Bernard Bede (Barney) Kieran, Swimmer

His sun went down while it was yet day.*

Bernard Bede (known as Barney) Kieran’s swimming career spanned just two years. His achievements were extraordinary and it is not surprising that he was memorialised as the ‘Champion Swimmer of the World’, following his untimely death in December 1905.

Record breaker

Barney Kieran began his swimming career in 1904. As GP Walsh states in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by April 1905 he had won ‘six State and six Australasian freestyle titles… 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’.

Close-up from the memorial concert invitation. NRS 3905, [8/1753.1]

Bernard Bede Kieran, 1886-1905. From NRS 3905

Barney’s success was not limited to Australia. In England he succeeded in ‘lowering the record time for 600 yards by 17.6 seconds in an exhibition swim’. In August he won 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 won 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.’

Sobraon – nautical training ship

Industrial school and reformatory

Barney Kieran’s story was all the more remarkable because he was a former Sobraon boy. He was born on 6 October 1886, the youngest of Patrick and Annie (nee Mackin) Kieran’s six children. On 17 April 1891 Patrick Kieran was killed in a train accident, leaving behind a widow and six children.

In March 1900, when he was 13 years old, Barney was admitted to the nautical training ship Sobraon, which served as an industrial school and reformatory. Barney was one of around 5,000 boys admitted to the nautical training ships Vernon and Sobraon between 1867 and 1911.

According to the Entrance book for the Sobraon Barney Kieran was:

found habitually wandering about [the] streets in no ostensible lawful occupation

The evidence from his mother stated that ‘the boy will not go to school, that he stops out at night and that she has no control over him’. After being committed by the Water Police Court on 1 March 1900 Barney was sent to the Sobraon. Given the opportunity, he made a success of his time on the Sobraon and his mentor W Hilton Mitchell[1] encouraged him to take up swimming, which turned his life around.

Following his success in England Barney Kieran retuned to Australia, receiving accolades for both his swimming achievements and for:

the fact that he had conducted himself in the water and out in a manner which had called forth the highest praise from English authorities.[2]

Untimely death

Barney Kieran died in Brisbane on 22 December 1905 following an appendectomy. He was buried in the Roman Catholic section at the Gore Hill Cemetery. The Sydney Morning Herald of 27 December 1905 reported that the ‘remains of the late Bernard Bede Kieran, the Australian champion swimmer, were laid to rest yesterday in the presence of one of the largest attendances ever gathered at the Gore Hill Cemetery’. Donations from the Kieran Memorial Fund were used to erect a monument over his grave.

The monument reads:

Erected by the Public as a Tribute to the Late Champion Swimmer of the World. He won his laurels by courage, self denial, and patient effort. His achievements and manly qualities will long be remembered in this, and other countires in which his victories were gained.

Kieran Memorial Shield

Barney Kieran’s memory is perpetuated by the Kieran Memorial Shield, which is awarded annually to the successful state in the Australian swimming championships.

Special Thanks


A big thank you to Bob Meade for his posting on Bernard Kieran and for allowing us to use his photograph; it is a wonderful addition to the gallery.

The information that Barney’s brother Joseph is buried in the ‘same or a contiguous plot as Barney’ adds a moving postscript to the ‘Barney Kieran story’.

Kieran was born in 1885 (NSW BDM ref: 720/1885). According to his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 23 June 1933, Barney Kieran’s brother, Joseph Francis Kieran aka Joseph Patrick Kieran, was a professional boxer who fought under the name Joe Costa. Curiously, Joe Costa is listed as Joseph Patrick Kieran in the obituary on 23 June 1933 and as Joseph Francis Kieran in the funeral notice on 23 June 1933. This might explain the confusion about his middle name.

It seems that like Barney, Joseph Kieran may have come to the ‘attention of the authorities’ at a young age. There is an annotation in the Sobraon entrance book (NRS 3902 [8/1747, p.475] relating to Barney’s admission that one of his siblings was at the Carpentarian Reformatory. As Barney only had one brother, and the Carpentarian Reformatory was used for boys, it would have been a reference was to Joseph.

One of the earliest references to Joe Costa, the boxer, was a report in the Sydney Morning Herald from 29 January 1903. It appears he had a long career as he was still boxing until a month before his death on 22 June 1933 when he lost to Billy McAlister (Sydney Morning Herald 2 May 1933).

Patrick John Conlon may have been Barney’s brother (unconfirmed). Annie Keran (sic) nee Macklin married Mathew Conlon in 1904. Patrick John Conlon was born in 1911 (NSW BDM ref: 1911/23723).

Aboard the Sobraon

Thank you to Marcelle Jacobs for the photograph of Barney (possibly)on the Sobraon (NSW Hall of Champions Collection).

* Marcelle also found the above quote “His sun went down while it was yet day.” From her comment about Barney Kieran on the Archives Outside blog:

The Department of Education School Sport Unit has a trophy in honour of Barney Kieran awarded to schools. The inscription reads: “Sir Harry Rawson Cup, to be held for one year by the school attended by the winner of the Kieran Memorial Swimming Race. In memory or B.B. Kieran, Champion Swimmer of the world. Born 1885. Died 1905. Aged 19 years and 2 months. His sun went down while it was yet day.

Swimming pool

Thank you to Janette Pelosi for the photograph of the pool at Cockatoo Island where Barney did much of his training.

Farewell Concert

Thank you to Hazel Brombey, (Past) President Cape Banks Family History Society, for the ‘digital’ donation of the eight page Souvenir Concert Program. Before Barney went to England to compete a Grand Farewell Concert was held in 1905 in Sydney at Centenary Hall.

Memorial Shield

Thank you to also Liz Avery, Records and Events Coordinator, Swimming Australia Ltd, for photographing the Keiran Memorial Shield – awarded annually to the successful state in the Australian swimming championships.


[1] (cited January 2011)

[2] Sydney Morning Herald 24 November 1905

Related information

The records of the Vernon and Sobraon are now available on
(on the ‘Search’ menu select ‘Card Catalogue’ then search using either Vernon or Sobraon in the title field.)