The passing of Mick Merrigan on the 21st of December 2022, at the age of 74, has resonated throughout Irish motorsport, such was his distinguished reputation as a competitor, team leader, mentor, organiser, and above all, a family man, friend, and confidant to all who knew him. Mick was a motorsports pioneer, playing a leading role in introducing Formula Vee/VW racing to Ireland, a class that is still to this day the largest single seater class in Irish motorsport. His true legacy was as a team manager that led to the development of a new generation of young, talented Irish drivers who made their mark at home and abroad. This tribute will look back at the rich life and career of Mick through those who knew him best including his family, fellow competitors, and some of those whose lives he touched most as a team manager.
Mícheál (Mick) Merrigan was born on the 27th of February 1948 in his aunt’s nursing home, Vernon Avenue, Clontarf, Co. Dublin to James and Kathleen Merrigan (née Curran). He was the second eldest of four, with an older sister, the late Breda Merrigan, a younger brother, the late Séamus, and is survived by his youngest sister, Maria (Fairley). While Mick was not born into a motorsport family, he was immersed in the GAA tradition from an early age.
He was christened Mícheál after his maternal grandfather, Michael Curran, who laid the foundations, and was the first groundsman of Croke Park in the early 1900s. The Curran family were steeped in the history of Croke Park for over 60 years and young Mícheál spent his weekends and holidays in Croke Park helping his grandfather mark the lines on the pitch and put up the nets, while also helping his mother and aunt to run the tea-rooms. Mick often kicked a ball on the Croke Park pitch as a young child, while his grandfather cut the hallowed turf with his horse and cart. His grandfather later founded the original Crokes Hurling Club which is now the well-established Kilmacud Crokes Club in Dublin.
His paternal grandfather, James Merrigan, was the foreman and ‘gaffer’ of the Rathnew Brick Company and won county GAA medals for Wicklow in the early 1900s. The red bricks produced at the Brickworks were used to build the local St. Joseph’s Church, St. Joseph’s National School and Dominican Convent, Wicklow and were regarded as the finest bricks in Ireland. The red bricks were also transported to build the red brick houses of Dublin, Cork, London, and Paris.
As a child, Mick attended St. Joseph’s National School, Rathnew, followed by De La Salle College, Wicklow, and Wicklow Vocational School. As a teenager in the mid-1960s, he attended the Phoenix Park Motor Races, and the Rathdrum Motor Races where his love of motor racing began. He recorded the races with his camcorder and watched them carefully at home. He continued his family’s wonderful passion for sport and tremendous work ethic by applying both to motor racing and the motor trade.
Mick’s career began in Coleburn & Hopkins Garage, Wicklow town, followed by Abbey Service Garage, Wicklow where he worked happily as a mechanic for many years and made many life- long friends. During that time, he also studied mechanics at Bolton Street College of Technology in Dublin and began motor racing in the late 1960s in midget car racing with his good friends Ned Dickenson and Bob Jackson.
But it was with the nascent Formula Vee/VW racing series that would first get Mick widely noticed. Mick was involved with Irish Formula Vee racing right from the start when a meeting was held in David Sheane’s workshop in Blainroe, Wicklow with John Alvey and Ned Dickenson, along with Tim Flynn and Brendan Lynch who were involved in the UK Formula VW scene. Together with Mark Goddard, Tim and Brendan brought their Formula Vee cars to Ireland and raced them at the Phoenix Park and in hill climb events. It was decided in that Blainroe garage that David Sheane would begin construction of Formula Vee cars. He would gift one of his first cars to Mick who would debut the works Sheane Vee at Mondello in 1976 winning the first time out. Formula Vee races of this era often pitted against Supersports cars including Mallock U2s and the formula would catch on quickly making its debut in the Phoenix Park in 1977.
