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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kieran, Bernard Bede (1886–1905)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Bernard Bede Kieran (1886-1905), swimmer, was born on 6 October 1886 in Sydney, sixth child of Irish parents Patrick Kieran (d.1891), seaman and labourer, and his wife Annie, née Mackin. He attended the local convent school, learned to read and write, but at 13 became delinquent. In March 1900 his mother had him committed to the nautical school-ship Sobraon where, under the influence of his mentor W. Hilton Mitchell, he took up swimming and at 16 became a carpenter's apprentice.

Barney Kieran's brilliant swimming career began in 1904 when swimming for the Sobraon Club he finished four times a close second to the champion Dick Cavill and beat him in the Australasian 880 yards and mile championships in record time. Coached by Robert Robertson Craig, by April 1905 Kieran had won six State and six Australasian freestyle titles, equalled F. C. V. Lane's 220 yards freestyle world record and set 'world' record times for 200, 300, 400, 500 and 1000 yards and mile, the last in the astonishing time of 23 minutes 16.8 seconds.

Invited to England by the (Royal) Life-Saving Society to compete in the King's Cup, Kieran, accompanied by Mitchell, arrived in London on 17 June. On 26 June at the Bath Club, Piccadilly, 'the Sobraon Boy' began a sensational record-breaking tour by easily lowering the record time for 600 yards by 17.6 seconds in an exhibition swim. 'He is a fish, not a man', shouted one spectator. Though Kieran lost his first two races to the great David Billington and was as unsuccessful as he was unfamiliar with the King's Cup lifesaving events, he thereafter won every race he entered, including handicaps.

In August Kieran beat Billington in the 440 yards salt-water and 880 yards freestyle titles, the latter in the world record time of 11 minutes, 28 seconds. At an international meeting in Sweden he won four events and set a world record for 500 metres. On the 28th at Leeds he defeated Billington for the 500 yards title in the world record time of 6 minutes, 7.2 seconds. In September he won the 220 yards title and his third English record medal, for the 300 yards. Kieran also gave diving displays and set new records in Scotland and Ireland in addition to 'newspaper' records over unrecognized distances. His modesty and sportsmanship won him many admirers and on his return to Australia in November he was accorded a hero's welcome.

After winning three Australasian titles in Brisbane he became ill on 8 December and after an appendicectomy he died in hospital on 22 December 1905. Amid widespread expressions of public grief—many recalled Henry Searle—he was buried in the Catholic section of Gore Hill cemetery, Sydney. A monument to the 'Champion Swimmer of the World' was erected by public subscription.

Barney Kieran was of a happy and retiring disposition and altogether unspoiled by success. Solidly built and dark-complexioned with large bright eyes, he stood 5 ft 6½ ins (169 cm) tall and weighed 158 pounds (72 kg). He swam the double overarm (trudgen) stroke, characterized by a greater roll of the body which gave him both a longer reach and time to breathe; his powerful kick was timed as the corresponding arm pulled down.

Kieran was the greatest swimmer that the world had seen, yet despite his phenomenal times, not approached until years after his death, the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur in 1908 only accorded him retrospective recognition for his 500 yards world record. Kieran's numerous medals and trophies were acquired by the New South Wales government and he is commemorated by the Kieran memorial shield awarded annually to the champion State in the Australian championships. In 1969 he was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States of America.

Select Bibliography

  • W. W. Hill (compiler), N.S.W. Amateur Swimming Association Annual: Season 1905-6 (Syd, 1905)
  • Forbes Carlisle on Swimming (Lond, 1963)
  • Sportsman (London), 29 Sept 1904, 23 Mar, 26 Apr, 8 May, 19 June, 2, 4 Oct, 25, 26 Dec 1905, 20, 27 Jan 1906
  • Nordisk Idrottslif, 16 Aug, 2, 9, 11, 16, 20, 27 Sept 1905
  • Scottish Referee, 4 Sept 1905
  • Ireland's Saturday Night (Belfast), 16 Sept 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Nov, 23, 25, 27 Dec 1905
  • Referee (Sydney), 29 Nov, 27 Dec 1905
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 Dec 1905, 3 Jan, 13 June, 22 Aug 1906
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 30 Dec 1905
  • 8/1747 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Kieran, Bernard Bede (1886–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


6 October 1886
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 December 1905

Religious Influence