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'Just a fearless guy... He was far more a friend than just a colleague'

RTÉ’s Peter Collins and Greg Allen recall their time working with athletics legend Jerry Kiernan.

RTÉ BROADCASTING GIANT Bill O’Herlihy turns to Jerry Kiernan in studio, the final of a steeplechase event about to get underway at a major athletics championship.

jerry-kiernan Irish athletics great Jerry Kiernan passed away this week. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He needs an expert’s opinion before they cut to the live coverage but he has a feeling about how this one’s going to go.

“Jerry, I presume we’re looking at a Kenyan 1-2-3?,” the presenter inquires.

“I don’t think so, Bill,” comes the reply. “There’s only two of them in the final.”

Another one for you.

This time with Peter Collins playing the TV anchor role and Kiernan starring once again as the pundit.

The heat of the men’s 110m hurdles has just taken place and has been won by an athlete named Andrew Bullitt. Collins can’t remember if it was an Olympics or a World Championships.

Either way, a commercial break follows directly after the race before coming back to the studio where Collins resumes the coverage with a juicy line.

“I went straight to Jerry and said, ‘Well, Jerry, Bullitt fairly shot out of the blocks there, didn’t he?

“He said, ‘Peter, you were thinking about saying that for the entire duration of the break.”

Collins breaks into hearty laughter reliving it all with The42 over the phone. There’s laughs and smiles after almost every story about Kiernan. 

Most people — including this writer — only ever came to know Kiernan from the sitting room side of the television screen. And in truth, it’s the unmerciful assessment of an athlete’s performance that resonates the most when we think of him.

But there was warmth, charisma and humour in Kiernan too. Bucket loads of it. Those who were close to him saw it when they were away from the cameras and the studio lights.

****

Er Buchetto in Ranelagh is a place that gets a mention from Collins and fellow RTÉ colleague Greg Allen while recalling their memories of Kiernan.

An authentic Italian café, Allen assuredly tells The42 that it’s a coffee shop that would sit neatly on the streets of Milan.

Ciara Mageean also gave the café an affectionate nod when speaking about the great Kerry man on Second Captains, just 24 hours after her former mentor’s sudden passing.

According to Allen, an invitation to coffee at Er Buchetto was a sign that you were now in Kiernan’s circle. He had a spot that he liked to sit in, and you were welcome to join.

“It was a two-hour commitment,” says Allen about those coffee chats with the retired teacher, and Irish Olympian.

“He’d talk athletics for 10 minutes. The next 15 minutes, you’d talk about anything ranging from his house beside Lake Garda in Italy, Barcelona, and the entire news agenda of the world would be spoken about before we’d get back to athletics.

“If he wasn’t entertaining somebody, he’d have his iPad out and be reading away. He was religious about it, he went down every weekday and he would have spent the hours of 10-12 there.

“It was just part of his daily routine after he retired.”

martin-oneill-is-interviewed-by-peter-collins Peter Collins speaking to former Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill in 2018. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Those meetings in Ranelagh are the standout memories for Collins, who worked with Kiernan at several athletic meets over the years. Their working relationship stretches all the way back to the 90s.

The pair were actually supposed to speak this week to make plans for the athletic season ahead. There’s an Olympics to hopefully look forward to, along with whatever other major championships that can proceed under Covid conditions.

“I spoke to him on the phone a few months ago and he said he hadn’t been feeling well,” says Collins. 

“You get used to working with people from all walks and different sports, and you establish on-air relationships with them. And sometimes you establish a friendship with them. But Jerry was different.

“Everybody knew Jerry had a heart of gold. So, everybody really liked him.”

****

Kiernan’s notes, Collins recalls, were always handwritten. He researched every athlete that he commented on, putting in extra homework time into the ones that he wasn’t as familiar with.

“The battery on your notebook isn’t going to die, or anything else,” says Collins about Kiernan’s old school approach to punditry. “He’d have notes on pretty much every athlete.”

When Allen was in Kiernan’s company, he spoke very little when athletics came up in conversation, choosing instead to benefit from the knowledge of someone who was a two-time national cross country champion, and who had broken the four-minute mile.

In 1990, Allen accompanied a group that included Kiernan on a warm weather training trip to Yugoslavia. Allen considered himself to be a “grade C” runner, streets beneath Kiernan’s world level standard.

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He was reluctant to join when Kiernan invited him to go for a run, but eventually gave in and tried his best to keep up.

“I was grand thinking it was great fun to be able to go out and run with Jerry. But of course, he did what he always does and started cranking up the pace.

sonia-osullivan-and-greg-allen Greg Allen pictured with Sonia O'Sullivan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Jerry was talking away and I was unable to do anything other than run. Jerry was talking the whole way. So I got the world according to Jerry running flat out. But that indicated what Jerry was.

“He was someone who knew no boundaries to pushing himself hard. He was just a fearless guy.” 

****

Despite his taste for controversial statements, Collins never worried about sharing a studio with Kiernan. There was never a time when an off-air conversation was needed to bring him back into line or correct his tone.

In fact, he thought of Kiernan as the “perfect pundit.”

The precision of his analysis and his unfiltered honesty was always welcome.

“You knew his judgement was good, and you knew he wouldn’t overstep a mark,” says Collins.

“There are pundits who take it a little bit too far, and maybe personalise it too much. But Jerry didn’t do that. He based his views purely on performance, and what he knew about athletes in terms of their preparation and their application to the sport.

“He never personalised it.

“If you tried to be too clever, Jerry was the first to pull you up.”

Kiernan’s opposition to the established sports like the GAA is well known. He was never afraid to articulate his feelings about what he felt was a disproportionate amount of coverage of the sport. He was also quite critical of the sport’s interpretation of fitness.

It was an ironic position for a Kerry native to be in, and his stance brought plenty of pushback.

Allen, however, could appreciate where those frustrations came from.

“He wouldn’t have been a big lover of the establishment and he would have seen the GAA as an organisation that stole lots of great athletes from athletics,” Allen explains.

“He’d see so many fine athletes that were probably also playing with GAA clubs, and he would have seen them as a loss to athletics, and what they could have done with their talent on the international stage.

“I would have sympathised with a great deal of that. I recognise the position that GAA has in Ireland with regard to what it does for the country, but it does mop of masses of athletes, especially down the country.” 

****

A true icon of Irish athletics has passed away. 67 is much too young to die.

Kiernan leaves a lasting legacy behind, one that has the greatest hits in the running and coaching portions of his career.

As a runner, he produced one of his greatest performances to finish ninth in the marathon at the 1984 Olympics. He also won the Dublin Marathon twice — in 1982 and 1992 — while also earning that sub-four-minute mile result in 1976.

He was the coach who helped resurrect Ciara Mageean’s career and help her to become an Olympian and European medallist. She has said that parting ways with him was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make.

John Travers and Joe Sweeney were both coached by him too.

The Er Buchetto café posted a tribute to Kiernan yesterday, saluting their loyal customer who had a home in their shop.

Allen is still struggling to talk about Kiernan in the past tense while for Collins, the moments spent away from the studio will always stand out more to him.

“People pass away and you get used to lots of sad stories in recent times. I must say I was rocked back on my heels when I heard the news. I really couldn’t believe it.

“He was far more a friend than just a colleague. I’ll miss him dearly.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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