Obituary: Lord Killanin

Alan Murdoch
Tuesday 27 April 1999 23:02

MICHAEL KILLANIN, the former President of the International Olympic Committee, was talented and versatile enough to enjoy four careers in one busy lifetime: as a journalist, a soldier, a film producer, and a sports administrator.

His intellect, warmth and informality in dealing with people, and international experience made him a natural diplomat. Pat Hickey, his successor as President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, referred to him as "a charming approachable man of towering intellect who helped give Ireland a remarkably high profile in the world of sport".

His presidency of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), marked a watershed in the Olympic movement's political direction. Killanin asserted its independence in the face of persistent pressure to use the games as a weapon in a series of external political conflicts. He was also far- sighted enough to realise that the old criteria of amateurism could no longer be maintained in a world of increasingly specialised and expensive training. He gave quiet approval for a relaxation in the rules to allow a more realistic level of financial support for competitors without other means of support.

Killanin's only active period as a sportsman in his own right was in boxing, rugby, swimming and rowing as a youth and in his student years.

He was born Michael Morris in 1914 into one of the ancient families of the west of Ireland, one of the "tribes" of Galway. His father was an officer in the Irish Guards who died in action in the year of his son's birth, and his mother was Australian. In 1927, while a schoolboy, he succeeded his uncle as head of the family and Baron Killanin. After Eton he went on to become President of Footlights at Cambridge (he was at Magdalene College), and was literary editor of Varsity Weekly.

In 1935 he plunged into the world of journalism as a reporter on the Daily Express in the heyday of the Beaverbrook era. He then moved to the Rothermere stable, to the Daily Mail, as a political correspondent earning the distinction of being the sole member of the press corps to cover King George VI's Coronation while clad in the ermine-trimmed robes of a peer. By 1937 he was covering the China-Japan conflict, and thereafter was appointed political and diplomatic correspondent. He also wrote for the Sunday Dispatch.

Killanin volunteered for military service in the British forces in 1938, and during the Second World War served with the Queen's Westminsters and the 30th Armoured Brigade; he was rewarded with appointment as a military MBE for his role in the Normandy landing in 1944.

In 1945 he returned to Ireland, where he had spent his childhood, marrying Sheila Dunlop, daughter of the rector of Oughterard in Co Galway. He instigated the reconstruction of the family seat at the picturesque village of Spiddal. He also became involved in film production, which had flowered in neutral Ireland during the war (including, ironically, Laurence Olivier's patriotic Henry V of 1944, filmed in Wicklow with 1,000 Irish farmers appearing as English knights). He worked as producer on early post-war Irish movies directed by John Ford such as The Rising of the Moon (1957), The Playboy of the Western World (1962) and Gideon's Day (1958).

Perhaps his best-known credit was his collaboration with Ford on the John Wayne classic The Quiet Man (1952), the tale of a boxer returning to his native village and of his romance with a local girl played by Maureen O'Hara. The film helped create a sentimental image and international affection for rural Irish life that contributed hugely to building tourism in the west of Ireland.

Also at this period Killanin wrote a biography of the 18th-century portrait painter and court artist to King George I, Sir Godfrey Kneller (Sir Godfrey Kneller and His Times 1646-1723, 1948). He later published The Shell Guide to Ireland (1975) with Professor Michael Duignan, and My Ireland (1987).

His role as a sports administrator began in 1950 when he was appointed President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, joining the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1952. He assumed the presidency of the body in succession to the formidable American Avery Brundage in 1972, immediately after the Munich tragedy, and held the post until 1980.

His IOC period witnessed the expulsion of the Austrian skier Karl Schranz in 1972, and the exclusion of the team from Ian Smith's Rhodesia when faced with a boycott by black African states. The 1976 games in Montreal saw an African and Asian boycott in opposition to the participation of New Zealand, which had maintained rugby contacts with South Africa during the apartheid regime.

Killanin further managed to uphold the Olympic spirit amid the fierce strains imposed by the American and British government opposition to the Moscow Games in 1980, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. It was his greatest battle, prevailing perhaps against the odds in protecting the games against the joint efforts of President Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher.

By the time of his retirement he was already fearful of the danger to athletics from the rising use of performance-enhancing drugs, initially in the Eastern bloc but soon a global problem. He wrote about this and other dilemmas in his autobiography, My Olympic Years (1983).

In his latter years he was a familiar sight at Irish annual general meetings, a genial, white-haired, dapper gentleman representing patrician "auld decency" amid the claret and cigars atmosphere of the blue-chip boardrooms where he held directorships. They included the brewers Beamish and Crawford, the tobacco manufacturers Gallahers, Lombard and Ulster Bank and Irish Shell.

In Ireland Killanin, a member of the Turf Club from 1971, also served on a variety of state bodies including a commission on thoroughbred horse breeding between 1982 and 1986. He chaired the Dublin Theatre Festival from 1958 to 1970, and Dublin's National Heritage Council from 1987. In 1950 he had been a founding member of the pioneering environmental group An Taisce which sustained a long defence of Georgian architecture against less than sensitive modern Dublin property development.

The honesty with which Michael Killanin carried out his sporting responsibilities was in marked contrast to the financial scandals that recently rocked the Olympic movement. The Irish sports minister Jim McDaid said, "His status and the world-wide esteem in which he was held in Olympic circles was a source of pride for all Irish people. He played a notable part in the development of Irish horse racing, and in particular his beloved Galway race festival."

Michael Morris, journalist, soldier, film producer and sports administrator: born London 30 July 1914; succeeded 1927 as third Baron Killanin; MBE 1945; TD 1945; President, Olympic Council of Ireland 1950-73; member, International Olympic Committee 1952-80, Vice-President 1968-72, President 1972-80; married 1945 Sheila Dunlop (three sons, one daughter); died Dublin 25 April 1999.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in