THERE were many sides to Jerry Kiernan. That’s the first thing you need to know. The guy you saw on RTÉ, the TV pundit who dropped quick-witted, cut-throat assessments about Irish athletes? That was just one.
To his rivals, the men he traded blows with on the road, track, and at cross country through the ’70s and ’80s, he was the hardiest of bastards, a classy performer possessed of plentiful speed and oceans of endurance, either of which he could utilise to take you to a place you’d really rather not go.
To the students at St Brigid’s Boys School in Foxrock, where Kiernan worked for 40 years, he was an oracle, a mullet-sporting font of wisdom who could cite Aristotle just as easily as Haile Gebrselassie. The students who had him through the years have the same stories: Kiernan didn’t just lecture, he listened, seeing a whole lot more to childhood development than getting good grades.
To his athletes, the men and women whose careers he steered with a torrent of common sense, he was far more than a coach. Far, far more.
“Words will never sum up what he means to me, he’ll never be replaced,” Ciara Mageean said yesterday, her voice breaking up through the tears. “He’s someone I hold very dear in my heart.” Mageean is just one, but her experience could easily stand for the whole.
She was a broken, beaten-down athlete when she joined Kiernan in 2012, her career hanging in the balance as she struggled with a chronic ankle problem. Kiernan gently, cautiously, helped her back to health, and in the years that followed, her talent again blossomed, culminating with a European 1500m medal in 2016.
“He was so much more than a coach, he was a friend, like a father figure for me in Dublin. He was there for me through the lowest point.” Whether it was a bad session, a broken bone or the emotional turmoil of a college break-up, he was always there, sitting in that coffee shop they used to meet in in Rathgar — a friendly ear, a man 40 years her elder who could get through to her like no other.
“I don’t think I fully appreciate yet the impact he had. He helped me through those formative years, he was basically a father to me. I didn’t foresee this day coming so soon.”
John Travers has been coached by Kiernan since 2013, and he was rocked to his core when he heard the news that Kiernan had died in his sleep in the early hours of yesterday morning. The 67-year-old had been unwell for a few months, struggling with fatigue and a stomach issue.
“He’s been a great coach, a mentor, a friend,” said Travers. “Since my Dad passed away, I always turned to him like a father. Any issues, I’d never have been embarrassed about asking him. He’s possibly the most genuine person I’ve ever met.”
That was the thing with Kiernan. There was no façade. His thoughts flowed, unfiltered, from his mind to his mouth, and if they offended a few folk here and there, well, so be it. Travers himself felt the brunt of it during one national championships, when he’d won the Irish 1500m title only for Kiernan to say on RTÉ that Travers’ inconsistency broke his heart as a coach.
“But he knew what way to talk to me to get me to do things,” said Travers. “What you see with Jerry was what you get. That’s what we need, more people who don’t say one thing to someone and something different to the next. That’s why I admired him.” Travers’ three-year-old son used to call him Granddad Jerry, and to Travers that spoke volumes about the kind of man Kiernan was. “He leaves an imprint on people’s lives.” A native of Listowel, Kiernan was always distinctly proud of his roots, even if he never shared his county’s affinity for GAA. Quite the opposite. The root of that prickliness went back to his own career, and his sense that inter-county stars received far more credit than their achievements or indeed work rate truly warranted.
At his best, Kiernan had been as dominant on the national scene as any Kerry team, and he won Irish titles from the 1500m to the marathon, a freakish range of ability. A sub-four-minute miler, he won the Dublin Marathon in 1982 and 1983 and finished ninth in the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon in 1984.
One of his biggest rivals through that period was Dick Hooper, and while they weren’t fond of each other at the time, the mutual respect was unquestionable. Hooper is a Dubliner who ran for Raheny, Kiernan a Kerryman who ran for Clonliffe Harriers — both of which amplified the dichotomy.
“It’s hard to love your enemy,” says Hooper. “In the ‘80s there was a period where we were bitter rivals, both looking for the same spots and in those days we didn’t talk much. But later in life we did, the war was over.”
Hooper could never beat Kiernan at shorter distances but they were evenly matched at the marathon. “He was tough as nails and he loved to lead,” says Hooper.
“He put us all under pressure from the gun. He tended to bolt away early; you knew what the tactic was going to be but it was certainly difficult to deal with it. There was no doubting his class.” Once their competitive days were done and both took to coaching, they became more friendly, sharing stories from back in the day and focusing their energies on the next generation.
At Clonliffe Harriers, Kiernan had a nickname: Hairy lugs.
Despite the reverence his clubmates had for him, that mullet haircut was never going to escape their wrath. Noel Guiden first came across Kiernan in 1983, and he remembers members of their training group setting 10-mile personal bests trying to keep up with him in training.
“He was the hero in the pack,” says Guiden. “As someone who’d been in Clonliffe all my adult life, he was the first superstar we’d have known in the athletics world, even if he never liked that word.”
Between 1980 and 1992 Kiernan helped Clonliffe to eight national cross country titles and after his retirement Kiernan maintained his links to the club, meeting up with its stalwarts once a month for a meal at an Italian restaurant.
“They called themselves the goats, a certain age group who’d go out and solve the world’s problems,” laughs Guiden. “Every month they’d meet up, without fail.”
The Kiernan we all saw on TV? That was the same personality Guiden knew from the clubhouse bar.
“He was willing to give his opinion, whether you agreed or not,” he says.
Perhaps that’s what most of us will miss, above all, at least those didn’t know him well.
In an age of bland, carefully crafted TV analysis, where the chief priority is to avoid offence and to maintain friendships, Kiernan seemed a relic from a bygone era, an acerbic sharp-shooter who had done the research to back up his assertions.
“He was brash, charismatic, opinionated, and the sport has a dearth of that now,” says coach Feidhlim Kelly. “He had a bit of everything the sport lacks. He’d stand up to establishment. He had a great line about the Olympic Council being a glorified travel agency — he called it as it was.
“After a major sporting event people would always wait for Con Houlihan’s words in the paper and no matter what everybody said, everybody waited to see what Kiernan said after the nationals, whether you agreed or not. He established that position as the voice of athletics and he did it better than anyone.”
Kelly recalls sitting in a bar with Kiernan and a group of his athletes after the 2019 Dublin Marathon and the way they looked at the Olympian spoke volumes.
“He had that Buddha sense, his athletes looked up to him and you could see they loved him. He showed up at everything, he wasn’t elitist and he gave back to the sport 10-fold what he got from it.”
Mary Cronin, a member of Limerick AC, remembers a man willing to engage and give his time to anyone, regardless of their level. “He was always a gentleman, and he always had a few words to encourage me,” she says. “I often think of his advice.”
Kiernan was a lifelong supporter of FC Barcelona and a regular visitor to Italy, a nation for which he developed a great affinity.
Mageean laughs as she recalls how Kiernan used to call herragazza. For all that he rebuilt her athletics career, guiding her between 2012 and 2017, teaching her that there is more to life than running is one of his most powerful legacies.
“When we met we barely spoke about running,” she says. “But he made me want to have a lifelong love for the sport. He would speak his mind in the studio but he was never like that with me, it was ‘head up, do your best.’ I saw in him a love for running. There’s so much in my life I owe to Jerry.”
It’s a thought that was echoed by so many yesterday as phone calls went back and forth through the Irish athletics community, which remains reeling in disbelief.
It’s a place that now seems a whole lot darker for his absence, a place that was a whole lot brighter for his presence.