In Ulster we often don’t stand on ceremony. I last spoke to Jack Kyle over five years ago. I was interviewing him for my university newspaper about his life as one of Ireland’s greatest ever rugby players, a man who represented the British Lions six times, and his career as a surgeon in Zambia that lasted 34 years, returning to Ireland at 74. I was home from London for two days, and thought nothing of asking him to sign a photograph for my Dad for Father’s Day. I thought it beat socks. I telephoned him and he said why don’t I call down to his house on the foothillls of the Mourne Mountains for a chat. So I did.
Jack Kyle is nearly 87 and he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about him. “I threw a piece of leather about over fifty years ago, and it’s amazing and flattering that anybody remembers me.” This isn’t false modesty, he’s genuinely bemused. After a number of wrong turns in my rented battered Ford Ka, I pull into an abandoned caravan park and ask the owner does he know Jack’s house. He gives directions instantaneously. I reach his door on a quiet Saturday night. He is wearing a white turtleneck with a tear in the arm and his snow white hair is standing up on end. He is relatively small, not much over 5 foot 6 and I seem to tower over him. A rarity for me. He shakes my hand warmly and says how cruel it was for the All Blacks to beat Ireland by a drop kick in the last minute.
He ushers me into his living room which is filled with books on everything from Napolean to Ernest Hemingway stacked haphazardly across the carpet. If you weren’t briefed beforehand, you could mistake him for a kindly elderly professor. The house is dark and he lives alone. He is sitting as older bachelors are want to do with a scratch meal made by himself on his lap. It is spaghetti hoops, with chopped onion and tomato. The television hums in the background softly. He offers me some but I politely tell him my mother has a pie for me in the oven in Belfast.
Jack is revered across the world. The All Blacks paid him the ultimate honour when he toured with the Lions in 1950 saying they wish he could have represented them. He tells me any talent he had in rugby was innate. “When you think of models, they have to look a certain way Jonathan, they will be 6 foot tall and beautiful, with rugby it’s the same, I just happened to be born with something, that meant I could go for a gap and just hope for the best.” There is precious little footage of him, but what exists on youtube, shows an electrically quick fly half who played almost completely on instinct.
Kyle decided to end his international rugby career in 1958, he was 32. He travelled to Indonesia because he fancied an adventure as a surgeon and he got one when President Surkano decided all foreign nationals needed to leave the country. He travelled to Zambia, where he was the only surgeon for miles in a remote village hospital for most of his adult life. “I did everything, every kind of surgery, it was the biggest challenge, as I was doing things for the first time, but I look back and it’s a happy time in my life and one I am proud of.”
He is interested on what I am doing with myself now. “Advertising? I thought you were going to be a sports writer. Well good for you anyway, anything I would know? Fairy Softness? No I haven’t seen that.” He wants to give me advice on rugby. “Just don’t get your head in the way of someone’s boot and you’ll be fine.” He chats with me into the night, quoting Oscar Wilde and Pable Nerruda in between mouthfuls of white wine and spaghetti hoops, before telling me that his biggest regret in life is that he never kept a diary to capture precious memories of days in Africa and touring New Zealand. “There’s so few of my friends left now, you must try to keep a diary of everything when you can, it’s precious.”
Dr Kyle tells me he’s got cancer at the moment, but at 87 he still has a rapier surgeon’s mind as he tells me at length about how efficient the drugs are. My B in GCSE biology simply allows me to nod and tell him it’s getting late and I don’t want to keep him up. He walks me to the door, signs my picture for my Dad and thanks me for remembering who he is.