"And still they gazed , and still the wonder grew, That one small head could carry all he knew”.
All who knew Jerry Kiernan were amazed by the scope and depth of his erudition. Here was a man who was truly a polymath. His rich personality encompassed so many traits: brilliant athlete, superb and empathetic coach, the most honest of analysts, the most inspiring of teachers .He was also extremely funny. And a loyal friend.
Many people will remember Jerry only as a world class athlete. He was, in the words of one journalist who paid him tribute “the hardiest of bastards”. Yes, he was tough. Some of his training sessions were frightening in their intensity. He was an uncompromising racer. His career has been well documented so I will only touch on a few anecdotes which might not be so well known but which illuminate his character.
After returning from the LA Olympics he was out for a run with his Clonliffe team mates. They came to a dirty puddle of water. His great friend, P. Keane (Jerry always called him P. Keane) stomped in the puddle, splashing Jerry from head to toe. “What was that for?” asked Jerry. “Just because you were 9th in the Olympics doesn’t mean we’re going to treat you any different” came the reply. Jerry stopped and started to laugh: “You know”, he said to us “that’s the reason I didn’t want to stay in the US. They have every facility over there - but they don’t have P. Keane!”
Jerry had indeed received some lucrative offers to stay in the States and run for one of the professional clubs there. But he wasn’t interested. Money didn’t mean much to him. “As long as I know where my next meal is coming from, have a roof over my head, and a few bob in my pocket for a bet on the nags I’m happy” he once told an interviewer.
He did take 18 months of unpaid leave off from his teaching job to live the life of a full time athlete. And he did win some big road races in the US. Won the New Jersey marathon. Won the San Diego half marathon. Won a major 10K road race in the Deep South where the humidity even at 7 a.m. was 90% plus. Here he faced the top American road runner in the country. Jerry had been told that this guy was virtually unbeatable. Had been tested in a lab. Had a Vo2 max. that was over 85. Had a Lactate Threshold of nearly 21 km per hour. He was the perfect specimen. “He even had a perfect f***ing sperm count” was the way Jerry put it. And how did he do against this superman? “I blew his f***ing doors off.”
Jerry continued to turn in superb performances long after his stellar performance in LA. Won the Dublin marathon again. Hoovered up National cross country gold medals with Clonliffe. Represented Ireland several times in the World Cross. Finished 6th in the National Cross Country in 1993 just three months short of his 40th birthday. Was captain of the Irish team for the World Cross. A young Killian Lonergan, who was on the Junior team, remembers the talk he gave to all team members the night before the event. “So articulate. So inspiring. And all off the cuff”. He ran his last National Senior for Clonliffe in ALSAA in 2000. He was not too proud to run on the B team. Think of it: an Olympian, who had achieved so much at the highest level, not too proud to run on a club B team.
But then he was genuinely modest. His great buddies, Rashers Tierney and Murt Coleman tell how he had become very friendly with all the locals in Monticelli, northern Italy, where Jerry and his partner Ursula had an apartment. He had been coming there three or four times a year for about 15 years and had his favourite coffee and wine bars, loving to practise his Italian on the local baristas. Yet, to the amazement of Rashers and Murt, not one of the locals knew what a great athlete Jerry had been. Never mentioned it to anybody.
When his own competitive career ended, Jerry was appointed manager to the Irish International Cross Country teams. An inspired choice on the part of the AAI. “He was”, in the words of that great warrior Vinny Mulvey, “the best manager I ever ran under”. The respect that the runners had for him was palpable. Nobody only Jerry could have succeeded in getting Keith Kelly to come back from the States to run for Ireland in the 2000 European XC C’ships. Keith had just become only the second Irishman to win the NCAAs Division 1 cross country title. Jerry knew that with runners like Seamus Power, Peter Matthews and Gareth Turnbull Ireland had a realistic chance of winning medals .
And so it proved. In the city of Malmö, those four men, backed up by Ken Nason and Fiachra Lombard, took the Bronze medals. It remains the only Irish men’s senior team to win medals at these championships.
