There was a roar of excitement for the first scrum of the Ireland versus Wales international at Belfast’s Ravenhill Stadium on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd April 1937.
England had already been declared that year’s champions having successively defeated Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Ireland was playing to be runners up; Wales to avoid the wooden spoon.
Playing lock in his debut appearance for Ireland was Blair Mayne, then 22, a rambunctious graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and trainee solicitor who was the sixth child in a Protestant family from Newtonards in County Down. He had been Irish universities heavyweight boxing champion in 1936 and runner-up in the British universities heavyweight championship. Mayne, an excellent golfer, was ferociously competitive.
In the Irish front row, also for the first time, was prop Charles Reidy. Then 24, Reidy was the son of Jerome Reidy, a doctor born in Limerick who moved to London and was elected the first Catholic mayor of the London Borough of Stepney in 1917. The post was filled two years later by fellow Labour Party member and future prime minister Clement Atlee. Charles Reidy went to Ampleforth and he and three of his brothers played for the London Irish Rugby club, of which he would later become vice-president. He was a member of the South London Harriers athletic club, an outstanding javelin, discus and weights thrower and, like Mayne, an amateur heavyweight boxer.
Another member of the Irish pack that day was wing forward Robert Alexander, who had been born in Belfast in 1910. Also a Queen’s University graduate, Alexander had previously played cricket for Ireland. He was eventually to win eleven Irish rugby caps and Mayne six. Both were picked to represent the British Lions in a tour of South Africa in 1938. For Reidy, the match against Wales was his first and last rugby international.
The rugby careers of all three, however, were overshadowed by the coming of the Second World War which began in September 1939.
On 19th October 1940, Charles Reidy became an officer in the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles, a Territorial Army unit based in Chelsea and which landed in Algeria with the rest of the Irish Brigade as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. By then, he had been promoted to captain and was in command of the battalion’s G Company on 26th February 1943 when they faced an early morning attack by German paratroopers on Stuka Ridge near the town of Bou Arada south west of Tunis. Reidy was seriously wounded by a grenade that day, which left him temporarily blind and with permanent head injuries that led to his transfer out of front-line duties into the Education Corps.
Charles Reidy (second right) with his three brothers and fellow London Irish ruby players.
After the war, Reidy went to Cambridge University where he won a discus half blue and he also used hammer-throwing to regain upper body, arm and leg muscles strength. Reidy built the world’s first cement circle for discus and hammer throwing and won the Southern hammer title in 1946 and 1952 as well as becoming Irish hammer champion in 1953. That year, he won the hammer competition at the Services Athletics Championship at Uxbridge with a record of 163ft 11 ½ inches. His best ever throw was 168 foot thrown in Dublin.
Charles Reidy rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and died in 2004 at the age of 92.
Blair Mayne was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and was initially posted to anti-aircraft batteries in Northern Ireland. In April 1940, he transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles, but Mayne soon volunteered for the newly formed 11 (Scottish) Commando and saw action in June 1941 during the brief Syria-Lebanon campaign.
Mayne, now known as “Paddy”, was recommended to Captain David Stirling for what eventually became the Special Air Service (SAS). Between November 1941 and December 1942, he participated in night raids behind enemy lines in Egypt and Libya and pioneered the use of military jeeps to conduct hit-and-run raids, particularly on Axis airfields and may have personally destroyed up to 100 aircraft. For his actions in North Africa, Mayne was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
He was then appointed to command the Special Raiding Squadron and led the unit in Sicily and Italy until the end of 1943. In Sicily, Mayne was awarded a Bar to the DSO during the initial part of Operation Husky.
In January 1944, Mayne was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed commanding officer of the re-formed 1st SAS Regiment. He led the SAS in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Norway and received a second and then, remarkably, a third Bar to the DSO. The post-war French government awarded him the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre. There has also been an ongoing campaign for Mayne to be awarded the VC that he had been recommended for in 1945 but subsequently denied.
Blair Mayne eventually returned to Newtownards to work first as a solicitor and then as Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. He died in a car crash on the night of 13th December 1955.
Robert Alexander was commissioned into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in April 1940 and joined its second battalion, a regular army unit which was re-formed in 1937. The battalion had fought in the Battle for France and subsequently evacuated from Dunkirk at the end of May 1940.
After taking part in the short campaign in Mozambique in April 1942, and then – following a short spell in India – in Iraq and Iran, the 2nd Inniskillings and Alexander were transferred to the Mediterranean theatre and landed in Sicily on 10th July 1943 as part of Operation Husky. On 19th July, the battalion was given the task of creating a bridgehead over the Simeto river south of Catania. This was successfully achieved, but in the bitter fighting near Lemon Bridge, Alexander – by then a captain and a company commander – was killed and is buried in the Catania Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
All this was unimaginable for the three young men when they scrummed together for the first and last time in Belfast in 1937. That day, their team won 5-3 but that’s largely lost to living memory. Their larger legacy on the other hand is unforgettable.
The Ireland team that played England on 12th Feb 1938 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Mayne is third from right in the back row. Alexander is seated on the extreme right.