By 1978, Mick was competing against Ned Dickenson, Mark Goddard, Ivan Sheane, Johnny Flynn, and the Heary brothers amongst others. His greatest rival and close friend was Shay Lawless, whom he beat to record the first of two back-to-back Formula Vee championships in 1979 and 1980, while also winning the Formula Vee Hill Climb championship in 1981. Along the way, Mick was twice runner up in the Sexton Trophy behind Frank O’Rourke, and a race- winner at his local Rathdrum circuit in 1980. He finished his Formula Vee career with second overall in the National Pioneer Hill Climb Championship which was won by Ken Fildes in a Formula Atlantic. Now a Wicklow feature, Mick was known to test the brakes of his racing car on Milltown Lane and along the driveway of Tinakilly House, Rathnew (a Victorian manor house and former home of Captain Robert Halpin!). Mick adored the close racing and closer camaraderie of Formula Vee racing, especially in the Phoenix Park, and he forged life-long friendships with all his fellow competitors.
Mick met the love of his life, Anne Gillespie, in 1970 and built their family home at The Brickworks, Milltown South in Rathnew. They were married in St. Patrick’s Church, Wicklow Town on the 28th of June 1975. Mick and Anne welcomed their eldest daughter, Catherine who was born in 1977 (whom he referred to as the Formula VW era child).
Racing for the Merrigans was always a family affair and as a child Catherine recalled one trip to Mondello Park that had an ignominious ending for Mick when he punted it at Duckhams on the warm-up lap.
“Dad was fuming! The car was loaded, and the spares packed in utter silence. Offers of condolence were brushed aside as Mick pointed the transporter southeast in the general direction of Rathnew. After what felt like an age, I mustered up the courage from the back to say, ‘I suppose we aren’t getting chips on the way home then.’ Immediately, Dad’s demeanour changed, and he softly replied, ‘Of course we’re getting the chips.’’’
In 1979, Mick began a new career venture taking up a position as Technical Service Rep. for Mercedes Benz/Motor Distributors Ltd. in Dublin. His father told him that he had achieved ‘a Doctor’s job’, such was the prestige of working for Mercedes Benz. He travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and made many trips to Germany providing advice to dealers, garages, farmers, and all involved in the truck and motor trade.
He would take the Mercedes Benz brand into his next chapter in motorsports when in 1982 he moved up to Formula Ford 1600 in a Crosslé 35F. Mick’s Mercedes 508d transporter was instantly recognisable in the racing paddocks of Ireland, as was Mick’s reputation for meticulously prepared and liveried race cars, something that would be Mick’s calling card throughout his motorsports career.
By 1982 Mick had replaced the Crosslé with a Van Diemen RF81 which he ran until 1985 and was a regular contender for podium positions, in what at the time was a fiercely competitive field that included Pat Duffy, Anthony Murray, Alan Kelly, Robert Lee Lewis, Vivion Daly and Derek M. Daly. In 1985 Mick switched to a Reynard SF84 with sponsorship from Mercedes Benz Commercial, and he would campaign that car through the 1987 season before changing to a Mondiale M87S in 1988. With an ailing back bothering him, Mick’s final season in Formula Ford 1600 was in 1990 when he brought the curtain down on an almost 20-year career in midgets, Formula Vee, and Formula Ford 1600. Mick’s youngest daughter, Fiona, was born in 1984 (whom he referred to as the Formula Ford era child).
While his career at Mercedes Benz/MDL was going from strength to strength, Mick began his remarkable “second act” of his motorsports career using his great knowledge and expertise to become a mentor and guide to many young Irish drivers and travelled across the UK and Europe to support them in their developing racing careers. This would cement his reputation as a team manager and driver coach with few peers. For some perspective on the impact Mick had on the Irish motorsports landscape his friend, and one-time fellow competitor Morgan Dempsey, takes up the story.
“I’d known Mick for as long as I’ve been racing and in fact when I started in 1988 Mick was still racing, but soon after that, he retired and moved on to the part in motorsport where he etched his true legacy for our sport. Whatever about his skills behind the wheel (which were to a pretty good standard), his true calling was giving back. He has to have been the best mentor of his generation, not only in Ireland, but probably internationally. His personality, backed up by his experience and skill with racecars, made him the best I’ve ever known.