Jerry enjoyed continued success with the Irish women’s team, winning Bronze in the World XC C’ships in Leopardstown in 2002 and Bronze again in Edinburgh in the Europeans in 2003. He never took himself took too seriously. When appointed Manager his reaction was “Me - the manager? Sure I can’t even manage myself!” Yet his record speaks for itself.
When his term as team manager came to an end, Jerry was invited by Bill O’Herlihy to become a pundit for RTE television during major athletics events. He took to his role as if made for the part. He soon established himself “as the most honest of analysts” as that fine writer Eamonn Sweeney put it. His knowledge, his honesty, his enthusiasm and sincerity were obvious to all - even to people who knew nothing about the sport. He was a man who couldn’t abide falsehood and as Sweeney also said “The most lovable thing about Jerry was that he didn’t try to be lovable”. He was like Patrick Kavanagh who said “I learned the difficult art of not caring, of having the courage of one’s convictions. The last is the ultimate in sophistication”.
He was a man who respected words and realised their importance. He was described in one tribute as a logophile - a lover of words. And so he was ( He would delight in explaining the provenance of such a word to his pupils: logos , meaning “word” or “discourse” and “phile” or “philia” meaning “love “in Greek). He always chose the word that was precisely apt. He quoted George Orwell on this: “Sloppy language encourages sloppy thinking”. And Jerry had no time for sloppy thinking. He had viewers diving for their dictionaries when he used words like “neophyte”, “dilettante”, “solipsist” - not to mention “panjandrums”. What a contrast with the banal, cliche saturated comments of some pundits!
Some thought that he came across as severe or abrasive. He could be quite critical of athletes, none more so than those he coached himself. As one of his protégés, Kevin Dooney, said “He was completely honest, possibly to a fault in this day and age, because he would tell you exactly what he thought of your race. But never in a mean way. Never to take you down. He only said something because it needed to be heard, to improve you as an athlete or as a person.”
He loved being a pundit as it gave him the opportunity to highlight the worth and quality of his own sport. He constantly reminded viewers that this was a sport that was enacted on a world stage, not some parochial or provincial sport with far fewer demands. He worked tirelessly in his research for those programmes on which he appeared. A total perfectionist, he would stay up into the wee small hours checking out arcane facts about the lesser known athletes who would be competing the next day. At the end of an Olympics or other major championship he would be exhausted but satisfied that he had given it his all.
Jerry didn’t consciously set out to be a coach. It was just that certain athletes started coming to him for advice and Jerry, always the teacher, agreed to “advise” them. He never said he was coaching anybody. Many of his most successful athletes came to him like birds with broken wings. Many of them sought out Jerry when they were suffering physical or emotional breakdown.
And he transformed them into champions.
His coaching philosophy was based on what he called “empirical methods”. He had tried them himself in his illustrious career and he distilled what had worked and passed on his wisdom to his young acolytes. For instance, he never allowed them to train as hard as he had himself but emphasised the importance of rest and recovery days. He certainly had a holistic approach to coaching. It was all about the overall welfare of the athlete, not just race results.
He was always “on call” for his protégés, always willing to listen, support and advise. He got many a Yellow Card from the GOATS for using his phone during their dinners, but Jerry was always ready to listen to his runners and help them with whatever problems they might be having. And of course he never asked for a penny from them.
But Jerry was, first and foremost, a teacher. And what a teacher he was! His past pupils still talk about his classes and the enormous positive impact he’d had on their lives. He was completely unorthodox in his methods. “A maverick” was one former student’s description, a word he used as a compliment. Jerry tore up the curriculum and implemented his own methodology.
