Long Read: Flame of passion for athletics burns as brightly as ever for Gowran’s Liam Kealy

John Knox


John Knox

Long Read: Flame of passion for athletics burns as brightly as ever for Gowran’s  Liam Kealy

Still proudly wearing the Gowran AC colours, Liam Kealy looks on at the next generation of Kilkenny’s athletes

He is 72 years old now and the mind may not be as precise in detail as it once was, but Liam Kealy well remembers the time he found his sporting passion.
He was 18. It was 1966. It was a gruelling affair. It involved running three laps of the racing circuit at Gowran Park race track.
His body ached and his lungs screamed for air afterwards, but that challenging first run lit a flame of passion that has burned brightly since.
A local Army man called Milo Kelly was involved in athletics in Kealy’s native Gowran at the time and he was looking for lads to run with him.
“He asked three of us, my brother Eamon and Pat Bolger to join him for a run at Gowran race course,” Liam recalled with some amusement. “I was after getting four teeth out that day. We ran three laps of the race course and I was delighted with myself.
“I didn’t get a toothache for ages after that. It was the best therapy for recovering after getting a tooth out I ever found. That was how it started. That sort of got me hooked and I kept going.”
When we wondered what Kelly thought of the gut busting efforts of the novices, the reply was somewhat amusing: “He was sort of half impressed.”
From that day until he gave up running a few years ago, Liam Kealy has given his all to athletics for club, county and Ireland too.
He was the proud manager of the Irish team when Sonia O’Sullivan was a double winner of the long (8k) and short (4k) course titles at the World cross-country championships in Marrakesh in 1998.
He won a fist full of medals at his favoured discipline, cross-country running, in Kilkenny and backed them up with victories and high place finishes at Leinster and All-Ireland level. He cut a fair dash on the track as well, and while he did his bit of road racing, that was the least appealing aspect of the running game for him.
Pursuit of passion
The pursuit of his passion saw him travel to seven Olympic Games in far flung places from Beijing to Seoul, and who knows how many European and World cross-country championships finals on top of that.
“I saw a bit of high end action alright,” he said when it was suggested he travelled to a fair share of major championship events. “I loved it, and I got to meet great people, great athletes.”
Kealy stood a lean and imposing 6’ 2” in his prime, and his optimum racing weight was 11st 4lbs.
Basically he fell into running because the local GAA club, Young Irelands (Gowran) were usually early fallers in the hurling championship when he was in his youth. With the competitions run on a knock-out basis at that time, it was largely a one game season with whatever team he was involved with.
He did recall one short lived moment of high achievement with Irelands. It was at under-16 level. The team was beaten in the championship and then qualified for the Fr Ryan Cup. They got to the final against Danesfort.
They won. The opposition apparently objected because “we were supposed to have players over-age.” The objection was upheld.
“I have to admit we had,” Liam said of their team, “but then again we found out afterwards that they were probably worse than we were.”
He laughed.
Setback after setback left him longing for more. Kelly then made the life-changing introduction.
In December 1966 Liam Kealy made his cross-country racing debut in Castlecomer on what he recalled was “a terrible day”.
The county novice championship followed at a testing Daly’s Hill in Kilkenny City some weeks later. He finished second over four miles. The Gowran team finished second.
“That was my first ever medal,” he offered with delight.
The county junior championship - a grade up from novice - followed in Skeogh. Liam won it. The intermediate championship raced up weeks later in Clomantagh. Kealy won that too.
“I got a good start,” he suggested, adding that he finished sixth in the senior county cross-country championship the same season.
He never smoked or “did anything stupid” he said when one wondered about his lifestyle. He enjoyed a very odd drink, a sociable drink, a shandy maybe.
“I was happy doing the running,” he insisted. “I enjoyed the training.”
He was a mechanic by trade, starting in Farrell’s of Gowran, where he was part of the service team working on a fleet of trucks. When that company closed he joined Des Hehir bus hire in Kilkenny and subsequently he worked with Connolly’s of Goresbridge, where he finished his career.
These times he confines his sporting outings mainly to local events, although he went to the national indoor championships at the Sport Ireland campus in Abbotstown this year. He admired the splendour of the place, the quality of the competition too.
During his career he won four senior cross-country county championships. He was second on five occasions. When a shortage of numbers in Gowran led to him throwing in his lot with Kilkenny City Harriers he went on to figure on 11 senior cross-country winning teams.
Outside the county he finished second at novice level in Leinster in his first run in Navan.
“That was a fierce eye opener,” he recalled. “There were a couple of hundred racing in it and you needed to be able to look after yourself or you could be knocked over at the start.”
He learned from the experience. He finished second in the Leinster novice in the Kilbeggan racecourse one year when he was beaten by Donie O’Neill from Castlecomer.
The Kilkenny team didn’t have strength in depth, and they didn’t feature in the team section.
Liam Kealy drove on and won the Leinster intermediate cross-country the same year, which was around 1971.
The nearest he got to winning a Leinster senior title was when he was seventh one time.
He always preferred the cross-country discipline. And wait for it, he raced in his bare feet.
He tended to over-stride when wearing running shoes.
“When running in my bare feet I was able to control my stride better,” Liam explained.
To this day he would be indifferent about running shoes, for the simple reason he never found one that suited him perfectly either running or training on the roads or grass.
Liam admitted he couldn’t recall how many Kilkenny titles he won on the track. There were lots. One time he won the 400, 800 and 1,500 titles in the one season.
He won 5,000, 3,000 and so on down through the years also.
He was third in the over 50 race in an All-Ireland indoor championship on one occasion and he was second in an All-Ireland 3-mile event - at that time championships would be farmed out to clubs running Open sports - on a grass track. He was second in a 3-mile championship in Ballinree, Carlow on another occasion.
His heart was captured by the hardship of cross-country running. He was never happy racing on the roads. The heat of the summer didn’t really suit him, but he was in his element in the winter events.
He did his bit at administrative level as well. He never wanted to be a chairman of anything, although he did end up in the chair in Gowran at one point. He did two stints as secretary of the County Board in Kilkenny; he was county PRO; he was on the Leinster Council and served as vice-chairman.
He was, of course, manager of successful Irish cross-country teams and he helped officiate at all the major national championships. He was also the selector from Leinster that picked teams at national level and he served on the national Management Committee for a good few years.
“I suppose I made a bit of a contribution,” Liam suggested when he looked back on his 50 or so year involvement in the sport. “Sure I loved it, every minute of it.”

