Starting with a small pub, from which he bartered groceries for piglets, Bronx-born Buddy had an eye for innovation and expansion, and built one of the biggest pig businesses in Europe and a booming feed mill. His widow and two of his 12 children explain what made him stand out
At the age of 14, in 1945, Patrick ‘Buddy’ Kiernan first observed the bartering of pigs for groceries in his family pub — an exchange that sparked the beginnings of one of the largest pig businesses in Europe.
Bronx-born Buddy had arrived in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, along with his parents and siblings, on The Argentina, the first cargo ship back to Ireland after World War II.
Willie and Julia Kiernan had decided to uproot their family from New York and give the pub trade a go back home, and the decision certainly paid off.
More than 10 years after Buddy’s death, his wife Teresa (known as ‘Teedie’), son Mark and daughter Noeleen reflect on his life, legacy and how generations of the Kiernan family are still striving to achieve his boundless business ambitions.
In ‘The American Room’ of Buddy Kiernan Milling headquarters in Granard, Co Longford, Teedie puts her late husband’s career into context.
“Buddy came home with a new bicycle, rollerblades with lights on them, and he wore white suits… the children were completely different, so everyone in Ballinamore wanted to be their friend.
“His parents and mine were good friends, we owned a local shop, Sweeney’s.
“I started seeing him at 17. He was quiet; people of that generation were like that, they just got on with it.
“His father saw a pub for sale in Cavan (in Aughakilmore, Ballymachugh) bought it and said, ‘off you go now Buddy, run that’. He moved to Cavan in 1952 and we got married in ’53.
“We had a pub, a shop, a few bits of sheds for cattle, no electricity and a child born every year. We sold everything from a needle to an anchor.
“There was a lot of credit — people would come and barter with a pig: they’d give a small pig in lieu of bread or butter and we kept the pigs.
“Buddy had a travelling shop. It was a big deal for people in the country to get into the towns, so he went to farms and came home with pigs and eggs. We needed to figure out what to do with them.”
Mark, the youngest of couple’s 12 children (eight boys, four girls), explains how his father experimented with different husbandry systems at the back of the family pub.
“The agriculture industry in Ireland then was predominantly mixed farming: people milked cows, had a few pigs, a few chickens, the sows had one litter a year, with the piglets sold in the mart.”
Buddy fed his pigs skimmed milk with barley and studied how to get them comfortable to perform better. Eventually, he built the ‘Cavan House’, a design that let air in through the side and out through the roof.
Then he built a sow unit for growing and finishing pigs on one site, a first of its kind, which generated significant interest from animal scientists in Ireland and Denmark.
Buddy developed a business relationship with two local pig farmers, Pat Hanley who ran a processing plant for pigs in Rooskey, Co Roscommon, and Benny Maguire who ran a pig farm.
Mark continued: “In the ’50s and ’60s it was very difficult to source large amounts of pigs, you could only buy small amounts from loads of different farmers. So they went in together to have a more consistent supply going into the factory. Everything developed from that.
“Buddy replicated his pig houses on the Maguire and Hanley farms. They started to develop and understand the animal; between them they had five farms.
“There were no other pig farms between here and Cork and the Department of Agriculture used Buddy’s Cavan House to advise other farmers and to seek his knowledge.
“Slurry from the farms was a high-value product to local farmers who couldn’t afford artificial fertiliser.
“There was employment too: workers were needed to bring pigs to the factory, draw slurry, for husbandry, repairs and maintenance.
“Everything had to be whitewashed, spotless. All that is so important because there is less risk of spreading diseases that affect pigs’ growth.”
Although Hanley, Kiernan and Maguire bought feed for their pig farms from Boland’s in Dublin, Buddy wanted a more consistent source of quality feed.
After securing an EEC grant, they built a state-of-the-art mill in Granard in 1979, to manufacture 300t of feed per week. Trading as HKM, it employed 20 people in the area, including truck drivers drawing raw materials from the docks, mostly wheat, barley, maize and soya.
As time moved on, the Kiernan offspring became more centrally involved.
Noeleen says: “We were all on the farms. I worked in the piggery from when I was a small child. Your wages were on the number of pigs sold; your job was to keep them alive.
“You just did what you were told. ‘Are you going to sleep all day?’ he’d say to you at 6.0 in the morning,” she smiles, adding: “We had a great time”.
While HKM’s feed business and Buddy’s pig business thrived, the ’70s and ’80s were not without hardship.
In ’89, Buddy bought some of his business partners’ pig farms and also bought them out of the milling business, with an ambition to increase tonnage and its share in the pig feed market. He kept the HKM name for 10 years, before changing it to Kiernan Milling.
The first expansion doubled the production capacity of the plant and, in 2005, he added a new tower to compress feed into a mash which allowed pigs to spend less time eating but consume more — another new innovation.
It put the company on track to producing 250,000t of feed annually, increasing by 20/30,000t each year, and supplying over 100 merchants and customers from Malin Head to Mizen Head.
Buddy also expanded into the poultry feed business and entered the ruminant market, buying Stewart’s animal feed business in Boyle, Co Roscommon in 2007.