A typical class might go like this: he’d ask them if they had watched his beloved Barcelona win a Champions League game the night before. He would ask them if they knew in which region of Spain was Barcelona situated. A short Geography lesson followed. Then he might ask why there was such animosity between Barca and Real Madrid. This led onto a discussion of the Spanish Civil War. He’d ask them if they knew that Barca was named after the father of the famous general Hannibal. Switch to a lecture on the wars between Carthage and Rome. Mention of Carthage inspired a talk on the poet Virgil and the siege of Troy. Greek and Roman mythology. Back to football and he might ask had they heard about the latest transfer. The fee might be €80 million. He’d tell them that the footballer’s agent would get 15% of that. So that naturally led to a short Maths lesson as his pupils calculated how much the agent received. And so it went on. Learning was fun and made relevant to everyday life.
Teaching was a vocation for Jerry. Never missed a day’s teaching in 30 years. Gave “grinds” (or ,“tuitions “as he always called them) for free. Set his pupils interesting tasks and rewarded them with tee shirts from the Morton Games or the Clonliffe 2 Mile road race, the second oldest race in the world. Parents practically fought to get their sons into Jerry’s class. And, years later, those sons remember him as the best teacher they ever had .
He also taught them about nutrition. He used to have “a healthy sandwich” competition nearly every week. He would bring into school a few large sliced pans and cartons of butter and his pupils would bring in various healthy fillings. He had declared war on junk and greasy foods. Fry-ups were verboten. He was on a mission to promote porridge and liver. He gave one young Clonliffe lad an earful when he caught him eating greasy chips. He tried to get the young girls in the Club to incorporate liver into their diets. Growing tired of hearing Jerry constantly singing the praises of liver one “cheeky young one”, told him “Yes, Jerry; we’re even having liver milk shakes now”. Jerry’s faux stern visage melted at this and he broke up laughing.
More lines from Goldsmith summed him up: “Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught, The love he bore for learning was in fault”.
An important feature of Jerry’s life over the last two decades was his membership of the GOATS. A nefarious group of auld fellas. Jerry would, no doubt, explain the meaning of the word “acronym” to his students. He may not, however, have spelled out the meaning of this one. Grumpy Old Athletes Talking Sophistry (Sophistry? Yeah, right).
As a founding member he insisted that the GOATS had to have an Italian theme. So they always met in either Bar Italia or, more often, Topolis. Jerry loved to converse in Italian to the waiters. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get his fellow GOATS to learn a few words of that beautiful language. With a spectacular lack of success. His only failure as a teacher. Due, according to Jerry, to the “incalcitrant” nature of his unruly students. He was always late for these get togethers, blaming his friends Rashers and Jimmy for leading him astray. The whole night would be taken up with slaggin’ and pseudo argument. Joe and Tony lobbing grenades at Jerry. Paddy, Jimmy, Johnny and Pedro trying to maintain a semblance of order. An observer who didn’t know them would think that they were sworn enemies, instead of best friends. Memorable nights.
A side of Jerry not always apparent was his gentle kindness. This manifested itself even in his attitude to animals. He loved cats. His faithful companion for many years was Puyol. When he passed away he was replaced by Quasimodo. His favourite cat in Italy was a ragged stray whom Jerry dubbed Attila. He told his students about these cats, using their names as launching pads for lessons in sport, literature and history. Always teaching. Before heading out on one of his epic walks, he always filled his little knapsack with scraps of food which he then dispensed to every stray cat and dog that he met on his travels.
He was so happy on those long walks especially around his holiday home in Italy, accompanied by his friends Rashers, Murt, Tony, Jimmy and another great former runner, Brendan Downey. His generosity was further illustrated by the fact that there was a standing invitation to all his friends to stay and holiday in his Italian home. And the craic out there! Who stole his dressing gown? Were there 78 or 79 steps up to his home?
And now this great spirit has left us. And we are still stunned and disbelieving. A philosophy lecturer once asked her students “What is the world with you - as opposed to the world without you?”
In Jerry’s case the answer is clear: the world was a richer place when Jerry was present. It is a poorer place now that he is gone. We were enriched by his presence. Devastated by his death. And we are impoverished by his absence.
As Yeats said: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was I had such friends”.
Farewell old friend. Suaimhneas síoraí duit.
By an old club mate and friend.