Over the numerous occasions that I have had the pleasure of interviewing athletes from the famed Kilkenny City Harriers Club, a couple of names have consistently been proffered by many as major cogs in the massive power wheel that has been one of Ireland’s most successful athletic academies.
One is Sean Byrne. Another is Sean Lynch, writes BArrie Henriques.
Of course there have been many, many more superb slaves to the cause of the ’Harriers, but we chanced upon Sean Lynch in our travels, and we felt that there was none better qualified to talk in a personal fashion about athletics in Kilkenny than the now retired Vocational School teacher, the never-short-of-a-word Sean.
Born in the parish of Castlepollard in County Westmeath, Sean’s early sporting life was bound up with the GAA, and in particular, football. A country lad, his local village was Finea.
“The Garden of Eden has vanished they say,
But I know the lie of it still
Just turn to the left at the bridge of Finea,
And stop when half way to Cootehill”.
That is the demographic of Sean Lynch’s origins.
Sean rested in Monaghan for a few years, where again his sporting agenda was governed by a leather football, tied with a leather phong (string), invariably mis-shapen at the point where the leather phong closed the opening where the bladder was pushed through and the ball pumped up. In wet conditions, unlike today’s footballs, the ball weighed double, and was practically impossible to kick or grab.
Sean Byrne got him involved
He moved to St Finian’s in Mullingar, playing club and county football. He moved to Dublin before pitching his tent in Kilkenny in the Vocational School on the Callan Road.
Sean married Kilkenny girl, Sheila Downey in 1968, and their family of four - Aine, Michael, Martina and Julie - was the catalyst that propelled Sean into athletics.
“I quite simply never took part in any kind of sports, cross-country running, firing weights or any kind of projectile, but when Áine showed some potential at a sports in O’Loughlin Gaels, the iconic Sean Byrne came to us to enquire whether she would join the ’Harriers,” he explained when he began to unfold the story. “That all happened around 1978 or 1979. From then I was well employed driving her to events all over the place, holding a tape, digging a long jump pit, or a high jump pit.”
Sean Byrne was a hugely important element in the on-going evolution of Kilkenny City Harriers?
“Sean Byrne was the blood that flowed through the KCH vein,” insisted Mr Lynch. “They threw away the mould that made people of the qualities of Sean Byrne. He was a truly remarkable man in every sense. He was one of the founding members of Kilkenny City Harriers in 1953, and I think that there is only one more member still alive who was present on that auspicious occasion, Johnny Kirwan out in Conahy.”
Sean is prepared to admit that he may be mistaken on that statistic, and that there might be another founder still about, so if there is, he unconditionally apologises for his misrepresentation of the fact.
We did suggest that Community Games were the all-embracing bedrock of evolving athletes.
“Kids really didn’t have a clue as to the discipline they wanted to excel at, or what they might be best suited to.” A matter of fact or bold statement, would you concur Sean?
Enjoy running and jumping
“To a certain extent, but in clubs youngsters up to certain ages really just come to enjoy the running and jumping,” he said. “Some toddlers would even see themselves as an Eileen O’Keeffe. But over time, and development through good coaching, they find their niche and go for it.”
Sean tried to encourage the Vocational School students to get involved with athletics. Some did. Some told him (from a distance) to take a hike. He didn’t mind. He is a self-confessed non-athlete.
“I never took part in an athletic competition in my life, but I saw my role as a mentor, coach, organiser,” Sean smiled. “Of course I availed of some excellent coaching courses organised by Athletics Ireland. The club continued to grow, and like other sports that get seasonal TV exposure and a subsequent surge in interest, our time had surges like the Olympics, World Championships etc.
“Presently we have over 400 under-age athletes on our books. Scanlon Park would be our base camp, but we also use other areas like the Castle Park, Kilkenny College, St Kieran’s College and so on. There is a huge amount of work involved in keeping athletes interested, because there is such a varying demand, and such a diversity of disciplines.
“No two disciplines are the same. A sprinter will need a far different horizon than a long-distance runner. A hammer thrower will have very little in common with a javelin thrower. There will be a little crossover in preparation techniques, but it is minimal really.”
Sean is a tremendous admirer of the team ethic in sport.
“I feel that athletics in many of its disciplines satisfy the team ethic better than most other sports,” he continued. “For instance, in cross-country running the lad that comes in fourth gets nothing unless he has team mates running into sixth, tenth, twelfth places and so on. And none of them get a red soul unless the other team man can get placed 34th or thereabouts.
