OPINION: Catherina, the greatest of them all

Thursday, 24th January, 2019 12:12pm

OPINION: Catherina, the greatest of them all

Athletics legend Catherina McKiernan.

Paul Fitzpatrick

The focus in the toy department in the last couple of weeks has been the upcoming Anglo-Celt Sports Awards, which throw in in the Cavan Crystal Hotel on February 8.

It’s always a great night and what always strikes me, personally, most is the breadth of sporting talent in this small county.

This year, we will have the great and good from fields as diverse as ladies football and taekwondo, rugby, cycling, boxing and soccer, plus many more disciplines.

The awards, which began in 2015, are our attempt to honour the best teams and individuals across the board but they serve another function, too. The awards – the upcoming event will be the fifth instalment - recognise outstanding achievements, the PRO who has excelled (in our opinion) and the rising stars.

But the highlight for me is always the Hall of Fame award, which, I suppose, is self-explanatory.

In 2015, we had the great soccer coach Gene Cullivan from Butlersbridge, whose contribution was recognised in a video message from Irish international Cillian Sheridan.

The following year, Jim McDonnell – holder of three Ulster senior medals and regarded as one of the greatest Cavan footballers of any era – was the recipient. And then we had Tom Boylan, one of the longest-serving and most respected administrators in Cavan GAA.

Last year, handball legends Patsy Hand and Greg Sheridan brought the house down with a very humorous interview on stage after they jointly picked up the award.

This time around, our winner is athletics great Catherina McKiernan, for my money the greatest sports star Cavan has ever produced and a figure whose warm and modest personality has endeared her to the nation just as much as her stellar achievements in the singlet ever did.

For a small place, the landscape of which has been dominated by Gaelic football, Cavan has consistently punched above its weight in a sporting sense. That has been reflected in some of the winners of our Sports Awards over the past four years.

Leanne Kiernan and Jake Doyle-Hayes, former Young Sports Star of the Year winners, are making waves in professional soccer in the UK. Paul Brady and Leona Maguire have been peerless in their fields of handball and amateur golf and now Leona is starting to make waves in the professional game, too.

But in terms of Cavan athletes, Catherina – the true greats always seem to be recognised by just their Christian name – was what the boxing writers used to call the odd superstar back in the sepia-tinted fight game glory days, a non-pareil, which the dictionary defines as ‘unrivalled, having no match or equal’.

Role model
As a role model, there was – and is – none better, especially considering what is out there in the current era, where the bawdy, distasteful antics of the likes of Conor McGregor have attracted legions of young fans.
Catherina was shy and shunned the limelight to an extent. She was a home bird, too, who didn’t like to stray very far from family and her home place. It was Cornafean and Cavan, family, friends and training on the local golf course.

“Money isn’t going to do it for you,” she once said. 

“Facilities isn’t going to do it for you. You have to do it yourself, you have to make that breakthrough through sheer hard work and commitment and dedication and just blocking everything else out."

Not for her a college education in the United States, where she could have had her pick of universities.

“I received several scholarship offers but I was never really interested,” Catherina told the Irish Independent in February 1991 after winning a Grand Prix race in the Algarve.

“I felt that I could make all the improvements that were possible from a home base and the American system never did appeal to me.”

And that sense of being tied to home drove her on, too. She has stated in the past that, moreso than individual glory or acclaim, the dozens of supporters who followed her to overseas races were what drove her on.

“For all the races I did, it was more for the supporters, the people in Cavan, to be honest – that was the driving factor,” she told me in an interview two years ago.

“I worked hard because, again, these people were facilitating me and I felt if they were doing that, I had to produce the goods.

“The next year [1996] it was in Spain, the World Cross Country, and loads of people from Cavan came over to watch the race. I knew that and I felt that I had to give them something to celebrate, I didn’t want them going home after me finishing down the field.

“It was inspirational. When you’re hurting in a race, that was in the back of my mind, ‘these people are here to celebrate my achievement and I have to produce the goods’, so it was something that inspired me, something that drove me.”

In 1998 came one of her greatest days when she became the first Irishwoman to win the London Marathon, beating her rival, Liz McColgan of Scotland, into second place in a time (2:26:26), which is still comfortably the Irish record.

At the eight-mile stage in that race, the pair were 90 seconds behind the front-runners before McColgan suggested they get moving.

“The first part of the race was too slow and Liz was very nice. She said we’d better do something,” McKiernan told reporters after the race, as the celebrations among the Irish followers erupted on the rain-lashed London streets.

“She’s much more experienced than I am and I wasn’t going to argue.”

As modest as she was brilliant – and a more than worthy recipient of the upcoming award on a night not to be missed.



The Readers’ Choice award is chosen from the 12 monthly winners and is an opportunity for our readers and members of the public to have thier say.
The winner of the Readers’ Choice award will receive a year’s membership to Zest Health and Fitness Club at the Cavan Crystal Hotel.

Voting for the Readers’ Choice award will commence soon both with a dedicated phone line and on our website, www.anglocelt.ie.
Lines will open on January 27 and voting will run right through to the eve of the awards.

This year, everyone who votes will enter a draw to win a month’s free membership to Zest Health and Fitness too!

For more details, check back here and online from next week. The event takes place on February 8.

Team of the Year: Loreto College senior/junior football, Lurgan ladies, Castlerahan senior football

Club of the Year: Crosserlough GAC

Outstanding achievement: Peter Doyle, Emmet Martin, William and Martin McGibney (Scór), Bill Noble (golf), Ferdia Donohoe (athletics), Mick Flynn (ladies football), Erne Eagles (rounders), St Pat’s football

Young Sports Star: Ciara Tolan (basketball), Oisin Kiernan (rugby), Casey Mulvey (athletics/basketball), Niamh Keenaghan/Muireann Cusack/Elaine Brady (Ladies football), Cormac O’Reilly (Mullahoran football), Leo Doyle (cycling), Oisin McCorry (athletics)

PRO of the Year: Damian O’Reilly (Ballinagh GFC)

Hall of Fame: Catherina McKiernan


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