Heffernan, Kevin (1929–2013), GAA footballer and manager, and public servant, was born on 20 August 1929 at 51 Pembroke Cottages in Donnybrook, Dublin, the second eldest of seven children of John Heffernan, a garda originally from Offaly, and Mary (née Burke) from Kilkenny. The family moved to Turlough Parade, Marino, where Kevin grew up. He attended local schools, the Scoil Mhuire Boys National School, Marino, and St Joseph's CBS in Fairview, Co. Dublin, before joining the ESB accounts department in 1949. He later entered TCD where he graduated B.Comm. in 1957.
His family had no tradition of GAA involvement, and he began playing football and hurling, mainly at left corner forward, through his schools and through the local St Vincent's GAA club. In a deviation from the Dublin norm, St Vincent's adopted a policy in 1948 that confined membership to those born into, or residing in, the local parish, thereby precluding the selection of country-bred footballers living in Dublin. The newly 'nativised' St Vincent's team developed a revolutionary short-passing game, also based on running with the ball and a great deal of movement off it. This was ideal for Heffernan who made up in bravery, skill and intelligence what he lacked in strength and physique. By breaking with a tradition predicated on a simple 'catch and kick' philosophy and on confining players to their selected positions on the field, St Vincent's dominated the Dublin county championship from 1949, outmanoeuvring rival club sides composed mainly of players born outside Dublin.
At intercounty level he won Leinster minor medals for Dublin in football (1946) and hurling (1947), following this with Leinster and all-Ireland football medals playing for the Dublin junior footballers in 1948. He was on the Dublin senior football team from the late 1940s and was a good enough hurler to be either a starter or a substitute for the Dublin senior team during the mid 1950s. When he first began playing football for Dublin, the team included many country-born, Dublin-resident players. In the early 1950s, however, Dublin followed St Vincent's example and adopted a nativist selection policy. The link between Dublin and St Vincent's then developed to a point that their fortunes became almost entirely intertwined. By April 1953 all fourteen outfield players on the Dublin team that defeated Cavan in a National Football League Final were St Vincent's men, Heffernan amongst them. In 1955 Heffernan began playing as a roving full forward for Dublin. By dropping deep, he found the space he needed to link up with teammates, gather possession and swerve past lumbering full backs. He ran amok against Paddy 'Hands' O'Brien of Meath, long considered the best full back in Ireland, in both the 1955 National Football League final and the 1955 Leinster football final. Heffernan's scintillating attacking play drove Dublin to the 1955 all-Ireland final where they faced Kerry in an eagerly anticipated match, billed as a clash between the slick passing Dublin 'machine' and the 'catch and kick' purists of Kerry. Carrying an injury into the final, he failed to shine and was guilty in the second half of prematurely going for goals, as Dublin tried in vain to overturn Kerry's lead. The loss cut deep with him.
Two barren years followed for Dublin whereupon Heffernan, who was effectively the player-manager, decided that the defence was overelaborating with the ball and put in place a full back line that was tough, strong and cleared its lines without delay. The rest of the team played as before. A more determined and pragmatic Dublin captured the National Football League and all-Ireland titles in 1958 with Heffernan playing a starring role as captain in the all-Ireland final against Derry. He was disappointed not to win another all-Ireland or to avenge the 1955 all-Ireland final defeat, as Dublin lost all-Ireland semi-finals to Kerry in 1959 and 1962.
He retired from inter-county football in 1962 with one all-Ireland medal (1958), four Leinster medals (1955, 1958–9 and 1962) and three National League medals (1953, 1955 and 1958); playing for Leinster, he won seven Railway Cup medals (1952–5, 1959 and 1961–2). His achievements were recognised by his inclusion at left corner-forward on both the GAA's 'team of the century' and 'team of the millennium'. He also stopped hurling in 1962, but continued playing club football until 1967, scoring 1–4 in his last match as St Vincent's won the county final. At club level he won fifteen Dublin county medals (1949–55, 1957–62 and 1966–7) in football and six county medals (1953–5, 1957, 1959 and 1963) in hurling.
It was a measure of his stature within the GAA that he was considered for the position of general secretary when it fell vacant in 1964. He remained heavily involved with St Vincent's, acting as the club's football manager for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Amid an evenly and ferociously contested rivalry with UCD for the Dublin county championship during the early to mid-1970s, he guided St Vincent's to two Leinster senior football championships (1973 and 1976) and an all-Ireland club championship (1976). From 1963 he was also generally a Dublin selector, but was unhappy in this role, as the yearly shuffling of selectors led to a lack of continuity in management and on the team. The fortunes of Dublin inter-county teams stagnated: they lost competitiveness and spectator appeal.
In 1973, the Dublin GAA county board chairman Jimmy Gray convinced Heffernan to take over a streamlined, three-man selection committee, given three years tenure. In practice he rapidly assumed complete control at a time when other county teams were being run by unwieldy committees. He brought an unprecedented level of sophistication to the team's physical conditioning and tactics, combining this with old fashioned belligerence. His focus, he later remarked, was to improve individual skill levels, maximise fitness and develop a tactical style best suited to his players' talents. The impact was transformative: on 21 September, Dublin defeated Galway in the all-Ireland final to secure the county's first all-Ireland title since 1963.
In 1974 an initially unheralded Dublin team set a new standard of strength and fitness for Gaelic football. Their success spawned a social and cultural phenomenon. 'The Dubs' achieved significant popular support in the capital, appealing to a cohort of urban youth that had no previous relationship with the GAA. These legions of new support were known as 'Heffo's army', a term that became almost ubiquitous, featuring in the media, on flags, on t-shirts and even in songs.