Last finisher is important
“So in point of fact, the last lad home is more important than the earlier lads. Our club, as you might have read during the Summer, won their way into the Premiership of athletic competition in Ireland. Our ladies have been there for years, but this year, we have a terrific crop of young men with tremendous discipline and dedication, and through desperately hard graft, and magnificent coaching we managed to get into the Premier League. That was a magical moment for our club, and one to be relished,” he beamed.
To emphasise his theory about the team ethic, Sean pointed to the statistic that KCH have won the Leinster relay title more than anyone else in the province.
“Sean Byrne enticed Liam Hehir to sponsor a Shield for the Leinster relay championships, and KCH have won that title with such tremendous regularity that we almost own it,” he laughed.
He has a great belief in the cross-country ethic.
“It is of tremendous value to middle and long distance runners,” Sean felt. “We have a brilliant young man, Eoin Everard, and he had an exceptional cross-country season last year, winning the national novice title. He was in great shape for the National Track Championships in Santry. In the 1,500m final he was beaten on the nod for the title, but it was still a brilliant achievement.
“And while we are talking, sure didn’t Kiara, Eoin’s sister, have a super year too. She won the Collegiate Championships indoor in Nenagh, and she also won the National indoor Championship in the Odyssey (Belfast) for good measure. Kiara broke Sonia O’Sullivan’s indoor 800m under-23 record, which is a massive achievement, given that she is still only 21 years young.”
Sean is never happier than when he is up in Scanlon Park with the athletes. It is hectic some nights with the demands on space, coaches, treatments; things can be suffocating.
“Coaching has to be scheduled to a finely tuned schedule, otherwise there would be chaos,” he smiled. “The support of parents is key. Without that support you will not need coaches or facilities, because you would only have chaos, given the numbers interested in athletics. We have nearly 40 great coaches in the club presently.”
I pushed Sean hard for a few names, and whilst he is experienced enough to know that naming people is a hazardous exercise, he eventually acceded to my request.
“Of the top of my head, we have Ned and Geraldine Nolan, Peter and Deirdre Lyons, Jim Langton, Michael Manning, Shirley Lannigan, Frank and Deirde Minogue, Matt Gilsenan, Matt Peters, Ann Roberts, Gráinne Timmons, Noel and Niamh Richardson, and so many more (blame me for pushing him on naming names).
“They organise a circuit training schedule for a limited number of athletes, not more than a dozen. All the athletes in that group would be primarily runners. Another group coming behind them with their circuit would have another equally qualified coach, and so on, until all needs are serviced. You have athletes training for the javelin, the discus, or the hammer. These are specialist and rather dangerous sports if not done or policed properly. So obviously you just couldn’t put any of those disciplines anywhere close to lads that would be running on the track, or jumping, or such like. Neither could you have them in tandem with each other. It takes some scheduling to satisfy all needs.”
We got to talking about the high rollers in the club which brought fabulous acclaim to KCH.
“In my time the first great star was Sinead Delahunty, and then we had Geraldine Nolan. Both of them went to America on scholarship, and while Sinead remained Stateside, Geraldine returned prematurely. Sinead did great things in America. It was a source of great pride to us in KCH that she competed with the best in the World over there and beat many of them.
“She was a fabulous 1,500m athlete. We had a superbly talented young lady from Hugginstown, Emily Maher, who won gold in Moscow (100 and 200 metres) in the World Youth Olympics. She subsequently ran in Sydney, suffered injury shortly afterwards, and that about finished a tremendous career.
“Then Adrian O’Dwyer represented us in the Athens Olympics. He was very upset afterwards, because he was injured, and just couldn’t perform.”
Has he ever been to an Olympic finals when his own KCH athletes were competing?
“I tried to get to London, but I failed three times to get tickets,” he answered. “I did go to China, and what an experience that was. We had Joanne Cuddihy and Eileen O’Keeffe carrying the Kilkenny flag. Unfortunately, both were carrying injuries and they just couldn’t perform to their best.”
You had a great grá for Eileen?
