Towards the end of 2017, John Kiely was half expecting a phone call from the Limerick County Board to thank him for doing his best with the senior hurling team in his first year in charge and to inform him that he was no longer needed. Following defeats in two championship matches that year, he wouldn’t have blamed them. By his own admission, he had spent nights pacing the backyard wondering if he was the right man for the job. Thankfully, John did not get that call.
Born in Galbally, County Limerick in 1972, John Kiely started playing competitive hurling and Gaelic football in his youth. After beginning his club career at juvenile and underage levels, he later became a dual player at senior level with Galbally and Garryspillane. He went on to win three championship medals across both codes and later captained the Limerick senior football team.
John began his illustrious management career with Limerick in 2009. Following a resounding defeat at the hands of Tipperary in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling semi-final that year, he made an offer to the Limerick County Board to help out at any level and quickly progressed to managing the Limerick intermediate team. In 2010, Limerick were narrowly beaten by two points by the eventual All-Ireland champions. In 2011, he became an Under-21 selector and was part of the management team that guided Limerick to a Munster Championship. After becoming manager of the Under-21 team in 2014, he led the team to victory in both the Munster and All-Ireland finals in 2015.
It is undoubtedly his achievements in the role of manager of the Limerick senior hurling team that have made John Kiely a household name and Limerick the envy of many counties. John became manager of the senior team in September 2016, and by the end of his second season in charge, the team won the 2018 All-Ireland Championship after a wait of 45 years. In March 2019, under John’s stewardship, Limerick became National League champions for the first time since 2005. Following victory in the Munster Championship later that year, the team lost out to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final by the narrowest of margins. Many commentators saw this as a seminal moment for the team and for John’s management skills. Were they going to rest on past glories or press for more. With All-Ireland wins in 2020, 2021 and 2022, it is fair to say the answer to that question was a resounding “no”. On July 17th 2022, captain Declan Hannon climbed the hallowed steps of the Hogan Stand in Croke Park to accept the Liam MacCarthy Cup for Limerick for the third time in a row and for the fourth time in five years.
The incredible achievements of Limerick hurling under John Kiely’s management are celebrated and acclaimed by even Limerick’s greatest rivals. While it is difficult to accredit Limerick’s success to a finite number of factors, one that must take precedence is John’s management style. In the words of JP McManus, the county’s main sponsor, “John is the ultimate team leader. Key to his success is that he includes and values everyone, thus you have a united and cohesive unit. He is respected by all because he respects all. He is a special man who leads by example from the front.” One of John’s key strengths is his ability to build a strong community within the management structure; he recruits highly competent people and acknowledges everyone’s contribution – from the players and coaches to strength and conditioning, medical, nutrition, psychology, performance analysis and logistics personnel. As manager, John is responsible for ensuring that all members of the community play their part, and he does so by creating an environment where everyone can flourish within their respective roles. He has an uncanny ability to create a positive mood in the huddle before training begins. For players and coaches to actually enjoy sessions in rain, hail, sleet and occasional sub-zero temperatures out in Rathkeale in the depths of winter, the manager must be doing something right.
Inclusion is immensely important to John Kiely, not just in sport but also in education. John has been principal of The Abbey School in Tipperary town since 2013. During his outstanding tenure in that position, a state-of-the art sports gymnasium has been built; the curriculum has been broadened to include, among other elements, an emphasis on positive mental health and wellbeing; and fundraising for an Astroturf is underway. He has created a huge spirit of social inclusion on the campus and is currently spearheading a campaign to get DEIS status for the benefit of all his pupils. In addition, he facilitated a community project between the school and county council to develop a public river walk that will be located along the perimeter of the school grounds and beyond.
Be it as school principal or inter-county manager, John Kiely is known for his ability to empower people. In a nutshell, his modus operandis is to instil in those with whom he works a sense of their own worth, to motivate them to be the best they can be and then, in the midst of the dizzying heights of success, to show humility and pass all the credit back to them.
However, nobody is perfect. While John’s sense of what it takes to motivate people to reach their full potential is spot on, his sense of direction is not. In the winter following the 2018 All-Ireland win, the victorious team went to New York to participate in a Limerick GAA fundraising event. Due to gridlock induced by a snowstorm, the team decided to disembark from the bus and make their way to Yonkers by subway. They made it there in plenty of time but, alas, without their bainisteoir. Having got separated from the group early on and taken several wrong lines, John’s persistence and determination won out and he eventually made it to the venue – at 2 in the morning. Luckily, being Irish, a few of the lads were still there to welcome him and raise a glass to his safe arrival.
As Ireland’s leading third-level sports campus, the University of Limerick is delighted to welcome John and his family here today to honour him, not just for his staggering achievements on the national stage, but for the impact he has had on the lives of so many young people through the interrelated threads of education, sport and social inclusion. Long may Limerick’s winning streak last, but long after it has been broken, the influence of this educator, leader and motivator will continue to be felt for many years to come.
On a final note, in addition to celebrating John Kiely’s outstanding achievements, let us thank the Limerick County Board for not making that phone call back in 2017 and for having the vision to realise that they had, indeed, the right man for the job.
Chancellor, I present to you John Kiely and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.