All you have to do is look at who he has helped in the last 30 odd years: Colin Turkington, Matt Griffin, Gavin Smith, Bernard Dolan, Neil Shanahan, Jordan Dempsey, Rod McGovern, Michael Cullen, Graham McDonnell and many others. It is no coincidence that all these guys are multiple champions in our sport, and I know for a fact that Mick would have been at the end of a phone or there in person at events helping these guys. To say that he knew everyone in the paddock is no understatement. Drivers aside, the who’s who of Mick’s friends and contacts in the sport is enviable and included such names as Ralph Firman, Dick Bennetts, John Village and Eddie Jordan.
He was instrumental in the Motorsport Ireland/Sport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the year Award and Mick was also a judge on the selection panel for Young Driver for many years. Another fantastic quality Mick had as a person was his integrity that I witnessed first-hand. From 2015 to his passing, Mick has worked with me and communicated with me weekly. Mick would have worked in my workshop alongside me on Rod McGovern’s Seat Leon Supercup car. From 2015-19, he was a judge on the Motorsport Ireland Young Driver Programme. During this time, my own son Jordan was a monthly winner (2014), a finalist (2015 & 2016) and the winner of the award in 2017 at the age of 17. During all this time, Mick never shared any of his privileged knowledge concerning Jordan and the award. Mick identified himself as my ‘brother’, and for the last several years he truly was one of our family. He was like a second father to Jordan; they spoke even more to each other than we did!
Mick was also innovative in his approach to driver fitness and wellbeing and would set drivers up with trainers and gym memberships. He knew Tom Ryan who was the physio to Martin Brundle when he was in F1 and to the Jaguar World Endurance Team and would have fitness programmes prepared for all his drivers. He would even send Irish drivers over to Tom who would put them up and put them through his bootcamp on the English coast. Mick emphasised the importance of a holistic approach to preparation in that it took the car and the driver both body and mind, to achieve peak performance. He was ahead of his time.
To sum up, Mick was the most generous person I’ve known in motorsport. He would do anything for any of his friends (and he had many!), at any time. When the race seasons were well and truly finished, he would call down especially with Christmas gifts for my kids and my wife. When Jordan was going to race in America in 2018, Mick came to the airport to see him off and gave him a couple of hundred dollars to help him out. At this moment, I still can’t believe he’s gone. Mondello will never be the same without him. He leaves a huge void in Irish Motorsport, and we’ll miss him terribly.”
For all the drivers he impacted as a mentor, coach and team manager, Mick would become most well-known for his association with the mercurial Neil Shanahan from Churchtown in south Dublin. Neil’s mother Mary takes up the story of how their relationship began.
“We first met Mick in October of ‘96. Neil had been karting for a few years up to then and was then 17. Neil wanted to move up to Formula Ford 1600 and so his father Liam started to enquire who he should place Neil with. Knowing that Michael Cullen raced at Mondello, he went along to Des Cullen Cars in Rathmines to pick Michael’s brain. Michael told him immediately ‘There is only one man for the job – Mick Merrigan, He’ll keep him on the straight and narrow and be like a father to him at the same time’. Well, how right Michael was, Mick did become Neil’s second Dad. In fact, Catherine (Mick’s daughter) once said to us that ‘Neil was the son Mick never had’. Our two families became very close very quickly. Mick’s attention to detail was very obvious to us from the beginning. He had high standards, and he expected the same of his drivers. He encouraged Neil to work on his fitness, Neil joined the local gym and used to use his bike to train, often cycling down to Mick’s garage in Rathnew across the Sallygap, a trip of almost 40 miles, but he loved to spend time with Mick in his garage.
Neil started testing the FF1600 in January of 1997, and straight away he was on the pace. Liam and I attended all the test days, Liam with a couple of stop watches hung around his neck, and I would make the tea and sandwiches. We would sit in Mick’s truck where he had converted an area to sit around under where the cars would be transported. ‘Hang sandwiches’ (that’s what Mick called them) were the order of the day and great big mugs of tea. We quickly discovered that there were no airs and graces about Mick, I think that’s why we hit it off so well, we came from the same background, solid working class.
