The remarkable Jackie Kyle, photographed by James Fennell in 2009.
The remarkable Jackie Kyle, photographed by James Fennell in 2009.

Belfast City, Ireland
Chingola, Zambia
Draperstown, Co. Derry, Ireland
Bryansford, Co. Down, Ireland

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My sincere condolences to the family of Jackie Kyle, Ireland’s legendary rugby out-half, who passed away last night at the age of 88. I was lucky enough to meet him for a few hours back in 2010 at his home in County Down. I wrote the following story on the back of that meeting.

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In 1966, a compact and dark-haired Ulsterman strolled from his hut in the Zambian village of Chingola and mopped his brow.

Jackie Kyle, Ireland’s legendary out-half, had just arrived in the village to take up his position as a consultant surgeon with the Anglo-American Corporation. He would remain in Chingola for nearly thirty-five years, during which time the village was transformed into one of Zambia’s biggest cities.

Central to the local economy was a vast open cast copper mine, the second biggest in the world, which was opened in 1943 and run by the AAC.

‘There were two hospitals in Chingola when I got there’, recalls Jackie. ‘They were open to everybody, not just the miners and their families, so it was a fairly busy life. But it was very interesting and extremely challenging. There were very few surgeons so we just had to do the best we could.’

Although Zambia was one of the few former British colonies that avoided a coup, the copper industry was rocked by a crash in the global prices in 1973 and the subsequent nationalization of the industry. The AAC became Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines and Jackie had the option to leave. ‘But the job was so exciting that I decided to stay on.’

John Wilson Kyle was born in Belfast in 1926. His father John was the only child of a master baker from near Draperstown, Co. Derry. Shortly after the First World War, John was employed by the Edinburgh-based North British Rubber Company to oversee their operations in Ireland. The company produced everything from tyres to golf balls to rubber boots. When he called into the Belfast office, he was rather taken by an employee called Elizabeth Warren. The couple married in 1924 and two sons and three daughters followed.

Rugby was not a part of John Kyle’s life at this stage but his son’s were to change that.

Firstly, Jackie’s elder brother Eric got an Irish trial and played for Ulster.

Secondly, Jackie made his inter-provincial debut for the Ulster Schools playing full-back against Leinster. By then, Jackie was at the Belfast Royal Academy where he came under the influence of the headmaster, Alec Foster, who captained Ireland and traveled with the Lions to South Africa in 1910. In 1939, the young teenager went to Ravenhill Stadium to watch his first international when Wales beat Ireland 7-0. ‘I never dreamt that one day I’d be wearing a green jersey’.

In October 1944, Jackie entered Queen’s University, Belfast, to read medicine, and began to play rugby for a Junior XV. One day he was seated in chemistry class when he heard that his rival at out-half had just broken his leg. It was a lucky break, if you will, for Jack who secured the coveted position and established himself on the first XV. He remained on the first XV for the rest of his time at Queens.

His international career began one Sunday evening in 1947 when Radio Athlone broadcast the news that he had been invited to play for Ireland in a friendly against a British Army XV. ‘You didn’t get a phone call in those days’, he laughs. He remembers being issued with a green jersey before the match with a stern warning that if it was not returned immediately after the game, he would be charged for it.

Green was the colour for Irish players, north and south of the border. ‘There was never any religious business about rugby’, he says. ‘That was the wonderful thing about it. When the various unions were splitting up, the Irish Rugby Union said: “we play as one country”. Those of us from Ulster were very fortunate that happened. It was also a much greater honour for us to play for the whole country. I think it says a lot that during all the Troubles, never once did a southern side fail to come north or a northern side fail to go south.’

The green-jerseyed Jackie Kyle quickly became one of the lynchpins of the Irish team. In 1948, he was on the team who won the historic Grand Slam, and you can see some highlights of that here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpuLoxvTrmo

Jackie was hailed as the presiding genius when Ireland again scooped the Triple Crown the following year.

Jackie Kyle kicks for touch against Wales at Cardiff in March 1951.
The ‘Rugby Wizard’ Jackie Kyle kicks for touch against Wales at Cardiff in March 1951.

In 1950 he proved one of the shining lights of the British Lions during their tour of New Zealand and Australia, scoring a try against both.

Arguably his most famous try was a solo run against France in 1953 immortalized in a parody of ‘The Scarlet Pimpenell’.

They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
That paragon of pace and guile,
That demned elusive Jackie Kyle.

In the mid-1950s, Jackie suffered a double blow with the death of both his parents. Although he continued to play rugby, he was increasingly focused upon his medical career. At the time of his last appearance for Ireland in March 1958, his total of 46 caps from 11 seasons, yielding seven tries, was a world record.

From 1962 until 1964 he worked as a surgeon in Indonesia and Sumatra. That ended when Surharto became president of Indonesia and began to evict certain Europeans. He returned to Ireland for a year while ‘trying to make up my mind’ and then moved to Zambia where he remained until 2003.

‘People tend to forget what it’s like in Africa, but you have to admire the way people manage without any of these benefits we get here.’

He never lost his passion for rugby in Zambia and was frequently to be found beside a wireless listening to match commentaries on BBC World Service. Indeed, he likens the professionalization of rugby to the winds of change that swept through Africa in the 1960s. ‘It was inevitable. It had to happen’.

Naturally, he has some reservations about the way the game has gone. ‘I started my international career in 1947. I thought about that when I met Brian O’Driscoll because, for him, it must have been like if I’d met someone who played in 1884. And I suppose old guys will always thunder on about how things should never have changed.’

So much has changed. For one thing, players have become public property. In Jackie’s day, nobody on the team was permitted to give interviews, write for a paper or publish a book. ‘We were amateurs’, he says simply. ‘But now the media want stars and they are always making up lists of the best players ever.’ He is in awe of veterans who command big fees for an after-dinner speeches. ‘Imagine paying an Irishman to talk – it should be the opposite!’

As for the game itself, ‘it’s a lot less open than it was’. ‘Kicking is now such a large part of it. In my day you kicked with the toe, with specially constructed toe caps, and if you got the ball over from the 10 yard line, that was considered a terrific kick. Nowadays they pop them over from the half way line without looking’.

Aside from the sheer brutal physicality and speed of the modern game, he is astounded by how much the ball itself has changed. When he played, the leather ball was an ever-changing entity, absorbing the rain and mud so that it might fetch up being a big misshapen sack of wet sludge. ‘The first time I felt the ball the guys play with today, I couldn’t believe it. A wee plastic thing with dimples … it’s so light, and you can see it no matter what the weather is like!’

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Jackie lived his latter years in the Co. Down village of Bryansford, and regularly strolled amid the beautiful 630-acre Tollymore Forest Park, with its sumptuous views from the mountains of Mourne down to the sea. In 2001 he established The Jack Kyle Bursary Fund in support of the Queen’s University RFC Rugby Academy. He had a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.


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