by Jim Olson
“Tommy Kirnan – Man of Many Talents”
Trick riding and roping are now considered “specialty acts” in the world of professional rodeo. That was not always the case. There used to be many men and women who competed at them. They were judged events.
Tommy Kirnan (sometimes misspelled as Kiernan) was born November 9, 1893 at Bayonne, New Jersey. His parents were Irish immigrants, and not much is known of his early boyhood years.
By some strange trail however, we do know that young Tommy shows up as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the tender age of ten. He was a Pony Express rider in the show.
Then Kirnan went to work for the Frank Hafley Wild West Show out of California. In 1911 he toured with various circuses and eventually landed at the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show of Oklahoma fame. Somewhere along the way, he became an expert at trick roping and riding. Some would say he was one of the best. He was also pretty handy at calf roping and bronc riding.
In the time of the first twenty or so years of the 1900s, the man considered hardest to beat in trick roping was Chester Byers and the man to beat in trick riding was Leonard Stroud. Some historians however, claim that Tommy Kirnan was truly the man to beat because he excelled at both events (often beating each man at their own respective events). He also won quite a bit in the bronc riding and calf roping. He was a well-rounded hand.
Along the way, Tommy Kirnan met and married Bea Brossard. Bea was a rodeo performer herself (trick riding and bronc riding). The couple performed together all over the country (and even the world), becoming one of the most famous rodeo couples of the era. Other famous rodeo couples, who were contemporaries of the Kirnans, include Hugh and Maybell Strickland, Buck and Tad Lucas, Leonard and Mayme Stroud, Bill and Fannie Steele – to name a few.
Cowboy Tommy Kirnan and wife Bea decided to branch out into the world of rodeo production in the early 1920s. They promoted a European rodeo (Wild West Show) in 1924-1925, producing shows at Scotland, Ireland, France and other countries.
In 1924, a large group of cowboys and cowgirls set sail for Europe with Tex Austin to perform in his rodeo. They performed at Wembley Stadium in London to over 100,000 people in June of 1924 (A great example of the worldwide appeal of rodeos during the “Golden Age” of rodeo.)
In September, many of the Tex Austin performers stayed in Europe to appear in the Kirnan’s rodeo at Paris. The chosen venue was originally created to host bicycle races. However, the Vélodrome Buffalo (which had been named for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West because he did a show there in the late 1800s), seemed a fitting place for the Kirnan show.
The Kirnans’ produced several rodeos in the states as well. One of their most famous bucking horses was a horse known as “Fiddle Face,” whom they co-owned with Buck and Tad Lucas.
Although he was credited with being one of the best in his day, a long-time rodeo contestant can not escape injuries forever. Tommy was no exception.
According to the Clipper newspaper of New York, while reporting on the Madison Square Garden Rodeo, Friday, November 23, 1923, “Tommy Kirnan was doing fine in the trick riding event when, in doing a roll under the saddle, he swung t`too far under his horse, whose hoof clouted Tommy on his lame ankle. The rap was so severe he dropped off and had to be assisted out of the arena. A doctor attended to it.” He had several other injuries while performing dangerous stunts a-horseback as well.
Although Tommy put on Wild West Shows and Rodeos in competition with the great Tex Austin, he was also friends with, and worked for Tex. In 1920, when a film crew decided to get footage of the Tex Austin Rodeo at Chicago, Kirnan was one of the cowboys Tex had the cameras aim at most. This old footage, which has been miraculously salvaged, may be the best tribute we have left of a once-legendary rodeo man. Tommy was not much of a publicity hound in his day.
Just as mysterious as his boyhood years, Tommy Kirnan’s life after rodeo largely remains a mystery as well. He died, March 26,1937 Iowa Park, Texas. He was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1977.