Mick took Neil to the top rung of the ladder here in Ireland, winning back-to-back championships in FF1600 and Formula Zetec and picking up two Sexton Trophy Driver of the Year Awards for 1997 and 1998 en route. Had fate not intervened on that terrible day at Oulton Park who knows how high Neil’s star would have soared, but I know one thing for sure; Mick would have been there by his side all the way, he would have been Neil’s wingman.
When Neil signed to race for the works Van Diemen Team in the UK, we would travel over to all his races and test days, we travelled together as a team, Mick, Oisin O’Briain (Neil’s PR) and ourselves. Mick was with us when the doctor gave us the dreadful news that day at Chester Hospital, and he remained with us all through the long 23 years that followed. Mick helped us make all the arrangements to bring Neil home and was a tower of strength for us during that time even though he was heartbroken himself.
In 2000, a year after Neil’s passing, Mick and Anne were to celebrate their 25th anniversary on the same day as Neil’s 21st birthday fell. Mick held no celebration for his silver wedding anniversary. That was the compassionate man he was, always mindful of other’s feelings.
When our daughter Clare was getting married in 2014, she had hired a vintage VW Camper Van and a VW Beetle for the wedding party. Mick duly arrived with a couple of buckets, cloths, waxing products, dressed in his old clothes and in wellingtons. He proceeded to wash the car and van and polish them until you could see your face in them. Then he proceeded to check them over mechanically; he wasn’t taking any chances. Clare had asked Mick to drive the van with her bridesmaids to the church in Glendalough, and Liam and I went with Clare in the Beetle. That’s just a little example of how thorough Mick was. Over the years we always remained in close contact, Mick never failed to call to our house on Neil’s anniversary, his birthday and on Christmas Eve. After placing flowers on Neil’s grave when he arrived at our door, he would have an arm full of lilies or “smelly flowers” as he used to call them, we would sit at the kitchen table eating the “hang sandwiches” and enjoying the apple tart which Mick of course would bring. Before you would know it three or four hours had passed, we were so comfortable in each other’s company. Whenever he would speak of Neil he would choke up, and his eyes fill with tears. When he was leaving our home, we would thank him for coming, he would always say ‘We’re family’.
When Mick came on Christmas Eve, he was just like Santa Claus laden with gifts, and in recent years a special gift for our little grandson Neil, a ride-on car for his 1st birthday in January, a Mercedes of course.”
The loss of Neil Shanahan in the fifth round of the 1999 British Formula Ford Championship in a freak accident at Oulton Park took a huge personal toll on Mick. While he was mourning the loss of Neil, his main focus was always Anne and the two girls. However, Mick would never be too far away from his true calling of coach and mentor to an up-and-coming talent.
It was in early 2001 that Mick received a call from a fellow Mercedes Benz/MDL work colleague Ciaran Kinahan requesting some help to run his friend Rod McGovern’s Dunlop RT2000, a new highly competitive series that was attracting a lot of attention, sponsorship money, and professional race teams led by racing legends including the Dempseys and George Crozier. Rod was young and ambitious but felt he needed guidance and a steadying influence in his career. After a chat and some pointers from Mick, the next weekend Ciaran and Rod set off to Mondello Park where Rod finished 3rd. Once Mick heard the result, he knew then that the boys were serious, and he told them to get the car straight back to his workshop. As Rod explains, this was the start of a 23-year friendship.
“From that point on we seemed to spend most evenings at Mick’s workshop often staying until 3:00 AM pouring over every detail of the race car and my approach to racing. Mick always showed remarkable attention to detail in every aspect of the preparation of the car, even measuring the circumference of the tyres to the millimetre and deciding what tyre would go on which corner.
Working out of the back of the transporter at various tracks Mick guided me to three Dunlop RT2000 championships. He would keep me on the straight and narrow, even when I strayed off the path and would go out for a few (or several) beers the night before a race. Mick had few vices, didn’t smoke or drink but he liked a good biscuit! When I would show up a little worse for wear, Mick wouldn’t scold but say ‘We’ll talk about it later’ as he understood what young guys were like. This often brought the best performances out of me as I never wanted to disappoint Mick.
