Maeve Kyle: Ireland's first female Olympic track and field athlete

60 years ago Maeve Kyle became Ireland’s first female Olympic track and field athlete. She saw things in Melbourne that still resonate six decades later — but her memories are special ones
Maeve Kyle: Ireland's first female Olympic track and field athlete

dull day. The wipers, the relentless rain, the steam on the windows. You weave through the roads until you come to a tiny turn, a cul-de-sac. You drive deeper into the trees and, then, a kind-of crossroads. A small sign entices you to keep left at the fork.

‘Tír na nÓg’. Of course.

There’s a sprawling garden, manicured, interrupted by a random assortment of objects. There’s a partly deflated football and, as the drizzle turns heavier, a cat hops on an outside table and curls up tightly under its accompanying parasol.

Once inside, you notice two things immediately. The modernist architecture and the lack of wall space. So much is on display. Under the stairs, there’s a giant, copper whiskey still from a lifetime ago.

Two pictures hang in the hallway. Both are of Kilkenny College. It’s a good place to start.

“There were the playing fields and the tennis courts - we played tennis all summer”, Maeve Kyle says, recounting her earliest days living in the imposing and iconic school that her father – C.G. Shankey - was the principal of.

“But my first sports memories are playing handball in a covered alley against my two younger brothers – I used to beat them because they were slower than me. The handball gave me fantastic hand-eye coordination.

"I played touch rugby with the boys. I played hockey with the boys. I swam in the river with the boys. I was convinced I was a boy, too – living in a boy’s school with two brothers.”

Born in 1928, Kyle was quickly immersed in some dizzying social circles. At 10, she was sent to Dublin’s Alexandra College and went to live with her grandparents.

“My grandfather, W.E. Thrift, was the provost in Trinity so I had to live in this very grand house at No. 1 Grafton Street with a butler and things like that.

"I adored my grandfather – he was a Yorkshire man and he believed in science, in philosophy – all the things that didn’t really go together. He used to always chat to me at night – 15 or 20-minute conversations – when I was old enough, of course.

"The butler’s name was Smiton. He’d take me to school on Earlsfort Terrace and I’d say the same thing to him every day: ‘Smiton, I know the rest of the way myself’. And he’d say, ‘No, Miss Maeve – I’ll take you to the door.’”

Within seconds, the mugs are full, the cakes are out and you settle back into it.

“I wanted to become a doctor and went to Trinity. During the first year, I decided I didn’t want to become a doctor anymore and changed to Natural Sciences – partly because I fancied a fellow in the class.”

After Trinity, Maeve returned to Alexandra and began teaching. In 1953, she found herself in Antrim with the Irish hockey squad and headed to a post-game party. It was there that her life changed.

“I had heard about the Olympics but they didn’t have anything to do with me. I didn’t know what they were about until I met this lovely man on a blind date. He was gorgeous and I really fancied him but I had to get to know him a bit better first. We were introduced by friends, we got chatting and he was a fantastic dancer.

“When I was about 7 or 8, my Dad said ‘Why don’t you learn a proper dance? I’ll teach you the tango’ and he did. So, when I started going out with Sean and he’d say ‘We’re going dancing’, I’d ask, ‘Will they be doing the tango?’”

An insurance broker by trade, Sean had a deep-rooted obsession with sport – notably track and field – and, during their courtship, encouraged Maeve to take up sprinting, with him as coach. Her experience was limited, though impressive.

“When I was about 13, I was at home in Kilkenny for the school sports day and I told Daddy that I wanted to run. ‘I’m not putting on a girls event’, he said.

"‘I’ll run against the boys’, I told him. And I did and I won. And I won the next year as well. With Sean, my first event was the RUC Sports, organised by the police force. There was the 100 and 220 yard sprints and I won them both.

“Because of the hockey, I was introduced to international sport quite early. Then, of course, you get a taste for that level. I was fast enough, fit enough. I had a good enough eye and I had the hunger. And I liked learning. Especially from people more experienced than me.”

