Kevin Kelleher: Respected referee who championed schools rugby

Obituary: Headmaster of St Conleth’s sent off All Blacks legend in controversial incident

Kevin Kelleher, who has died aged 95, was a highly respected rugby referee who presided over 23 international matches between 1960 and 1972. He famously sent off New Zealand's Colin Meads during a game between Scotland and the All Blacks at Murrayfield in 1967.

In his pomp, Meads was the All Black’s greatest star and Kelleher’s decision prompted outrage among fans which persisted for many years. Kelleher was also a dedicated headmaster of a Dublin school and participated in running it until his final illness.

Looking back on his long career with Seán Diffley of the Irish Independent in 2001, Kelleher denied being a tough referee. "The irony is that in 27 years with the whistle, I only sent off two players, Meads for that careless kick at the Scottish scrumhalf and a player in a Leinster Cup match who ran across the width of the pitch to punch somebody and left me with little alternative."

He said he favoured the “silent whistle” approach, allowing the game to flow with as few stoppages as possible.


In later life, Kelleher and Meads became firm friends, visiting each other’s homes in New Zealand and Ireland, and this year Kelleher was sorry to hear that Meads had not been well. Kelleher gave Meads the whistle he had used when sending him off and it is now in a rugby museum in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Dangerous play

Nonetheless, Kelleher took a firm line on dangerous play. Although he was not involved in the game in which Munster forward Peter Clohessy stamped on a French player when playing for Ireland against France in Paris in 1996, he told

The Irish Times

that the player should have been banned for life, rather than the six-month suspension imposed on him.

“I watched the incident several times over on television and, quite frankly, I was absolutely appalled,” he said. “It was horrific. He could have killed him. On the basis of his previous record, I would put him out of the game for keeps.”

Clohessy insisted that the TV footage was misleading.

Kelleher’s tall lean figure was a familiar feature on the pitch to generations of boys who played in the Leinster schools junior and senior cup competitions from the 1950s on. Those games and their young players held the future of Irish rugby and they deserved to be refereed properly.

Stephen Hilditch, president of the Irish Rugby Football Union, pinpointed this contribution when he said, "Kevin Kelleher's contribution to Leinster and to schools' rugby in particular was truly exceptional", on learning of his death.

Kelleher remained involved in rugby after retiring as a referee, becoming president of the Leinster Branch in 1977 while also serving as honorary secretary of the Leinster Schools Committee for 52 years.

Amateur sport

Rugby was an amateur sport in those days and Kelleher had become headmaster of St Conleth’s private school in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, where his private and professional life overlapped.

His predecessor, an enterprising teacher – he also had a grocery shop – Bernard Sheppard founded the school “for the sons of Catholic gentlemen” at 19 Clyde Road in 1939. In 1957, Sheppard died and his wife Patricia (nee King), an American from Seattle, subsequently married Kelleher who had been teaching at the school since 1944.

Kelleher became headmaster in 1960, a title he retained until his death. His dedication to keeping a small private school going was remarkable. Unusually he lived on the premises, opening the doors in the morning and locking up at night, and overseeing the finances. Though he did not teach in latter years, running the school “tuck shop” enabled him to keep in touch with pupils until the very end of his life.

Sheppard’s daughter Ann (Kelleher’s step-daughter) was principal teacher between 1988 and 2001 and is currently school chief executive. Past pupils included Christopher and Michael Heaney, sons of poet Seamus Heaney, while journalist Mary Raftery was one of the first girls to be admitted.

A Breton nationalist and former member of the Waffen SS, Louis Feutren, taught French at the school from the 1950s until 1985.

As a child Kelleher had lived in the Dublin suburb of Drumcondra. His father David was a civil servant and had played with the Dublin team which won the All-Ireland football championship in 1906, and the two following years.

Kevin and his brother Dermot played hurling and rugby at O’Connell’s School. He graduated from University College Dublin, and continued playing rugby at Lansdowne RFC. Before joining St Conleth’s to teach English and Latin, he taught at another smaller school.

Kevin Kelleher is survived by his sister Nora and his step-daughter Ann. His wife Patricia died in 2007.