Jack Kyle is remembered as a legend of Irish and World Rugby. A member of the first Irish team to win the Grand Slam in 1948, he is universally recognised as Ireland’s greatest ever player. However, it has arguably overshadowed an even greater achievement, attained in his work as a doctor and surgeon, far away from the famous rugby grounds of the world.
Growing up in Belfast on the cusp of World War 2, no one could possibly fathom that this fresh-faced and polite young man, studying hard to be accepted to read medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, would go on to become one of rugby’s greatest players.
Born John Wilson Kyle, on the 10th of February 1926, Jack was considered a late bloomer when it came to rugby. His perceived lack of experience meant he was a perennial second pick at outhalf for school and later college teams. It would take an unfortunate injury sustained by the first choice outhalf at Queen’s before Jack Kyle had the chance to showcase his abilities. Once in the side, he seized his chance, and an Ireland call-up soon followed in the autumn of 1947. From these seemingly small beginnings, one of the greatest international rugby careers the world had ever known was about to begin.
Kyle’s impact in the Irish team was immediate. The following year in 1948, Ireland won the Five Nations Championship and completed their first ever Grand Slam, winning all their matches. It was a feat that wouldn’t be repeated by Ireland for another 61 years.
The Irish team would continue to prosper in the post World War 2 years, winning another Triple Crown and Five Nations Championship in 1949 and the championship again in 1951, with Kyle’s eye-catching running from outhalf lighting up the crowds. His performances earned him a spot on the 1950 Lions Tour to New Zealand and Australia, scoring tries in each of the tests against them. His skill and quality would end up with him being singled him out for some “special” treatment from New Zealand in particular. In rugby terms, it was the ultimate compliment, and Kyle left New Zealand with the acknowledgement that he was the greatest out-half to have ever visited their shores.
In 1953 he was even immortalised in poem, after his dazzling try against France in Ravenhill a journalist was quick to parody The Scarlet Pimpernel:
They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
That paragon of pace and guile,
That damned elusive Jackie Kyle.
It’s a wonderfully apt description, particularly since Kyle was known to love poetry, and would often be found reading before games and took the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on the Lions tour. Indeed, another famous Irish diaspora poet, Louis MacNiece, paid Jack what he considers his fondest ever compliment. When asked if he could have one wish, MacNiece said: “I would like to have played rugby like Jackie Kyle.”
Jack Kyle would go on to play 46 caps for Ireland, 6 tests for the Lions and 8 for the Barbarians from 1947 to 1958, then a world record for senior international rugby appearances. His achievements in the game are recognised both at home and abroad. He was first inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2002 was named Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player by the IRFU.
Of course in Jack’s days rugby union was an amateur sport, and it was in his profession as a doctor and surgeon that Kyle arguably deserves as much attention as his exploits in international test rugby.
After hanging up his boots Kyle left for a medical mission to Indonesia and Sumatra around 1963. In 1966, after a brief return to Belfast Kyle took up a job offer in Zambia to work in the tiny village of Chingola, home to one of the biggest open cast copper mines in the world. He would remain there for the next 35 years.
“There were two hospitals in Chingola when I got there,” recalled Jack in an interview with Turtle Bunbury. “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.”
Kyle was typically modest in all aspects in life, no more so than when it came to his career as a surgeon operating in very difficult conditions.
“I’m just like an old country surgeon in rural Ireland 60 or 70 years ago – everything from tonsils, appendices and broken limbs to operations much more dramatic and desperate, though no surgery remotely sophisticated, I’m afraid,” he told the Telegraph. But in truth Kyle was often the only surgeon working in an isolated hospital with 500 beds. By the 1990’s, the AIDS crisis had become a full blown epidemic, with 80% of his patients suffering from the disease.
What made one of Ireland’s most revered sports figures leave the comforts of home? No one really knows, but there are clues. Kyle was a very literate and religious man. He wouldn’t be the first Irish person to consider it his moral duty and obligation to set out for far flung places in order to help alleviate pain and suffering of those less fortunate. And as it was his duty, he wouldn’t have considered it necessary to make a fuss over it!
After retiring in the early 2000’s, Jack Kyle returned to Northern Ireland to live in Co. Down. He passed away peacefully at this home on the 28th of November, 2014.
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum is an interactive experience. Spread over 20 themed galleries, it brings to life the incredible stories of Irish migration. Open daily in CHQ in Dublin’s Docklands. For ticket information click here.