Ballymoney became a place of pilgrimage on Monday as fans of motorcycle racer William Dunlop came from across Northern Ireland and beyond to pay their respects.
The Co Antrim town, which is synonymous with road racing and with the Dunlop name in particular, has become a focal point for the huge outpouring of grief in the wake of William’s tragic death.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Dunlop Memorial Gardens, where members of the public have arrived in droves to show their solidarity with the family.
Father-of-one William died after he crashed on the race route near Skerries with his younger brother, Michael, riding behind him.
The 32-year-old Ballymoney man was the son of racing legend Robert Dunlop, who was killed in the North West 200 in 2008, and nephew of Joey Dunlop who died in Estonia in 2000.
The sombre mood in the town was palpable as everyone from leather-clad bikers to families with young children in tow gathered to lay flowers at the feet of the bronze statue of William’s father, Robert.
Londonderry man Don Bonner brought his own personal tribute to the well-liked sporting icon.
The Coleraine and District Motorcycle Club member left a hoodie emblazoned with William’s logo on the back, carrying the touching message ‘True gentleman, true hero’.
“When I heard the news of William’s death I just couldn’t believe it was true. I went numb, and I think the whole country feels the same,” he told the News Letter.
“I have a few friends who say they will not be returning to road racing because this has hit them so hard.
“William was a shy but very approachable guy. He was a true gentleman, both inside and outside the paddock. He will be greatly missed.”
Lisburn man Jim Neill, who came with his family to pay his respects, said he felt like he had “lost a very good friend”.
He added: “It is hard to take in. I met William many times and he always had time to speak to his fans. You could have talked to him about anything, not just bikes.
“I have always had a soft spot for William. He was such a down to earth guy.
“The road racing fraternity is so close knit and they will all stick together and show their support for the family.”
Wendy Hara brought her children, Mia and Scott, to lay a single white rose in William’s memory.
She said: “It is just terrible, I can’t image what the family is going through. We just wanted to come here and show that we are thinking about them.”
Tom Brown from Moneymore, who worked with William’s father, has been following road racing for 60 years.
“It is almost like losing one of your own,” the 69-year-old said.
“The family has given so much and it is a real tragedy that they have to go through this pain again.”
Comber man David Bovell said the Dunlop family was “an institution” in road racing circles.
“Racing is in the family’s blood and they have done so much for the sport,” he added.
“William was such a character and his death is so hard to accept.
“I have so much respect for the Dunlop family, who have sacrificed so much for this sport.”
Tracey Burns from Newcastle said the Dunlop family would be in her prayers.
“This has broke everyone’s hearts, and to see all the tributes here this morning just goes to show how widely loved William was.”
Jean Campbell said Ballymoney owes a great debt of gratitude to the Dunlop family.
“I followed Joey since he started racing, and I liked William because he was so like his uncle,” she added.
“He was a real wee gent, just lovely. He was a very quiet, unassuming chap who had time for anyone. I spoke to him at the North West and wished him good luck and he just said ‘thank you’.
“He was very much like Joey. I feel so sorry for his granny and his poor mother and the rest of the family.
“I have no doubt the people of Ballymoney will rally together during this dark time.”
Among the steady stream of visitors to Ballymoney yesterday was a group from Cheshire, England, who spoke of their “deep sadness” at the latest tragedy to befall the Dunlop family.
Roger Austin told the News Letter: “We are doing a tour of the north coast and felt we had to stop in Ballymoney and pay our respects.
“It is just dreadful news and will reverberate around the world.
“It is a very emotional time, especially seeing the outpouring of grief here in William’s home town. Our thoughts go out to his family.”