Many myths and urban legends surround the life of British & Irish Lion Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne but one thing is for certain – his story is one that demands to be told.
Despite being better known for becoming one of the British Army’s most highly decorated soldiers during the Second World War, Mayne was also a colossus on the rugby field.
Born and raised in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, Lion #307 Mayne started his rugby journey at Regent House Grammar School where he played for the first XV and Ards RFC.
He went on to study law at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he also proved to be a talented boxer and golfer, before making his Ireland debut against Wales in 1937.
But it was in the famous Lions jersey on the 1938 Tour to South Africa where Mayne played his best rugby, only for his sporting career to be cut short by the outbreak of World War II.
Peter Forbes, a teacher and local historian, became aware of Mayne’s story through one of his pupils and has been researching and giving talks on his life ever since.
“There are so many different areas where you can dip in, you can dip into the rugby as this was a man who was at the top of his game and in 1938 he was touring with the Lions,” he said.
“Then he joined a small organisation called the Special Air Service and he was there in its infancy and not only helped develop it but he carried it on when their leader was captured.
“He took on the responsibility of carrying on the idea of the SAS right through to the end of the war and incredibly successfully for what was such a small group initially.
“For such a small group to become what it did at the end of the war, it went from about 60 men at the start to about 2,000 at the end, and they shortened the war considerably by their actions.”
Before the intervention of the war, Mayne was one of four Queen’s University men selected for the 1938 Lions Tour to South Africa despite only having a handful of Ireland caps to his name.
Lasting over three months and including 24 matches, the Tour ended in a series defeat for the Lions as Mayne played in all three of the Tests and featured 20 times in total.
But while the lock’s performances on the pitch even had the Springboks singing his praises, it was on the Tour where many of the tales about his behaviour off the field were born.
Some of those myths, including one famous story involving Mayne and antelope hunting, were true while others – as journalist Ciaran Donaghy discovered – turned out to be nonsense.
A former Queen’s University player himself, Donaghy became hooked on Mayne’s story while researching the history of Lions tourists who had come through the rugby club.
“He was more renowned for his off-field antics on that Tour than his playing,” explained Donaghy.
“The Tour was captained by Sammy Walker who was from Belfast and nearly every day he had to go to the Tour manager and plead for Blair to stay on the Tour as he knew the value of Blair.
“Despite the Lions losing, the South Africans thought he was one of the greatest forwards they’d ever seen playing, he was hard, he was abrasive and not afraid of taking retribution.
“He played altogether in 20 of 24 games one the Tour, so that would have been 17 provincial games and all three Tests, and he played in one of the two games against Rhodesia.
“He was the only forward not to score on the Tour. On that Tour, South Africa were hailed as the unofficial world champions as they had beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand the year before.
“They were considered to be the best in the world and after the first Test a South African described Mayne as ‘outstanding in the pack and stood up tirelessly to an unwinnable task’.
“Even the South African journalists were praising his hard, abrasive style.”
Following the Tour Mayne graduated from Queen’s, beginning his legal career and winning more Ireland caps before his story took another twist with the arrival of the Second World War.
His life as a soldier proved to be just as eventful as his rugby journey, winning many medals along the way as he became one of the founding members of the SAS (Special Air Service).
Mayne’s war trunk, which included photographs, diaries, personal items, letters and medals, was recently donated by his family to the War Years Remembered museum in Ballyclare.
Museum curator David McCallion hopes the collection can help dispel some of the myths and legends around Mayne, focusing on his incredible war time achievements.
“Blair joined in March 1939 with the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery of the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery,” McCallion said. “We didn’t have a territorial army at that stage here, they were special reserves, but the excitement wasn’t there.
“He didn’t find his niche and from there he went on to the 102nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment and he then went into the Royal Ulster Rifles before volunteering for the 11 (Scottish) Commandos.
“After Dunkirk, Churchill wanted a special raiding squadron, guys who were going to punch above their weight and from that the Parachute Unit was formed and that went on to spawn the SAS.
“Blair’s first action was at the Litani River with the Scottish Commandos in 1941. That attack was a bloody one and they held their own and from that his prowess became apparent.
“He was just a natural born soldier, a leader as well, all the sporting achievements behind him made him a team player but he has been tarred with a lot of brushes that are wrong.
“We can bust all these myths and legends. The man himself was the ultimate warrior and there was no remand to take the SAS on as they were already talking about getting rid of it.
“Blair went on to do wonderful things with them. He was awarded a DSO with three bars, that’s amazing and many people have questioned why he didn’t get the Victoria Cross.”
Mayne returned home after the war where he became Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland but he died aged just 40 in a road accident in his native Newtownards in 1955.
But as a decorated war hero and a Lions tourist, it is no surprise that Mayne’s legacy is still going strong to this day and Donaghy believes his impact on the 1938 Tour will never be forgotten.
“He played hard, he played fast,” he added. “Would he survive in today’s modern rugby? Probably not as Major Hartley many a time wanted to kick him off the Lions and send him home.
“But his absolute importance to the side kept him there though, he was a guy who could mix it up physically and he has left an indelible mark on Irish Rugby.
“Maybe because he didn’t have the longevity of a career, other people would say that he shouldn’t be but to play 20 times for the Lions on one Tour is amazing.
“He was hard, physical and you don’t become a physical instructor in the SAS if you’re not fit. If he had of had the longevity, he would have been considered a Lions and Ireland great.
“He is certainly considered a Queen’s University great and an Ulster great and you would have to say that while he had a short impact, he has a long-term legacy.”
You can support War Years Remembered by supporting the museum’s In The Footsteps Of Heroes JustGiving Campaign. Find out more information about War Years Remembered here.