In 1954, they were married - less than a year after first meeting - and Sean carefully began to mould his protégé. He had previous coaching experience and extolled the virtues of preparation and discipline.

“He loved the technical aspects of all sports – athletics, particularly – and had a brilliant mind. You couldn’t build the house if you didn’t have the bricks – it was as simple as that with him. You always had a strong base.

"And I remember some ferocious training in the winter. On Christmas Day, I was in the kitchen and cooking the dinner and he’d say ‘You’ve got a 15-minute run to do now before we sit down’.

He said ‘You have to learn to do these things when you don’t really want to’. And it was a good lesson.” As the 1956 Summer Olympics approached, Sean spoke more and more about Maeve possibly going.

“I said to him, ‘Don’t be silly. Ireland don’t send women to the Olympics’. ‘I think they do”, he said. ‘In 1948, we sent a female fencer’.

“Now, those Games weren’t the proper, fully-fledged Olympics but the lady in question was my PE teacher in Alexandra – Dorothy Dermody. Sean knew all of this. He was a divil for detail. So he said ‘You won’t be the first, you’ll be the second. But the first in track and field.’”

The Melbourne Games were scheduled for November and Maeve didn’t find out she had been selected until two months beforehand. The decision was met with uproar by the Irish public.

“Letters were sent to The Irish Times saying I was a disgrace to Ireland. I went against the Catholic ethos of what women should be. Married women were supposed to be in one place. I wasn’t fulfilling the normal role of a young Irishwoman.

"Sean’s parents were totally opposed to the idea and never spoke to me about it. They never congratulated me. They never asked me how I did and they lived next door. It was quite extraordinary.

“But before that, I remember there was a college race that Trinity put on and de Valera was there. I won and got a message afterwards – ‘Mr de Valera would like to meet you’. I was brought into the enclosure and there he was.

‘A fine race you ran’, he said. I was gobsmacked that he was even talking to me. And then he said, ‘Unusual for women’ – I always remember that.

“Women’s place was secondary in everything. It sounds horrible to say but we were second-class citizens. It’s only the last 30 years that women have been kind-of accepted to do a lot of things – but still not everything.”

The Irish athletes had to raise £200 to cover the cost of the trip. The story goes that one of the boxers – Tony Byrne, who would go on to win a bronze medal in Melbourne, put jam jars in every pub in Drogheda to help him reach the target.

But the stress didn’t end there.

Maeve was leaving her husband and two-year-old behind. She was getting on a plane for the first time. And, inevitably, it proved quite a trek to get to the other side of the world.

The group had 24 hours in New York after the first leg of the marathon journey.

“We’d never seen anything like it in our lives. We couldn’t do anything or go anywhere but we just strolled down the street and were stopped by policemen for jaywalking. We were like a bunch of eejits – Ronnie (Delany) had travelled but the rest of us were a bunch of culchies who’d never been anywhere before.”

The team then crossed to the west coast and stayed in San Francisco for a week to recover from the travel and to do some training. They were gone from Ireland for ten days but were still only in the United States.

Finally, they arrived in Australia where 28-year-old Maeve was blitzed by Betty Cuthbert, a local hero ten years her junior and who went on to become the undoubted star of the Games by walking away with three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4v100m relay.

“I was way out of my depth”, she admits. “I don’t know if I was last or second-last but that was the level of quality. But I did the best I could. It was a grass track, the crowds were very close and it was very much an old-fashioned meet.

"People were shouting ‘Come on, Miss Ireland’. I was nervous about not doing the best I could. But it was a magic experience. I had people coming up to me saying they knew my family back home and the amount of Irish support was absolutely staggering.

“These people, for the most part, were maybe in their 40s. Later I was told that they’d been ‘evacuated’ during the war and sent to Australia because their families had friends or relations there to look after them.

"A man came to me at one stage and gave me a broach made of pearls. He told me he’d been sent to Australia as a child but was originally from the midlands. I suspect a lot of them were children who were part of big families and who couldn’t be properly looked after. But who were that lost generation? What became of them?”

