I remember it as being a remarkably sunny day.
We walked together from the stunning St. Colman’s Cathedral, its granite bell tower looming large over the small town of Cobh in county Cork. The crowd moved through the narrow streets quietly, and progressed out of the town towards the nearby cemetery.
From the rear of the procession, our arrival at Darragh’s final resting place was announced by the distinct sound of an SR20DET and the combined smell of waste fuel and rubber being shredded. We couldn’t see the action for the amount of people in front of us, just flashes of pink through the crowd and the tyre smoke rising above it all.
What may have been a seemingly unorthodox send-off to an outsider, I don’t think that anyone who knew Darragh could have imagined anything more appropriate.
Darragh O’Connell passed away on the morning of July 16th in 2018, the day before his 26th birthday, after a long and arduous fight with cancer. However, his illness and passing do not define who he was or the life he lived.
I didn’t know Darragh nearly as well as some, but I knew him well enough to know that he would have much preferred to have been remembered for what he did, rather than what he didn’t.
The Irish drifting community is remarkable, full of wonderful, colourful characters, and it was through this community that I first met Darragh. I don’t recall our first encounter as it was the type of friendship that existed before either of us knew it. Cars are great that way.
We would meet each other at events, and Darragh would fill me in on the progress of his beloved SR20-powered AE86 project. With a history of fast Japanese road cars including a supercharged Altezza and a sublime 180SX, the Nissan-engined Toyota was to be his ultimate project.
From the get go, there was a crystal-clear vision for the then white-over-black Levin. It was always going to be a dedicated track car, and the intention was for Darragh to build his ideal Corolla.
His commitment to this project was everything.
As we unloaded the car into a quiet forest park near Darragh’s home, I was humbled. Joined by Darragh’s friend J.P. D’Arcy who helped to arrange this feature, and Darragh’s mother, Jeanette, who both shared countless stories from over the years. What could have been a melancholic occasion turned into a celebration.
J.P. told me the story of how he first met Darragh, who was persistently doing donuts outside his house in rural Cork at all hours of the morning. “I had been waiting weeks to catch him. I think I was in my underwear and carrying a hammer when I ran out the door after him. I’d love to have known what he thought when he saw me coming.”
Despite a peculiar first encounter, the two would ultimately forge a bond not unlike brothers.
Despite having the goal of building the Corolla as a track car, there’s a definite street vibe to it. Everything about the car remains true to the early-to-mid-’00s golden era in Japan.
From the AE86’s relative simplicity, to using a proven recipe for performance and reliability, to the overall style – the Toyota wouldn’t look out of place in a period Video Option, nor would it look totally out of place on the street.
The exaggerated D-MAC Levin N3 kit and TRD wing over the custom-specification Work Meister CR01s with the distinctive pink paintwork is both traditional and just that little bit different at the same time. The colour was chosen specifically so the car could be used to support the Irish Cancer Society.
The simple SR20DET setup, managed by a Link Monsoon engine management system, makes a respectable 350hp at 1.2bar (17.6psi) boost.
The car wasn’t a simple box-ticking exercise for Darragh, either. There was a considerable amount of thought and consideration put into the car. Take the wheels as an example.
For most track cars, any wheel that happens to be round and fits relatively well would be good enough, but not in this case. Darragh custom-specced his Work Meister CR01s down to the very last detail. The fronts measure 15×8.5-inch +16 with an A disc, with the higher offset required for the S13 front steering. The rears measure 15×9-inch -28 with a T disc, in order to clear the S13 calipers. The centres were a gloss black, with gloss bronze barrels and gold assembly hardware.
These weren’t wheels just randomly selected; the decision-making process was painstaking as Darragh went back and forth between different choices. These decisions were often made from a hospital bed, which kept Darragh focused.
Often, he would have visiting friends or family members retrieve recently delivered car parts from his house, bring them to the hospital so Darragh could inspect them and then send them back home with them again knowing they were right for the build. He would also use his time in bed to call and email potential sponsors or part suppliers. No opportunity to further the project was ever left unexplored.
In early 2017, then Pro-class Irish Drift Championship driver Mike Fitzgerald found himself without a tow vehicle for the season before Darragh interjected himself into the situation and offered to supply his own Toyota Land Cruiser and trailer in order to help Mike out. From that moment, Darragh became a hugely important part of Mike’s team.
Mike recalls that while Darragh “became sick again later in the year, he never gave up and fought it all the way.”
On the subject of Darragh’s AE86, Mike remarked that “[many] will know from experience the work involved in building a car to this standard, even when everything is going one’s way. The fact that he managed to complete the car and got to drive it speaks volumes about the inner strength and determination he had, and is something to be truly proud of.”
The word ‘selfless’ came up a lot when talking to different people about Darragh. Whether he was trying to make other people feel comfortable about his illness, to straight-up helping others at every opportunity he could.
Another friend, Eric Wyse, says: “Darragh taught me a lifelong lesson during the time he was fighting his illness and showed me the true meaning of life. That lesson was to never give up, do what you feel best, love your friends and family and make the most of what we have. Darragh’s passing brought me new friends and a better me and I thank him for that.”
Two months before Darragh passed away, he tested and drove his car in anger, with his father John in the passenger seat, who himself sadly passed away less than a year after Darragh. The test was flawless, but true to form, Darragh used the opportunity to draft up a list of small improvements that he wanted to make to the car over the summer.
While he didn’t get the chance to implement these himself, he left his friends and family a clear plan for what he wanted, not to mention the car parts which continued to arrive after he had passed away.
In 2018, his car led the parade lap for 86Fest at Mondello Park, and for the 2019 Drift Games Nationals championship, the people closest to him campaigned the car for the full season.
Now, the car has been refreshed and will live a relatively easy life in retirement. It was always a gamble to use the car in competition, so the decision to remove the risk of the car being damaged beyond repair is an understandable one.
The plan for it now is to continue to utilise it to raise awareness and funds for the Irish Cancer Society, and to serve as the ultimate memorial to Darragh and life.
When he unveiled the car in 2017, Darragh himself wrote: “I’m absolutely delighted with the finished look of this car. More importantly what it represents. A battle, a fight and determination to not give up. Life revolves around a good attitude, not always the easy option but at the end of the day you have to keep your own head above water and fight on, no matter what.”
“Anyway, I hope people can learn a little from me and the past three years of my life and take on the same style attitude. Live your life and enjoy it.”
The author Terry Pratchett once wrote: “No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away, until the clock wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.”
With that in mind and considering the continued efforts of Darragh’s family and friends, it’s fair to say that he will continue to live on through them for a very long time to come.
A special thanks to J.P. D’Arcy, Jeanette & Jana O’Connell, Eric & Colin Wyse, Finny Burke and Mike Fitzgerald for their help with this feature.