Kiernan’s pig farms, meanwhile, housed almost 20pc of the national pig herd (around 300,000).
Buddy was enjoying a wave of growth and financial success, but died on May 12, 2010, after a brief illness, aged 78.
Noeleen says her father “was involved in decisions right up to the end”.
“He never had any intention of just leaving it — he knew everything that was going on, the food conversion rate, the born alive, he asked questions, and all the children knew the answers.”
Mark took over as chairman of Kiernan Milling, since renamed Buddy Kiernan Milling, in 2010 as the sector battled the economic downturn.
“When you look back you just wonder how you were able to keep going, but we just got on with it,” he says.
“Our new mill, K2, has been the biggest investment since Dad passed away — the site can now manufacture half a million tonnes annually.
“But my father’s ambition still hasn’t been achieved. He was always aware of the growing environmental pressures on Irish agriculture, and renewable energy is the next one for us.”
The next generation of Kiernans are also joining the fold with new enthusiasm and ideas for the dynasty.
“My own two sons are interested, there will be work there for them if they want it,” says Mark.
“Loads of my brothers’ and sisters’ children are involved too or want to get involved. We have a very loyal staff and we are grateful to them.
“Our nephew Oisín Kiernan (a county footballer with Cavan) is also managing a pig farm and niece Leanne Kiernan (who plays soccer for Liverpool and Ireland) loves working in the piggery and will probably come back to it.
“Of the pig farms that Buddy built and developed, he gave them out to my brothers, and if anyone wants to sell, we will do our damnedest to buy them and keep them in the Kiernan name.
“And that’s him behind us having that pride that they stay within the family name.”
During the last 10 years of his life Buddy regularly went back to New York to revisit the places where he grew up. “He was always a bit of a Yankee, he had all the Yankee sayings,” says Noeleen.
Teedie adds: “His New York upbringing definitely shaped his approach to business in Ireland — he saw tough times over there and he knew nothing was for nothing, you had to work at it. He left us set up for life.”
The death of Cumann na nGaedheal politician and farmer Patrick Reynolds, who was shot and killed while canvassing during the general election of 1932, had a profound impact on young Buddy Kiernan’s political convictions.
Though the Leitrim-Sligo election was postponed that year, Buddy held deep admiration for his aunt Mary, Patrick’s widow, who went on to win the seat and served in the Dáil for 25 years, Buddy’s daughter Noeleen explains.
Buddy became chairman of Cavan County Council, having been first elected in 1967, with the many hands of his children making lighter work of his campaign.
“We stood in ditches to put posters on polls, you were told ‘the car is out there, go and collect such a fella’, even though I didn’t know how to drive, I’d only driven a tractor,” says Noeleen. “But anything he asked you to do you just got up and did it.”
Buddy was also a well-known Fine Gael fundraiser and regarded as a close associate of former taoisigh John Bruton and Enda Kenny.
He served as chairman of Fine Gael Trustees until his resignation in 2001 over his refusal to accept a political donation from a communications company to the party.
Though Buddy believed no wrongdoing had occurred, his family say he decided to step down because “he didn’t like his integrity being challenged”.
“His blood was blue; he was a solid Blueshirt,” says Noeleen. “The party regularly sought his advice about politics on the ground in Cavan, Longford and Westmeath.
“But that time was difficult for him because he knew he didn’t do anything wrong, and John Bruton always acknowledged that.”
Buddy was a chief shareholder in Shannonside Northern Sound until its sale to Radio Kerry in 2005 too.
He provided generous support to local causes — he made a £50,000 donation to Cavan General Hospital — and sponsored legendary long-distance runner Catherina McKiernan.
His widow Teedie says: “Buddy had an awful lot of empathy for people. They rang him with all kinds of problems, and he would get it dealt with it — be it banks, loans, jobs, or calling politicians.
“But you never knew what he’d done — he didn’t want the spotlight.”
The post-2008 economic downturn in Ireland “is nothing compared to what’s happening now”, says Mark Kiernan, chairman of Buddy Kiernan Milling.
Reflecting on the challenges his family business has faced since the loss of his father Buddy, Mark says the Government’s response to the energy crisis has been “very unclear”.
“We didn’t foresee this spike in energy — our electricity bill is up by over 150pc, the gas is not far behind it,” he says.
“The Government is talking about having to shut off between five and seven in the evening — to us that is not practical or realistic if you have thousands and thousands of animals to feed, and 100 people employed.
“We have achieved a 58pc reduction in carbon since 2015 but our ambition is to get to net zero with the help of government, local authorities and stakeholders.
“We are investigating renewable projects as it is a necessity for our industry.
Ciaran Nally, CEO of the company, warns that the high-cost situation compounded by Russia’s war on Ukraine means “pigs are getting scarce”.
“People got out, so prices are going to rise,” he says. “The market has given a reduction in pig feed prices of €20/t on €400/t — that is significant.
“The pig market will recover bit by bit but it’s going to cost a huge amount of money to keep everything going at the same pace.
“An increase of €20/t means an additional €1m is needed in cash-flow just to stand still, and ours is gone up by €150/t to €350/t.
“We are working with the banks — every industry now needs more money to keep going.”