When Liam called, Sonia O’Sullivan answered...

Kilkenny athletics guru Liam Kealy worked a bit of magic in 1997 when he invited Sonia O’Sullivan to join the Irish women’s team for the World cross-country championships in Turin. The team ended up winning the bronze medals (8k).
The previous year O’Sullivan had dropped out of the 5,000m final at the Olympic Games in Atlanta when she was the hot favourite to take gold, and no one knew for sure her plans for the 1997 season.
The Gowran man was in the crowd in the stadium in Atlanta and he felt the pain of the Cobh super star when she pulled up. When he was manager of the Irish team for the World cross-country championships the following year he set about getting O’Sullivan’s aboard.
He acquired her phone number from then Cork Examiner journalist, Brendan Mooney, and he took a chance on getting her to join the Irish squad.
O’Sullivan was living and training in Australia at the time. Much to Kealy’s delight, she jumped at the opportunity.
Huge Boost
“When she said yes that was a huge boost to all the other women in the squad, and Ireland went on to do very well,” the 72-year-old explained when recalling some moments from a lifelong love affair with the sport.
And with Catherina McKiernan (seventh), O’Sullivan (ninth), Valeria Vaughan (23) and Una English (25) all packing well, the Irish team finished third.
The following year O’Sullivan was even more enthusiastic about the World cross-country events in Morocco. When Kealy contacted her she said she was already training for them and she asked him to enter her in the short (4k) and long (8k) course races.
The double entry was to be kept a secret until shortly before the races, however. O’Sullivan went on to strike gold at the double in the races in Marrakesh.
“She was known as a track runner, but she was a supreme athlete,” Kealy insisted. “She was an animal for work and training. She threw herself into team effort and her presence lifted the whole Irish contingent.”
Liam Kealy managed the Irish cross-country teams for four years. During that time Ireland won medals in the European junior men’s race (Garrett Turnbull was third), and then there were the big strikes at the World cross-country championships.
He insisted that he got to enjoy athletics in Ireland during some of the great times, during the big winning times of John Treacy (two World cross-country titles in 1978 and 1979 (he attended the races in Limerick and Glasgow); silver at the Olympics in Los Angeles 1984); O’Sullivan’s glory days; Catherina McKiernan’s brilliance and so on.
Memories Shine
“The memories are disappearing, but some still shine brightly,” he insisted.
He toured the world to feast on the wonders of athletics, and he travelled at his own expense to seven Olympic Games - Moscow 1980; Seoul 1988; Barcelona 1992; Atlanta 1996; Sydney 2000; Beijing 2008; London 2012.
He had many a good tale to relate about those adventures. Let’s just say a fair dollop of good old Irish ingenuity was involved in acquiring tickets at times.
The most notable was for the athletics finals day in Atlanta. Liam and friends, Bill and David Duggan, ended up viewing the action from the VIP section. Michael Johnson was one of those who roared down the finishing straight in front of them as he won the 400m gold medal.
The short story. The tickets were chased through England and South Africa. They ended up with passes which were part of the Namibia allocation.
“It all probably cost me a bit too much,” he laughed, “but I was wrapped-up in it and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Athletics in Ireland was strong at the moment, he felt, and there was huge talent around, including in Kilkenny.
“There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work,” he added.
He expressed huge admiration for Brian Maher, who is over 40, and he can still hold his own in the senior ranks. There is a posse of good young talent around too, male and female.
He offered thanks for the help and support received from his family, sisters Marian (RIP), Phil and her husband Pat Roche; the Dreelan family, Gowran, Connolly family, Bennettsbridge, John Connolly, Dunbell; the late Tom Hunt, Dungarvan; Catherine Whelan, who was secretary in Gowran for years; Denis Cormack, Goresbridge; and at County Board level Willie O’Keeffe, the late Tom Byrne, Bob Saunders (St Joseph’s), Marty Connolly (Castlecomer), Diane Walsh (KCH), Ed Williams and the late Fr Nicholas Flavin (both St Senan’s), Lorcan Barron, Sean Byrne and Lil Costelloe (KCH).
There were many, many others who always lent a helping hand or offered encouragment.
“Running helped give me a great life,” he insisted. “It was most enjoyable and I met superb people.”