so off us there. I said to Mac, coming back in the road through Kilmacrennan, 'We can go another level, you know. But if we go there it could be next corner and the one that could wipe us out’.
“He told me that we didn't come here just to come second. When I went back to Ballyare for the second time and I drove the stage of my life on it, to be honest. When I got to the end of the stage I was physically drained and mentally drained. I spoke to Oisin Kelly at the end of the stage and he said I looked tired. I told him that if he beats that, I don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”
But Damien's efforts were rewarded and he took 10 out his nearest rival. He took seven more out of him in Gartan and that left the local duo less than a second behind the leaders as the curtain fell on day two.
Declan Gallagher and Gerard Callaghan came a cropper on the first stage on Sunday morning after sliding off the road on corner number eight. That proved the biggest game changer and left Damien and Mac 47 seconds ahead of the rest. Kevin Gallagher, aka The Milkman, moved into second.
All the knowledge, know-how and experience came into play for the final five stages. Getting over the line safe and sound was the objective. And he pulled it off with flawless drives, finishing the event with 42 seconds to spare as the rest could only pray to get a glimpse in the distance.
“The phone hasn’t stopped all day and it’s amazing how many people outside of the sport are excited and happy about the win as well as the rally supporters,” Damien enthuses.
For 23 years, he has eaten, drank and slept the Donegal International Rally. And when the sun rose on Sunday, it heralded the start of a day he will never forget.
“To win this event means everything to me. I never won one in my life. Me and Mac have finished second in the Isle of Man, finished second in the Circuit of Ireland, we have finished second here three times and third here twice. I kept thinking ‘I'm never going to win one.’ This is the one I always wanted to win. If I stop tomorrow morning, I will stop so happy. I said if I ever win this rally I would retire, but I haven’t looked past this weekend so I really don’t know what’s down the road,” he says.
“But when you actually get your lifetime achievement, it really is hard to focus on something else. Mac tells me the monkey is off the back now and I could go out and win the next rally - and I probably could, I don’t know. Maybe there might not be another one, I just don’t know."
After all these years, Damien Gallagher has nothing to prove to anyone anymore. Least of all himself.