He was a leader on and off the track - his legacy to athletics will be lasting
They cried, they laughed, they reflected. For those who knew Jerry Kiernan, this had all come too soon, a traumatic, impossibly grim situation that made no sense.
On Wednesday night, Kiernan had been texting friends shortly before going to bed, cracking a joke to one of them about Donald Trump. Hours later, he was gone.
The 67-year-old passed away in the early hours of Thursday morning and the cause is not yet known, though Kiernan had been struggling with his health for months and dealing with stomach complaints.
He had never been diagnosed with Covid-19, but had battled fatigue for a sustained period and thought he might have contracted it at some point. For those who knew him, he leaves behind a gaping void.
"He was so much more than a coach, he was a friend, like a father figure for me," said Ciara Mageean, who Kiernan coached from 2012 to 2017. "Words will never sum up what he means to me. He'll never be replaced."
John Treacy, a team-mate of Kiernan's at the 1984 Olympics, told me he was "floored" when he heard the news yesterday and having trained with the Kerryman for years in the early 1980s, he came to know him as a friend. "He gave a huge amount to athletics down through the years," he said. "The contribution he made is second to none."
To many, Kiernan was best known for his work as a TV pundit, but that was one tiny facet of a life that left its imprint on thousands. For 40 years, he taught at St. Brigid's Boys' School in Foxrock where he was beloved. "I've met loads of his students down through the years and they'd always say the same thing: he was the greatest teacher of all time," said Treacy. "The parents told me the kids absolutely worshipped him."
As an athlete, Kiernan possessed an enviable diversity of class. A native of Listowel, he was always 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 career, and a sense that inter-county stars received far more credit than their achievements or 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 1500m to the marathon. A sub-four-minute miler, he won the Dublin Marathon in 1982 and 1992 and finished ninth in the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon in 1984.
One of his biggest rivals was Dick Hooper, and while they weren't fond of each other at the time, the respect was unquestionable. Hooper is a Dubliner who ran for Raheny, Kiernan a Kerryman who ran for Clonliffe Harriers.
"It's hard to love your enemy," said Hooper. "In the '80s there was a period where we were bitter rivals, both looking for the same spots and we didn't talk much. But later in life we did, the war was over."
Racing Kiernan, you had to be ready to hurt. "He was tough as nails and he loved to lead," added Hooper. "He put us all under pressure from the gun."
At Clonliffe, Kiernan was known as 'Hairy Lugs', owing to his unkempt hair, and his clubmates revered him. "He was the hero in the pack," says Noel 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."
The Kiernan we all saw on TV? That was the same person Guiden knew from the clubhouse bar. "He was willing to give his opinion, whether you agreed or not," he said.
In an age of bland analysis, Kiernan's cutting assessments were utterly refreshing. "He was brash, charismatic, opinionated, and the sport has a dearth of that now," said 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."
Kiernan was the same with the athletes he coached, and John Travers felt the brunt of it a few times. A nine-time national champion, he was coached by Kiernan since 2013 and such was their connection that Travers' three-year-old son called Kiernan Granddad Jerry.
"He's been a great coach, a mentor, a friend," says Travers. "Since my dad passed away, I always turned to him like a father. He's possibly the most genuine person I've ever met."
It was a sentiment echoed by all those I spoke to about Kiernan: the hardiest of bastards as a runner; the most honest of analysts as a pundit; the most caring and considerate of coaches; and a man who taught so much, to so many, far beyond the classroom.