Passing of a magnetic personality who was a superb ambassador for Waterford and Ireland

Tributes continue to pour in from all over the world ahead of the funeral of Ireland’s top rally driver Craig Breen, who died in a crash in Croatia last week.

Described by his family as “talented and much adored,” the 33-year-old from Kilmurry, Slieverue Via Waterford was taking part in a pre-test event ahead of this week’s Croatia Rally when the front left of his Hyundai Motorsport car slid off the road and collided with a wooden fence pole near the northern town of Zlatar shortly after midday on Thursday (13 April). His co-driver James Fulton from Co Cavan was uninjured.

Craig had reportedly planned to return home before the weekend to attend the Munster Moonraker Forest Rally in Ballyvourney to watch young drivers he’d given coaching to earlier in the week in Tynagh, Co Galway. That event was postponed, as was Sunday’s Carrick-on-Suir Hillclimb as a mark of respect.

Two thousand fans stood for a moving minute’s applause at the RSC before Friday evening’s game between Waterford and Kerry. Craig’s grandfather Jimmy hailed from the Strand Road area before moving to Waterford to open a shoe shop.

Members of the Breen family flew to Croatia that morning and details of Tuesday’s funeral were posted on at the weekend, with messages of condolence flooding onto the webpage.

When news of the tragedy filtered back home early Thursday afternoon, members of Waterford City and County Council, meeting in Dungarvan, were alerted by Fine Gael’s Frank Quinlan to what was unfolding. The Mayor, Cllr John O’Leary, immediately proposed a minute’s silence and adjourned proceedings for five minutes. A Book of Condolences was opened at the local authority’s headquarters.

Craig, who went to school in Abbey Community College, was massively popular among his peers and fans, being affectionately called ‘Ted’ by his closest pals. His appeal transcended geography and he was a household name within the motorsport community throughout Ireland and indeed internationally.

The esteem in which he was held in those parts of the world where rallying is practically a religion speaks volumes about the impact he made. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of rallying and its history, and his common touch and magnetic personality are reflected in the reaction to his passing.

“Hyundai Motorsport sends its sincerest condolences to Craig’s family, friends and his many fans,” a short team statement read, while Motorsport Ireland President Aiden Harper said: “The Irish motorsport community is numbed by this tragic news. Craig was a world-class driver and a world-class person.

“Whenever he got the chance, Craig still continued to compete on local events in Ireland and in recent months, support younger drivers. Earlier this year a sponsorship deal was announced that would see him directly supporting the Junior 1000 category within the Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Championship and as recently as last Tuesday, he attended a J1000 tuition day where 18 young drivers got to meet and learn from their hero.”

The late Craig Breen, then 18, with his mother Jackie, father Ray, and sister Kellie in 2008. There has been a vast outpouring of sympathy to the family this week from all over Ireland and indeed the world, such was Craig’s popularity.

He extended his deepest condolences to Craig’s family, his parents Ray and Jackie, his sister Kellie, brother-in-law Darragh and nephew Bobbie, and co-driver James. “May they all find the strength and support they need at this unimaginably tragic time.”

The Road Safety Authority said it was “deeply saddened” to hear of Craig’s untimely passing. “As well as being a hugely successful international rally driver, Craig was also a road safety ambassador who had a profound influence on the predominantly young men and women who follow the sport.

“It is one thing to be a successful and inspirational sports person, it is another thing to use that status to powerfully and positively influence your supporters to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Craig embodied this commitment of contributing to the greater good though his advocacy work with the RSA and Motorsport Ireland,” the RSA statement added.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the FIA, the governing body for world motorsport, extended his sincere condolences to Craig’s family and friends, saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones and the rally community at this difficult time.”

The World Rally Championship said it was “shocked and saddened” by the “incredibly sad” events, stating his talent as a driver “was matched only by his kind and generous nature outside the car. Despite his success in the WRC, Breen never forgot his roots and remained deeply connected to his native Ireland. He often competed in local rallies and regularly gave back to the community, supporting a number of young drivers in his homeland.”

Among the countless social media tributes paid to Craig, Formula 1 Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz said on Instagram, “Very sad to hear about the passing of Craig Breen. My condolences to his family and friends”; while Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas tweeted that it was “shocking news.”

Huge heart

Among the many words penned the past week, some of most touching and informed appeared on the rallying website DirtFish, where senior staff writer David Evans said of his friend ‘Breeny’ with the bright blue eyes:

“He was a fella from Waterford who liked driving cars and loved talking about rallying. But he didn’t just talk about it. He lived it, he breathed it, and he absolutely loved it. His passion for rallying was as all-consuming as it was absolute.

“As well as being one of the world’s finest drivers, Craig was undoubtedly one of the world’s finest fellas. Watching him push his pal Paddy Croke around Poland in a wheelchair was testament to Breen’s kindness… For people, there was always time. Always.

“From the moment his bedroom wall shook for the first time when his father Ray fired up the family Metro 6R4, Craig was destined for one place and one sport. Our sport loved Craig Breen. How could it fail to love a man whose heart was so big on his sleeve, there was barely room for his sponsors. It’s impossible not to think of his family at this time. Our pain is nothing in comparison with what they’re going through.

“Right now, nothing helps. Nothing can take away the pain of losing one of the absolute best of the best. Forget the stage times, forget the hits and the misses, on a human level, this one’s an absolute tragedy.”

Killarney man Paul Nagle – who sat beside Craig for more than 50 rallies after previous co-driver Gareth Roberts was killed in a 2012 accident that Breen escaped unscathed from – said: “The world has lost a hero. Ireland has lost a champion and I have lost a best friend. Craig was more than a rally driver to [my wife] Cathy and I, he was family. The motorsport world is in mourning because Craig touched so many lives and homes.”

He said the Carrick-on-Suir Motor Club member was “a clubman at heart”, going from “grassroots rallying on Tuesday to World Rally Championship testing on Thursday… Our journey was amazing, filled with fun, laughter, tears, and the craic” – memories that would last a lifetime, he said.

Kilmeaden’s Mick Morrissey, a champion rally co-driver who is still competing, was in Slovenia when he got word what had happened. On Saturday, he conveyed his sense of loss. “I’m devastated, profoundly sad. First time to open my laptop since Thursday morning. Then the terrible news of Craig’s passing came through. Totally gutted. We watched Craig grow up, come up through the ranks, and reach the top level of World Championship Rallying. We were so proud of him around Waterford.

“He was a total gentleman, had the interest of safe driving at heart, not to mention the help and support he gave tirelessly to our young rally drivers. A total dedicated professional. He will be sadly missed, not only by his immediate family, but also by competitors and rally fans worldwide. It was a privilege to have known him, and to have sat with him in a rally car. My thoughts and prayers go out to Ray, Jackie, and Kellie, and to his many friends. Bed of Heaven to you Craig, and RIP.”

Craig Breen has been widely described as “a legend”. For someone so young, that might seem a stretch. Not in this case.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.

Jamie O’Keeffe