In just over a decade – from 1974 to 1985 – Dublin footballers contested nine senior all-Ireland football finals and won four. Heffernan was not at the helm for all of them, however: following the 1976 all-Ireland final, to the dismay of some players, he stepped down as coach and manager. In his absence, Dublin retained their all-Ireland title in 1977 after which he returned. Before the decade was out, he had led them to two more all-Ireland finals both of which they lost to a Kerry team en route to becoming one of the greatest of all time. To many observers of Gaelic football, this Dublin–Kerry rivalry, fast-paced and intense, represented a particular high point for the game, not only for the outstanding matches it produced, but also because it provided a sporting clash of rural and urban Ireland. In the personalities of Kevin Heffernan and Mick O'Dwyer, his Kerry counterpart and also a famed former footballer, the Dublin–Kerry rivalry fuelled the emergence of the modern cult of the manager in Gaelic sports.
After suffering a heavy defeat to Kerry in the 1979 all-Ireland final, Dublin retreated to the sporting shadows. But when they re-emerged in 1983, Heffernan was still in charge and with a newly-fashioned team, full of youth and with only a few veterans of the 1970s glory days. He delivered an unlikely all-Ireland title to the capital, his new-look team's campaign ending in a remarkable, if ill-tempered, all-Ireland final against Galway in which four players were sent off, three of them from Dublin. Two more all-Ireland final appearances followed in 1984 and 1985 but Kerry again proved their nemesis. He stepped down again as Dublin manager after the second of those defeats, but in 1986 the GAA appointed him to manage an Irish team of Gaelic footballers travelling to Australia to contest an 'international rules' series against a team of professional Australian rules footballers. The choice of Heffernan over Mick O'Dwyer from Kerry – then the manager of seven all-Ireland winning teams – created a mini-controversy and led a number of Kerry footballers, though not all, to decline the offer to travel to Australia. The tour was still a success – Ireland won the series by two games to one – and it cemented Heffernan's reputation as a brilliant sporting tactician and motivator.
A deep intelligence was obviously critical to Heffernan's success in sports management, one former player referred to his 'genius in relation to football' (Walsh, 1989). Thus, after Dublin lost the 1975 all-Ireland final to Kerry he successfully reconstructed and redeployed his half-back line to cope with Kerry's flying forwards. In 1983 he astonished the rest of the Dublin panel by converting Joe McNally from being the subsititute goalkeeper into an all-star winning corner forward. There could be ruthlessness, too, to his managerial style, though the range of perspectives from those who played under him suggest a manager who knew when to gently coax and when to sharply prod his players to best effect.
Heffernan left a deep impression on all of those he managed, yet, with exceptions, the relationship between mentor and mentored was not personally close. He was too exacting of his players for that and too driven in his desire to succeed. When one player approached him to make representations on behalf of another who had not been selected, he replied: 'Look, I would drop my own mother if I thought she was not worth her place' (Ó Ceallacháin, 2007). He was also, perhaps, too reserved a personality to forge strong personal or social relationships with those he managed, his reticence extending to his dealings with the press, whom he didn't ignore but seldom indulged.
Outside of sport as inside it, he excelled as a leader. Appointed an industrial relations manager at the ESB in 1970, he revamped its approach to staff relations, eschewing confrontation in favour of a more open and collaborative approach. He also served as a consultant on ESB projects in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, before taking early retirement in 1985. Later that year he was nominated to the Labour Court as a representative of the Federated Union of Employers. In April 1989, labour minister Bertie Ahern appointed him chairman of the Labour Court, his tenure coinciding with the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which introduced new procedures and machinery for dealing with industrial disputes, notably the establishment of a Labour Relations Commission (LRC). This legislation was designed to leave the Labour Court as a 'court of last resort', dealing only with the most intractable of cases. Despite overseeing the transfer of functions, particularly around the conciliation of disputes, to the LRC, he was kept busy in the early 1990s, as the Labour Court contended with increasingly complex cases centred on large-scale company restructurings.
He retired as Labour Court chairman in August 1994, but subsequently served as a non-civil service member of a Human Resource Management Group established by government to assist in the oversight and delivery of proposals contained in its May 1986 report on civil reform and customer service – 'Delivering better government: a programme of change for the Irish civil service'. A regular at greyhound tracks – his other sporting pastime was golf – he also served periods as chairman of Bord na gCon (1994–5), the semi-state body responsible for greyhound racing in Ireland, and of an independent body established to oversee the policing of greyhound racing for doping offences (2007–9).
For all the prominent public positions he held, he remained forever associated in the popular consciousness with Dublin GAA. It was for his contribution to Gaelic games that he received honorary degrees from TCD (1988) and UCD (2004), the latter coming months after he was also honoured with the freedom of the city of Dublin (2004). He continued to contribute in administrative and advisory capacities to St Vincent's and Dublin GAA: in the early 1990s he chaired a county board development committee which oversaw the implementation of new coaching programmes, including the appointment of full-time coaches to support clubs in forging links with their local schools. This marked the beginning of a transformation in the underage development of Gaelic games in Dublin that would feed into subsequent success for the county at underage and adult levels.
Kevin Heffernan died after a lengthy illness 25 January 2013 in Dublin. He was survived by his wife Mary, daughter Orla and two grandchildren. His funeral mass at St Vincent de Paul church in Marino drew a large attendance, with politicians from all parties, ex-colleagues and members of the GAA community from Dublin and beyond among the mourners. He is buried at St Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, Co. Dublin.