Tom Horrigan recalls the achievements of Tipperary’s Pat Kealy, who excelled in athletics in his native country as well as breaking new ground in South African sporting circles in the early years of the last century

From a little townsland of Boulea, near Ballingarry, Thurles, in the early years of the last century, came an extraordinary athlete by the name of Pat Kealy.

A member of a keen sporting family, he was the brother of well-known Tipperary footballers Jim, Michael and Dan. At the tender age of 16, he took part in a walking competition which was held at Jones’s Road, Dublin, now Croke Park, and young Pat earned himself a place in the top three of ‘Britain’s best race walkers’. On that day, in 1901, he was competing against such esteemed British walkers as Charlie Heffraw. An athlete of exceptional ability, Pat had few equals in the sport of race walking, and it is unfortunate that his name has not been mentioned more by those in the Irish Athletics Administration down the years.

He showed his athletic promise from a very early age. In 1902, he emigrated to South Africa, to a place called Transvaal, where he joined the South African Police Constabulary.

Later that year, he was transferred to the Depot Troop of Sudenham Orc. Again, he showed his exceptional sporting ability when he starred in athletics race walking in his adopted country, winning or being placed in most races he entered. It was a case of the old saying being put into practice – ‘the cream always rises to the top’.

Far removed from his family, the young Pat experienced severe loneliness in his adopted country, but he was also success-driven. He was also comforted by the knowledge of how proud his family back home in Boulea were of him.

Soon Pat was to change sporting codes, when he went from being a race walker to a runner. And again, he enjoyed success in running events held as far off as New Zealand.
A member of the Bloemfontein Athletics Club, Pat competed against the best athletes South Africa had to offer. In 1908, he was selected to represent South Africa in the London Marathon. He was also involved in boxing and was credited by one newspaper with being ‘the man to introduce boxing to Rhodesia’. He was the boxing champion of Rhodesia for ten years, and also became a skilled boxing referee. As if this wasn’t enough sporting prowess to have under one’s belt, Pat was also an accomplished swimmer.

In 1912, he was selected by South Africa to represent them in the Olympic Games Marathon, which was held in Sweden.

A paper cutting from the time describes Pat as being ‘industrious, honest and obliging. I have the pleasure of knowing that in the event of me being away, everything would be carried out to my entire satisfaction’. This reference was from a superior officer of the police unit in which Pat was serving.

A man of deep integrity, with a friendly nature and quiet disposition, Kealy was also captain of Bulawayo Celtic Harriers Athletics Club. This club was founded in 1912 and the Irish representation is striking with names such as Davis, Coghlan, Purcell, String, Murray, Russell, Walton, McDonnell, Gallagher, McCarty, Brown, Roberts, Hickey and McFarlane among its ranks. The club’s colours were blue and green.

Kealy rose to the rank of Sergeant Major in the police force, and after 20 years of service he decided to return home to Ireland. A great ambassador for his country, and a great family man, South African newspaper reports at the time paid tribute to his valid service.
This renowned sportsman went to his eternal reward aged 81. His son, Donal, resides in Nenagh, Tipperary, a county proud of the man who had such a huge impact on sport in two very different corners of the world.