Vale, Peter Kiernan (1923-2019)

An Obituary by his sons, Ben Kiernan and Bruno Kiernan


Peter Kiernan in July 2016. Photograph by Maireid Sullivan


Peter Kiernan, who died on December 1, 2019, had a long association with Irish affairs in Melbourne, from the Connolly Association program on Radio 3CR, where he worked for many years with Seamus McGettigan, to the Famine Rock commemoration at Williamstown, where he worked with Val Noone and John Lodge, and with Irish studies, including both Táin and Tinteán magazines, working for over two decades with Val Noone, Elizabeth McKenzie, Frances Devlin Glass, Patrick MacNamara and others.

Peter Brian Kiernan was born in 1923 in Heidelberg, Victoria, the youngest of four children. His parents were Esmond Laurence Kiernan (a businessman, philanthropist and politician) and Eileen Kiernan nee Harrison (a teacher and musician). His siblings were John, Marjorie and Mary.

His mother reported that he didn’t talk at all as a baby or a toddler. His first words came when he was over two years old. The family were holidaying by the sea. Suddenly, looking through a window over the harbour below, he uttered: “The boats are going out now.” So began a lifetime of eloquent speech and fascination with boats.

He attended Xavier College (starting at Burke Hall) from Grade 1 to Year 10. He boarded for nine of those years, but didn’t enjoy it. In 1938 the family moved to England for two years and he boarded at Douai Abbey, a Benedictine school in Berkshire. His European experiences included visiting Germany in 1938 and observing platoons of Nazi soldiers marching down the streets of Munich, and a hair-raising sea voyage back to Australia after the outbreak of war the next year. All lights on the passenger ship had to be turned off at night while travelling through the Mediterranean Sea en route to the Suez Canal so as to evade the patrolling German navy.

On return to Melbourne, he completed his secondary school education and announced his intention to defer further studies so he could join the Royal Australian Navy. His father, however, thought he was too young at 17 to go to war, so as a compromise he agreed to study dentistry for two years until he reached the age of 19. At that time dentistry and medical students were exempt from military service. After two miserable years studying dentistry, he joined the Navy.

With his love of boats and the sea, Peter Kiernan took to the navy like a duck to water. After three months of training as an ordinary seaman, he became one of twelve selected from 1,000 men to undergo officer training. At the conclusion of that training, he was one of only two selected to be promoted to officer rank.

During 1944 and 1945, he served as a sub-lieutenant on the corvette HMAS Warrnambool in a minesweeping flotilla that patrolled the east coast of Australia from the tip of northern Queensland to Tasmania, in search of mines laid by the Japanese.

At the end of the war in 1945, he disembarked the HMAS Warrnambool and recommenced civilian life. Tragically, just months later the HMAS Warrnambool hit a mine and sank off the coast of Queensland. Seven of his fellow sailors were killed and many more injured.

He studied law at Melbourne University, living at Newman College. He formed a ‘rat pack’ with a group of young men who included Peter Forrest, Frank Galbally, Frank Greene, Chris Jenkins, Brendan McInnis, Frank Nagle, Mick O’Loughlin and Bernie Shillito, amongst others.

Not long after completing his studies and articles of clerkship, he started a law practice in North Melbourne with his close friend Peter Forrest. Their practice later moved to the city and then to Carlton. It operated for 44 years. Kiernan and Forrest specialised in assisting immigrants to establish themselves, their families, and their businesses in Melbourne from the 1950s through to the mid-1990s. The two men’s partnership and lifelong friendship were remarkable.

Meeting with Joan Silk

Joan and Peter met during his shore leave from the HMAS Warrnambool in 1944. Her family, on holiday in Sydney, were dining in a restaurant when Sub-Lieutenant Kiernan came tumbling down some stairs. The young Joan recognised the sprawled sub-lieutenant as Peter Kiernan from St Peter’s parish in Toorak. He was duly invited to join the Silk family for dinner. It remains a moot point whether alcohol played a part in his tumble down the restaurant stairs that evening. In any event, it led to an engagement and a wedding in 1950. Their marriage lasted 67 years and produced seven children: Ben, Hugh, Grace, Bruno, Priscilla, Pauline, and Peter Vincent.

Peter Kiernan, like his father, was a longtime member of the Australian Labor Party. He also took to the streets to express his concern about the burning issues of his time. He marched in the 1970 Moratorium against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and demonstrated against the South African government’s racist apartheid laws when the South African rugby team toured Australia in 1971. His actions were atypical for a middle-aged Melbourne solicitor.