Maeve went to Melbourne as a rookie athlete but returned home more mature and aware. She got better with age, recording her best times between 1960 and 1964. She represented Ireland at another two Olympics – in Rome and Tokyo - but her preferred distance was the 400m, an event only introduced in the middle of the decade.

At 38, she was still competing at the highest level and claimed bronze at the European Indoor Championship in Dortmund in 1966.

But over the course of a decade as an elite international athlete, she began to notice things. Changes in her competitors - their physique, their times.

“In ‘56, I was totally unaware of any of it. But years later I was at an indoor meet and beaten on the line by an Eastern European girl. When I looked at her I just said

“Politically, it was so important for East Germany, particularly, to give the image that they were the uber nation. It was done through sport. It was developed through the fabulous youth camps and those children were being prepared for warfare, basically. It’s a harsh comparison to make but, in a way, sport is a form of warfare. It’s about winning and putting something over on somebody. It can hurt if you want to be the best. If you want to survive, you need to be even better. I liked winning but I didn’t mind if I lost.

“You heard it from other athletes who’d tell you who was on ‘supplements’, as they were called. Someone would say ‘I ran against so-and-so a few years ago and she was a completely different shape’. An athlete was now a square where she had been quite slender. Your eyes told you.

“Anybody who’s been involved in any sport for a long time will know that there are always countries that will assist the athletes for political purposes. And these athletes are being used.”

At the time, Maeve noticed something else. Five decades before Caster Semenya – athletes’ genders were also a topic of conversation in meets around the world.

“There were athletes in every Olympics I competed in and you just wondered. There was one race I had in Belgrade. There were communal changing rooms and my daughter, who was still quite young, was with me. She came into the bathroom with me in the morning, looked around and said ‘Mummy, why are those ladies shaving?’

“I was mortified in case some of them spoke English. But nobody could say they were male, nobody was sure they were female. They were inter-sex athletes.”

It’s stained a little bit now. Maeve will watch the track and field events in Rio but without Sean, who died last year after a long battle with illness.

And as much as the Olympic ideals still appeal to her, there’s the gnawing feeling that she just can’t shake.

“You start to wonder. And it’s awful. It puts a suspicion into your mind. As much as I love sport, I’d never have used it as a way of doing well in life. That sounds mad. But I wouldn’t have ever used sport as something that always told a lie about me in terms of how good I was.

“Sport was something I did in my spare time and I never got away from that. I liked to win – make no mistake. People will tell you I had the real driving force but I don’t think I did. I don’t think I was driven enough to win at all costs. Now, people want to win at any cost. It becomes their life and I couldn’t have that.”

The mugs have been emptied. So the kettle is boiled again. Maeve holds the cup between her hands and smiles to herself. She moves in closer, to reveal something.

“I went out there not knowing I was pregnant. I found out when I came back. I had a wee boy. Michael-John. We lost him, sadly, when he was two-and-a-half months old because of a heart defect. He was a poppet. The first boy on the Kyle side of the family but it was just the way it was. He was gorgeous and it broke my heart.”

She continues to smile, wistfully into the distance.

You ask about her biggest memory from an Olympics 60 years ago. The start line? The din? Celebrating Ronnie’s gold medal?

“I was invited to dinner by a guy who’d been an old pal of my father’s in Kilkenny. I went to this magnificent house of his in Melbourne and he said ‘Is there anything you’d like to do?’ I said ‘There’s only one thing – to talk to himself’.

“So he went out of the room and came back carrying a phone. He dialled the number and there was Sean on the other end. He couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t. It was such a lovely gesture.

“I got to talk to the wee one as well. That to me was magic. It made the trip worthwhile – which sounds ridiculous.

“I knew my family were still there, dying for me to come back and that’s a great feeling.

“When you get into your eighties, you remember all the great things about the past and the rest you just shove away.”

You drink up and take your leave. There are hugs and kisses and all kinds of nice words. As you settle into the car, put the wipers on and begin the long, dreary journey back, you feel a warmth, an energy.

Tír na nÓg, of course.

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