The word legend is much over-used in sport; but when it comes to Jerry Kiernan, he was a true legend of Irish athletics. His sudden passing on Thursday morning, at only 67 years of age, has been met with profound sadness by all in the athletics community. He is fondly remembered as an athlete, TV pundit, teacher and a coach. Although a member of Clonliffe Harriers A.C., Jerry had close ties with many other clubs, including Blackrock A.C. The numerous members who were part of his training group in UCD will miss him deeply.
Details of his athletics career have been well documented since his passing. He represented Ireland 17 times as a senior, from 1975 to 1993, and won national titles from the 1500m to the marathon. As well as winning the marathon in Dublin (twice) he also won marathons in Belfast, Cork and New Jersey. Two other career highlights stand out: his breaking of the 4-minute mile barrier in 1976 and his top ten marathon finish in the 1984 Olympics. That marathon was his personal best, running in the searing heat of Los Angeles in a time of 2.12.20. He was the only one of the top twenty in that race who also worked on a full-time basis.
Jerry was a teacher for around 40 years in St Brigid’s Boy’s National School in Foxrock. Teaching was a vocation and he took it very seriously. He went way beyond the official curriculum and imparted his incredible knowledge of history, geography and the English language on the boys he taught. He dedicated his lunch-times to athletics coaching in Spring and Summer and officiating at Conker and Marbles tournaments in autumn and winter. Many of his former students kept in touch with him, such is the profound impact he had on their lives.
This love of the English language and his obsession with words were put to good use when he communicated with those he coached. His text messages often resulted in us scrabbling for a dictionary. As an example, when Brian Lenihan planned to run in the Blackrock A.C. 5k in 2019, shortly after the Boston Marathon, he received the following message from Jerry:
Rumour has it you are running a race tomorrow Brian. Must be apocryphal because to do so would be folly….
Love for Blackrock A.C.
The Blackrock A.C. quiz was an important event in Jerry’s calendar, and he attended every year with his partner Ursula. Once the Dublin City Marathon was finished, he would start asking “any date for the quiz yet?” to ensure it was in his diary. He loved quizzes, where he could put his general knowledge to good use. Our quiz being in an athletic club made it more significant to him. His competitive nature came to the fore; once after yet another second (“first loser”) place finish, he approached host Peter Cosgrove and said “Do you really have to have all these soap opera and feckin’ X Factor questions every year?”
Do you really have to have all these soap opera and feckin’ X Factor questions every year?
Jerry was probably best known for his insightful analysis of athletics on RTE over two decades where he combined to such good effect his love of words with his extensive knowledge of athletics and a great ability to read the tactics of a race. Like everything he did in life he took it seriously and hours of research went into every TV appearance. He was loved for the fact that he told it as it is; even athletes he coached were not spared the occasional lambasting live on air.
Some of his comments went viral; after the opening ceremony at the London Olympics he announced to the nation that “the panjandrums can move aside and the games can begin”.
The panjandrums can move aside and the games can begin.
As a Kerryman, his achievements in the 1980’s were often over-shadowed by the county footballers. He was openly critical of the attention given to other sports such as the GAA and rugby. This stemmed from his love of athletics as a truly international sport, compared with purely domestic or “minority” sports.
His achievements as a coach meant more to Jerry than any of his own athletic achievements. He coached elite athletes such as Ciara Mageean, John Travers, Joe Sweeney (a former Blackrock A.C. member) and Kevin Dooney, and competitive runners like me. He brought Ciara on a journey from being barely able to walk due to injury to becoming a European 1500m medalist, forging a deep friendship along the way. However, he made no distinction between levels of ability; everyone was given the same attention. In 2016 Ciara Mageean broke the national indoor 1500m record. In the immediate aftermath of the race one of the first things Jerry said to her, with a beaming smile, was “did you hear Barry ran a PB marathon in Seville?”
He was incredibly inclusive, and anyone was welcome to join his group. He loved the diversity of the group which included people of all ages and backgrounds. In recent years people from Ukraine, Iran, Eritrea, Italy and China joined us. Jerry loved how this enriched the group and enjoyed learning from them. He could not let a runner go by without a nod or a few words of encouragement; if they stopped for a chat they often ended up joining the group.
Jerry loved Italy. He visited there regularly with Ursula as they have an apartment near Lake Garda. He loved the climate, the red wine, the food and their love of football. He visited Er Buchetto café in Ranelagh every day, where he enjoyed practising his Italian with staff. Despite his love of Italy, he would frequently say to us that “there’s no place I’d rather be than Belfield on a Tuesday night”.
There’s no place I’d rather be than Belfield on a Tuesday night.
I was blessed and privileged to have had Jerry Kiernan as my coach for almost ten years. He was more than a coach, he was a father-figure, a mentor, an inspiration, and a truly great friend. On behalf of Blackrock A.C. I would like to express our sincere condolences to Ursula and to Jerry’s family. Festina Lente.
May he rest in peace.