Jimmy Nolan (16 April 1943 – 1 January 2014), a much-loved and longstanding member of North Belfast Harriers (NBH), died on New Year’s Day after a lengthy illness. Best known in his later years as the lead junior coach for NBH, Jimmy served the club and the community for more than a quarter-century in capacities including Chair, Secretary, Welfare Officer, the committee that organized the building of the clubhouse in 2004, Waterworks Parkrun participant and volunteer, volunteer with Newtownabbey Racers (a special needs club), and encouraging athletes and volunteers of all ages and abilities.
In 2012 Jimmy was recognised as the 2012 Athletics Northern Ireland Volunteer of the Year and his work was instrumental in NBH receiving awards as the 2013 Athletics Northern Ireland Junior Club of the Year and the 2011 Athletics Northern Ireland Senior Club of the Year.
Jimmy was an ever-present face in the clubhouse, and in his retirement he volunteered at a minimum at least 12 hours a week of his time for little rewards other than the smiley faces of the children that he loved to see. Jimmy enjoyed the social side of running and was one of NBH’s ‘Oul Hands’ along with Sammy Gallagher, Eddie Delaney, Norman Ritchie and Billy Bell, to name but a few. Jimmy made lifelong friendships with these and many more. He regularly went on trips to watch the seniors and vets race, and experienced many of Sammy’s famous trips abroad. All were pledged to secrecy and didn’t discuss anything that happened whilst away. (Sounds masonic?!)
Jimmy was always a practical joker and even came dressed as a woman on one of his first club do’s. His sense of fun extended to organising activity days with the junior athletes. In 2012 at the Belfast Activity Centre Belvoir, Jimmy oversaw more than 70 children, and led by example, climbing on the high platforms, and caving and canoeing with the kids.
When Sean McCaffery, who previously coached the juniors, retired due to the death of a close family member, Jimmy stepped into his position and assumed his greatest role as junior coach. Right from the start he had a connection with the kids who all adored him. He helped establish child protection and took all the courses to help NBH achieve the Clubmark standard. As regulations for volunteers increased, Jimmy rose to the challenge – and encouraged others to do so – by obtaining a level two coaching certificate, as well as child protection, junior coach development, disability awareness, first aid and welfare officer qualifications.
Jimmy’s dedication and willingness to keep learning was a major factor in the rapid growth of the club over the last few years. He was involved with the Harriers’ outreach programme into the schools in North Belfast, which fed numbers at club sessions. The outreach programme also involved acquiring the use of the community schools’ facilities in North Belfast, because transport of the growing numbers to the Mary Peters Track in South Belfast – which Jimmy organised for many years – was no longer feasible. It caused Jimmy pain to abandon the South Belfast kids who had no way to come across town, but he recognised the need in dealing with growing numbers. Jimmy’s legacy includes a volunteer junior coaching staff and a junior membership of more than 100 athletes (up from 50 in 2012 and 30 in 2011). There is now a long waiting list of local children eager to join NBH. Jimmy’s commitment to inclusivity has also resulted in ten children with special needs having been integrated into the club.
Jimmy was instrumental in developing NBH’s holistic approach to athletics, emphasising fun and participation while encouraging juniors to give back to the sport. For example, this year at Belfast’s Culture Night the club provided multi-skills activities for children, while at the City Council’s ‘Belfast Day’ it provided ‘come and try it’ sessions. Juniors also volunteer at the Parkrun. NBH has also devised a rewards system that values good attendance and commitment for training and volunteering, not just performance. This approach encourages new children into all aspects of the sport without applying undue pressure.
Jimmy kept up his own running until he became ill. He was really proud to eventually run his first marathon in Dublin, his home town, when he was in his sixties, regularly took part in the Christmas Cracker races, and was a Waterworks Parkrun stalwart.
Jimmy was also involved in weddings, christenings and funerals of many of our members and friends and really was one of the family to so many. He and his wife Denise were the main committee members of a club for widowed and divorced people; in fact, that’s where he met Denise. He was known as “Dublin Jim” when he was a taxi driver but when he retired in 2011 at the age of 68 he was a lorry driver for the health services.
When Jimmy joined the club, NBH trained out of an old corrugated iron building where the existing clubhouse now stands. The membership at one stage would have been down to about 20 athletes, mostly vets, and Jimmy was one of them. Without Jimmy, NBH would not be the club it is today, with hundreds of athletes, young and old, training and having fun with some of the best facilities North Belfast has to offer. He will certainly be missed.
(Images: Jimmy receives the 2012 Volunteer of the Year award from Athletics Northern Ireland President Gerry Lynch; Jimmy on the run)
Thanks to the family and club members who provided information for this story.