Mick was always generous with his advice and help when he could provide it. All he asked for in return was total commitment. Mick taught me how to win, but more importantly how to deal with losing and how to pick myself up after a bad letdown on the track. He was like a father to me, and to so many others it seems.
I never asked him about Neil as I knew it was a very sore point, and Mick rarely brought it up but over the years I noticed that trophies and mementoes from our victories would start to appear in his workshop. There was already a wall dedicated to Neil’s accomplishments and eventually another part of the workshop had a lot of our champagne bottles and cups. In a rare quiet moment, he once thanked me and Ciaran for bringing him back into the light.
Later we also competed in the Seat Supercup Ireland championship and Mick had not lost any of his competitive edge as we again won the championship in 2017 under the banner of Mick Merrigan Motorsport after finishing runner up twice in a row. When my sons Harry and Sean started racing Mick of course was front and centre and was thrilled when they both took their first wins, Sean in a Ginetta and Harry in Ford Zetec.”
Mick thoroughly enjoyed and dedicated every day of his 34-year working career to Mercedes Benz Commercial from 1979, and reluctantly retired on the day of his 65th birthday in 2013. It wasn’t long before Mick was invited back as a consultant to provide specialist driver training to the ambulance, fire service and army personnel. Mick never let a vehicle leave his service team without a thorough wash and valeting no matter what the hour of the day. His meticulous attention to detail came through no matter what. Even in semi-retirement, he continued his involvement in Irish motor sport and provided advice and support to Irish drivers at home and overseas.
‘Merro’, as he was known to his closest friends, was a one-off, a wonderful character with a very kind and generous spirit who had a great love for people. He had a fantastic sense of humour and was a wonderful storyteller who enjoyed chatting to everyone he met. He was a gentleman who showed everyone the same respect in life and had great time to listen, always leaving them feeling better about themselves. Mick enjoyed the simple pleasures in life including going for drives with his beloved wife Anne, looking out to sea and listening to Irish country music. He was fascinated by boats and aeroplanes and was a great supporter of Wicklow Lifeboat.
Mick was a dedicated family man, a cherished husband and best friend to his wife Anne, and a devoted and adored father to his two daughters
Catherine and Fiona. He took tremendous pride and joy in their academic and personal achievements in life.
In October 2021, Mick was diagnosed with cancer, a battle he fought for just over a year, during which time he received exceptional care from his dear friend Michael Cullen and the wonderful Oncology team at the Beacon Hospital, Dublin. To ease the burden of his battle and to make his visits to the hospital easier, his family used racing and car terminology to describe his treatment. As his daughter Catherine explained, “when receiving chemotherapy, we described this as filling up the tank with petrol; a blood transfusion was the same as an oil change, and scans/tests were referred to as an NCT (National Car Testing!). For every round of chemotherapy that he completed, we presented him with a miniature chequered flag to mark every lap of the race”.
Mick wasn’t built for pandemics or isolation, and he would spend long hours on the phone keeping in touch with the Shanahans, Turkingtons, Bernard Dolan, Morgan Dempsey, and his many friends throughout Ireland. His old friend and one-time rival on track PJ Fallon would talk to Mick weekly keeping him abreast of all the racing news.
Mick passed away suddenly but peacefully just before Christmas on the 21st of December 2022 at St. Vincent’s University Hospital. His funeral, which was held on the 27th of December was described as one of the biggest gatherings in Irish motorsport in years. He was due to become a Grandad for the first time in early January 2023 and was very excited about the prospective new arrival. His first granddaughter, Evie, was born on the 28th of December, the day after his funeral.
He will be remembered, as PJ Fallon described in his eulogy to Mick, ‘As a man with a heart of gold’.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis agus go raibh suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal.
Mick’s heartbroken family wishes to thank everyone in the motorsport community in Ireland and beyond for their kindness, prayers, and support during this very sad and difficult time.
We would like to sincerely thank Mary Shanahan, Morgan Dempsey, and Rod McGovern for their contributions to this tribute. Thanks also to Leo Nulty and Garry Manning for their assistance.
Catherine Merrigan & Brian Manning