He was an admirer of the ALP prime minister from 1972-75, Gough Whitlam, and the reforms he brought to Australian society. In 1972 Whitlam ended Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and he exerted pressure on the South African government to abandon its apartheid laws. After Gough retired from politics, Peter formed a friendship with Gough and Margaret Whitlam. He organised (with a group of like-minded friends) a grand dinner at the Arts Centre in Melbourne to celebrate their achievements.

In his 96 and a half years, Peter Kiernan saw and heard a lot. He had grown up in the 1920s, in an era when it was still quite common in Australia to hear ditties on imperial themes like this one, still reminiscent of the world of the Battle of Waterloo only a century or so before his birth:

The Grand Old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

He taught his oldest sons that refrain in the 1950s. Of course it was a less than subtle jab at the Old Duke, whoever he was. Peter wasn’t all that favourable to dukedoms of any kind. His greatest loves were his wife and children, his grandchildren and then his great-grandchildren – and the Collingwood Football Club. But imagine the vast distance he had travelled through time – and imagine the potential for tension in the family – when he heard a grandchild sing this:

The Grand Old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He put ’em all on Tony Lockett
But he still kicked ten.

Yet, Peter was the kind of Collingwood grandad who could take that on the chin from his grandchildren.

He was also a wonderful father for teenage boys just discovering the joys of alcohol. When light beer first came along, his advice to his sons was that this was a terrific new option, because, ‘You can keep on drinking even when you’ve had too much.’ That statement may have contained echoes of Newman College days spent at the Clyde Hotel with Frank Nagle.

He was a friend to so many from so many walks of life. For example from the Navy like Frank Buxton and Rob Butler, from Newman College like Frank Nagle and Chris Jenkins, from the law like Peter Forrest and Frank Greene, from among his clients like Bert Conia and Gonzalo Ilesca, from Commonwealth Golf Club like Lindsay Hughes, from Collingwood Football Club like John Lodge, from Catholic reform circles like Val Noone and Mary Doyle, from Black Rock and Sandringham Yacht Clubs like Jack Lees, Jim McQueen, and Ron Stride, and from Friends of Gough and Margaret (FOGAM) like Barbara Marron, Sid Ingham and Bernadette Kelly.

Yet his eclectic interests included the music of Bizet, Puccini and Wagner, the art of the French impressionists and the Heidelberg School, the economic theories of Henry George, mountaineering, making pottery, cultivating orchids, making cumquat jam, documenting the history of Art Deco architecture, especially the work of his cousin Esmond Dorney, making a short film about the French navigator La Pérouse, the Benedictine Oblates, the Our Lady of Mercy school in Heidelberg, his many years of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community volunteers, and chairing the board of the Larmenier Special School in Hampton for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Why he had such a large circle of friends and admirers was clear to us from our youth. An old friend Leonie Keaney said four and a half decades ago: ‘Your father always makes you feel like you are exactly the person he wanted to be talking to at that time.’

An American colleague remarked twenty-five years ago: ‘Your father is so engaged, so curious, so interested in everything that is being discussed.’

Having been born only slightly more than a century after Waterloo, it is perhaps not all that surprising that he was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor displayed many faults, but he won many battles, and emancipated the Jews, which appealed to Peter as much as to Joan. And Peter knew his stuff. Fifteen years ago the New York Public Library mislabelled one of its exhibits about Napoleon. Peter sent in a correction. The Curator of their Art and Architecture Collection wrote back a nice letter saying she’d been ‘caught out by an eagle-eye like yourself.’ Joan went along with all this, and had a wall of the family den covered with Napoleon wallpaper.

Having served in the Navy, Peter was tough. When burglars broke into the family home twenty years ago, to defend Joan he tackled one of them to the ground, breaking his own arm as they fell. Undaunted, he picked up a chair and threw it at the other burglar, causing his gun to discharge and alert the neighbours, forcing the burglars to flee.

The Wednesday evening before he died, Dad seemed to lapse into unconsciousness. Fifteen of the 40 most intimate of his close family members gathered by his bed expecting him not to survive the night. Fr. Brendan Hayes gave him the last rites. Amazingly, at 6.20 a.m. he was chatting with the nurses. All through that Thursday he was full of beans and very affectionate to all of us. When one of us said, ‘So you had a bad night last night, Dad,’ he replied with a smile, ‘Why, did Collingwood lose ?’

But his earliest love was boats and the sea. Over the years his yachts included a Sabot, a Mirror, a sloop (co-owned with Frank Buxton), and a ketch. All gave him immense pleasure and great friendships were made (and put to the test) while racing on Port Phillip Bay. In the 1960s he connected us to the history of sailing when he introduced us to Val Higgins, the builder of his sloop Shena, who as a young boy had watched Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world, sail into Port Phillip Bay in 1898.

‘The boat has gone out now.’




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