“Ah yes,” he assured. “She was a tremendous athlete. The great thing about her was the fact that she was self-taught in the main. She did it all herself. You have to give her enormous credit that she managed to get herself into the top five hammer throwers in the World, easily qualify for an Olympic Games, establish herself as one of the favourites for a medal, and still completed her nurses training, continuing to qualify as a Theatre Nurse in the Mater. What an unbelievable achievement that was.
“It was such a pity she got that knee injury, because I felt that she would have brought home an historic first Olympic medal to Kilkenny. Her story was that of absolute dedication and superb willpower. She would schedule her holidays to coincide with international competition.
“A superb member of a very proud club.”
The Cuddihy family have been magnificent competitors and supporters of Kilkenny City Harriers?
“Where would you start to list the contribution made by that wonderful family? That family presented us with two Olympic athletes, one, Joanne a double Olympian. We went to Beijing for the Olympics in support of Joanne, and what an unbelievable experience that was for her family, who were all there. It was a hair-on-the-nape-of-your-neck moment to see her come down that ramp as the teams entered the famed Bird’s Nest.
“For myself and Sheila it was the trip of a lifetime, as we took in everything that was to be seen. Then we had Joanne and Catriona on the Olympic bus in London, and try as I could, I was unable to get tickets. I had to content myself with watching our Kilkenny girls on the TV.”
The Norwood family name came up. I spoke of Robbie; Sean spoke of Fiona.
“Fiona went Stateside too and was a very successful hurdler, but she returned home after a number of years on the Collegiate circuit out there,” he insormed. “She is back where it all started for her, with the Fit for Life section of the club. Irene Heneberry and Deirdre Scott have established an impressive club within a club, with Fiona very much a serious part of that development.”
Such is the attraction of the Fit for Life club that the membership has swelled to nearly 200 members. Many of them have competed in such marathons as the Dublin City, Paris, Cork and more.
Sean Lynch is very much a grounded individual. Of course he is thrilled to have Olympians, national and county champions in his beloved KCH, but a youngster trying their best to improve probably delights him as much as any other.
“There is only one winner, but a young boy or girl struggling to find their niche, or improving their ability at whatever discipline is as equally important for our club,” is his philosophy.
He spoke of the dedication of coaches and the demands that a competition day throws on them. While an athlete knows his schedule, a coach might have a number of athletes in his stable, and he must see them all through their day.
On a matter of costs, we found that a membership fee, which covers the usual insurance, affiliations and so on costs €100. It does not cover competition fees. Equipment (spikes, singlet, shorts, wet gear and so on costs more).
Eileen O’Keeffe would have paid in the region of €200 for a hammer, for example. Obviously when she hooked up to the Olympic Squad she was subsidised, but it took a lot of hammers and discus implements to get her to those heights.
A similar story would apply to javelin throwers and pole vaulters.
The workers, the organisers
As in life, they say that behind every man there is a woman, but behind every great man there is a better woman. So too in sport.
“Behind every club there is a need of workers, and without them you have little or no chance of success,” Sean said when he went back to basics. “Behind every successful club you would have a committee of exceptionally hard-working, dedicated people, who in the main might never have competed.
“In KCH we have always had exceptional people catering for the every need of our athletes. I doubt if there is a better caucus of outstanding officialdom in any club, anywhere in the country. Our competition secretary, May Barron is an extraordinary lady, who has a back-breaking responsibility in affiliation and entry of all our athletes in competitions nationwide, and further afield.
“Entries are simply not just writing a name on a sheet of paper. Every last detail of every athlete is recorded on the entry. Multiply that task over 200 times in any given week, and you can see a workload of major proportion. Fiona McGeary does enormous work as registrar, while Michael Lanigan (solicitor) is the chairman. Colette Fitzpatrick is our secretary, while I cover the PRO duties.”
“I would love to have been an athlete,” he smiled. “I would love doing the training, particularly when I see the likes of Brian Maher hammering out the hard miles. Now there is a marvellous distance runner, a man for whom I have a mighty regard.”
Any one event, win, loss, record-breaking effort that comes readily to mind over the long number of years he is involved at the coalface of KCH?
After a long consideration he said: “One day at the nationals in Santry in 2007, Eileen O’Keeffe threw her first hammer, breaking the national record. She threw her second hammer, and broke her own record. A third hammer improved on that figure, while her fourth effort was disqualified, but her fifth throw created another national record. I will never forget that day. I was elated.”
One memory among a million. Sean’s life has been enriched watching the achievements of others doing something he never did himself.