By Ciaran O’Donnell
There’s always a notable stretch in the evenings when the anniversary of Bertie Fisher rolls around.
Last Thursday week marked twenty years since the death of the rallying legend who enthralled the masses that lined the ditches, fields and side roads all over. During a 32-year career – his first event was as a navigator the Erne Safari Rally – the sporting icon notched up 43 victories. His titanic tussles with Austin McHale have become the stuff of rally folklore.
On Sunday, January 21st, 2001, the Fisher family were a short distance from home when their helicopter crashed near the Fermanagh village of Monea. Bertie’s son, Mark (27) and daughter Emma (25) were killed instantly. The following day, the life-support machine keeping Bertie alive at the Erne Hospital was turned off. His wife, Gladys and other son, Roy, who both suffered serious injuries, survived. It was a tragedy that shook the world of sport. Ditto the world of business.
When he was on the pace, there was nobody better. Bertie Fisher was a maestro behind the wheel. Cool, calm and always in control, he was the one to watch. The one to catch. To many, he became known as ‘King Fisher’.
Letterkenny co-driver, Rory Kennedy, called the notes for Bertie during his most successful period. The pair hit it off instantly when they sat together for the first time in the Cavan Stages Rally in 1987. They competed in the Manx Rally in the Isle of Man as warm up for the 1989 Donegal International where they finished second behind David Llewellin.
Bertie, accompanied by Rory Kennedy, became one of the most successful pairings in the history of Irish rallying over the next decade. Their first win came in the Ulster Rally in 1991. The rest is history well documented.
Bertie won his first Donegal International in 1987 with Austin Frazer. His next three Donegal victories in 1992, 1993 and 1995 were with Rory. He also claimed his first and much sought-after Circuit of Ireland win in 1995 after 21 years of coming up short.
They won the Galway International four times, the Circuit of Ireland on two further occasions, Killarney six times, the Ulster Rally twice more and Cork three times. The duo’s last victory came in the form of a third Circuit of Ireland crown in 1999. Their final outing was in the Monaghan Stages in April, 2000 when they finished second to Niall Maguire and Paul McLoughlin.
Invariably, as January makes way for a new month and a new season, Rory’s mind drifts back to that fateful weekend in 2001. Drifts back to the heartbreak that went with it. And back even further to when the pair were at the top of their game in their blue Subaru Impreza WRC (L555 FEL). The joy and happiness that accompanied their wonderful winning streak will always stand in stark contrast to the sorrow and sadness that followed.
Looking back and looking forward can give conflicting perspectives on time. Twenty years hence can seem so far away. Twenty years in the rear view mirror less of a stretch.
Rory Kennedy leans back from the desk in his office at his Letterkenny home and readies himself to reflect on the two decades since Bertie Fisher’s passing. Rory is Managing Director of Smart Renewals Energy Savings Solutions Ireland, and hanging proudly on all four walls are pictures galore of the pair to trigger memories of a famous and illustrious chapter.
“How does it feel twenty years on? It’s never far away from me anyway, I suppose,” he says.
He’ll always recall where he was when he got the call on that second last Sunday in January.
“I thought it was going to be bad. But it was unbelievably bad,” he muses.
“Three people were killed in the tragedy. I knew them and knew the survivors. So, it’s always good to get January out of the way. More so this year because of the pandemic. We’re getting into the longer evenings and things are looking a bit brighter from here on.”
Rory has continued to rally since the tragedy.
“Personally speaking, I believe I carry a bit of the Fishers with me. Because no matter where I go, or what rallies I do, inevitably people will come up to me and remind me of rallies Bertie and myself took part in. I take great time with them and love to hear their stories and recollections. I feel I’ve carried on the memory over that period,” he adds.
Rory carried the coffin of his friend and driver on his final journey. As Bertie’s remains were taken from the church for burial in Craghan cemetery in Ballinallard, the cortège stepped along the exact spot where the pair had started a stage on their Ulster Rally win of 1991.
Of all the moments from those dark days, that will always be his most poignant.
“The last time he and I were there, we were in a rally car and went on to win the Ulster Rally. I gave him a wee tap on the coffin as we passed. It’s one of those moments that stays with me.”
The pair spent countless hours together, preparing for rallies, competing in rallies and celebrating after rallies. The chemistry was right. In the high-octane world of ten tenths, it has to be between driver and navigator. Both were adaptable. Both were highly driven. And both loved the buzz of winning. They were the perfect fit.
“I was like a sponge and was absorbing everything I was seeing. It was all about having the best structure, the best team and the best tyres. We left nothing to chance. Everything was done right. Everything was in place to win, so our preparation was top notch. My confidence grew around all that.
“It’s like training with someone who’s faster than you – they drag you along. You aspire to that speed, or they help you to improve.
“But on the day, when you get into the car and it’s the green light to go you have to perform. That’s the bit that appealed to me most. And that’s the bit we were strongest in,” he declares.
The Fisher and Kennedy families enjoyed many social occasions together.
“Bertie was always a good man for a song and always enjoyed a dance. He was a great man to meet out for a bit of crack,” he comments.
Of all the high points, winning the Donegal International in 1992 is the standout moment.
“My mother and father were both there at the finish ramp in Letterkenny and it was a boyhood dream come true. We led from start to finish and won well in the end. It will always be my career highlight and it meant so much to both myself and those close to me.”
There was more to Bertie Fisher than just a super talented rally driver. Much more. As managing director, he’d helped grow Fisher Engineering Ltd. which was set up by his father, Tommy, in Ballinamallard in 1950. He started out in a hut repairing farm machinery.
The firm employed around 200 at the time of Bertie’s death. In 2007, the steel fabrication business was sold by his brothers, Ernie and Ivan, for £60 million (€88.3 million) to Severfield-Rowen, a publicly quoted company in Yorkshire.
“Bertie worked hard and deserved everything he had. There’s no doubt about that. The work ethic was in the Fishers and that brushed off a bit on me, too. I still have that,” he adds.
“Locally, they built the Courtyard Shopping Centre in Letterkenny. Fisher Engineering also did the steelwork for the Foyleside Shopping Centre in Derry, the Odyssey in Belfast, Intel in Dublin which was one of the biggest jobs in the country and the Shearaton Hotel in London. The firm became the market leaders in that line of work, simply because they were best. And that was a reflection of Bertie and the team he had around him.”
Bertie was a people’s man and enjoyed a great rapport with a large and loyal workforce. It’s been noted many times since his death that he was on first name terms with every one of his employees. He was also well known for his kindness and generosity, and those qualities live on through the Fisher Foundation that was set up in 2003 as a permanent memorial to the lives of Bertie, Mark and Emma Fisher. Over £300,000 has been awarded by the Fisher Foundation. It has supported motor clubs and other organisations to improve safety standards at rally events, while young people have been supported through bursary awards for voluntary work overseas with registered charities.
“People used to write to Bertie all the time and he always was very engaging with his fans. He might not have gotten back to them for a month or two months, but he always replied eventually. Many people have told me since about getting a letter back from Bertie out of the blue, or that he signed this or that for them back in the day,” he remembers.
“He was such an ordinary man with so much more to offer.”
An ordinary man.
An extraordinary legacy.
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