Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date


image title


58 Irish caps.


Olympics: 1956, 1960, 1964.

Personal Bests:
100y - 10.8 (1964)
200m - 24.4 (1960)
400m - 54.5 (1964)
800m - 2.10.7 (1962).


1953; 1959 World All Star Hockey team
2004 Ballymena Borough Hall of Fame
2005 Ulster Athletic Association Hall of Fame
2006 Honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster.
2006 Lifetime Achievement Award
at Coaching Awards in London.
2006 Irish hockey's Top 10 Hall of Fame.
2007 Independent Newspapers’ Hall of Fame
2008 OBE.
2008: RTÉ/The Irish Sports Council's Hall of Fame.
2008: UK Athletics Club of the Year
for the Ballymena and Antrim Athletics Club.
2009: Belfast Telegraph/Sport NI Hall of Fame
2010: Trinity College (DUCAC) Hall of Fame



‘I was a disgrace to motherhood and the Irish nation’, says Maeve Kyle proudly. ‘That’s what one letter in The Irish Times said. Imagine! A woman leaving her husband and daughter to go and run!’

The letter she refers to was written in 1956, shortly after the Kilkenny athlete was selected to represent Ireland in the Women’s 100m and 200m at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Catholic Ireland was not quite ready for women athletes. ‘We weren’t any different to some of the Islamic countries today really’, says Maeve. ‘We didn’t have to cover our heads but we weren’t to run in an unseemly manner and they certainly didn’t want us showing any leg.’[i]

Maeve grew up along the banks of the River Nore in Kilkenny City. ‘The river was our playground’, she says. ‘My older brothers and I were always down there, jumping in off the steps, running through the woods, fishing for eels and swimming with the otters. Nobody ever asked us where we went or what devilment we were up to. As long as you arrived home for lunch, you were fine.’[ii]

Home was Kilkenny College, the illustrious seat of learning founded in the reign of Henry VIII to which her father was appointed headmaster in 1917.[iii] Carrodus Gilbert Shankey was an intellectual with an engineer’s mind descended from a family of ‘wanderers and adventurers’.[iv] He remained headmaster for the next thirty-five years. In 1927, he married Enid Thrift and their daughter Maeve was born in Kilkenny the following year.

‘Daddy was quite austere and autocratic’, says Maeve.[v] ‘My mother was the mad one. She was a Natural Science Gold medalist. One time, the College Governors came for lunch and my mother was nowhere to be seen. Daddy sent a maid to find her and eventually she came back. “She’s up a chestnut tree, Sir, looking at a pigeon’s nest – she says she’ll be down shortly’”’

‘Sport was part of my social life growing up. It didn’t cost you anything. It couldn’t because we had no money!’ Gaelic Games also appealed. ‘Young Protestant children didn’t generally get an opportunity to play Gaelic games’, she says. ‘But Daddy would let the boys have a go at hurling and I played handball in a covered alley at the College’.

In 1937, Maeve’s grandfather W.E. Thrift became Provost of Trinity College Dublin. Maeve, then at school in Alexandra College, moved in with her grandparents where she enjoyed unusual company at the Provost’s House. Her grandfather was a chess grandmaster and one of his regular opponents was Eamon de Valera.[vi]

Maeve was first and foremost a hockey player. Having mastered the sport at school, she went on to win 58 Irish caps as well as representing the South East (alongside her mother), Leinster and Ulster at different stages of her career. She was named in the World All Star team in 1953 and 1959.

In 1953, she was selected for the Irish squad to compete at the World Conference in Folkestone. At a post-match party thrown by Betty Kyle and Pat Dinsmore in Antrim, she was introduced to Mr. Sean Kyle of Ballymena. At length, Sean offered her two things. Firstly, he would ensure she was fit enough for the Folkestone games. Secondly, when training was well underway, he asked her to marry him. They were wed in February 1954.

‘You never know what’s around the corner’, laughs Maeve, ‘but isn’t that just as well? I met the fellow on a blind date and married him and I’ve never been back since. When you move from one rural parish to another, you stand out like a white blackbird but I’ve made it my home up here now.’

In 1955, Maeve and Sean co-founded the Ballymena & Antrim Athletic Club. It was originally designed as a women's club, but within a year they had men on board too. The club continues to thrive to the present day and in 2008 it won the coveted UK Athletic Club of the Year award.

Meanwhile, Sean taught Maeve how to run. In 1956, the 28-year-old went to Melbourne to compete in the 100m and 200m. ‘My biggest claim to fame is that I was the first Irish woman to go to the Olympics. You could call me an athletic suffragette, I suppose. Young married women just didn’t go running in foreign lands. They didn’t feed me to the lions but I’m sure some of them would have wanted to!’

To get to Australia, Maeve and Sean had to raise £200 , a huge sum but par for the course for athletes of that era. The journey took over two weeks with stop-offs in New York, San Francisco (where they scooped up Ronnie Delany) and Fiji before arriving in Melbourne to an amazing reception from Australia’s massive Irish ex-pat population.

The Irish team returned home with five medals, including Delany's 1500m gold. Maeve ran in the 200m because that was the farthest a woman was allowed to run in 1956. ‘They felt we would require resuscitation if we ran any further’, she chuckles.[vii]

She subsequently competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics but ‘I just wasn’t fast enough on the sprints’. At this time the Olympic Council introduced two new distances for women, 400m and the 800m. ‘To me the 400 is the greatest event of the lot. You have to stay in your own lane. You’ve got to think. You can’t sprint the whole way. You’ve got to judge and you’ve got to not be influenced by the people either side of you. Those are all serious challenges, both mentally and physically.’

‘I said to Sean, I’m going to try the 400. And he said ‘oh good girl’. I thought, ‘you swine, you don’t believe I can!’ I told him I was going to win the British championships and he still didn’t believe me. I never for one minute believed I wasn’t going to win. That is the only time in my life I have ever been in that situation. So I finished and I won it and it was a new British record. I always knew I would win it. That’s when I learned it is the power of the mind over the body and decided to go back and study sports psychology. None of us understand how powerful the mind is. If you really make up your mind that something will happen, then it can happen. It is actually quite scary. You have to be ready for it’

Maeve was now rated amongst the fastest 400m runners in the world. In 1964, aged 36, she went to Tokyo to represent Ireland at her third Olympic Games. She reached the semi-finals of both the 400m and 800m. Two years later, she took bronze in the 400m at the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Dortmund.

‘I loved the 400 but it just came in too late for me’, she says philosophically. ‘You can’t relive the past and you can’t really do much about tomorrow except prepare for something you think may happen tomorrow. And then it might not happen like you thought it would! Sometimes it s a good job that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring!’

In the subsequent decades she and Sean concentrated on developing their award-winning club. When all else was gloom in the 1970s, the Kyles’ club was instrumental in maintaining links between Northern Ireland’s various towns through the celebrated Rotary-sponsored Top Towns meetings. To date, the club has notched up 35 British and *** Irish senior international titles. {UPDATE]. Maeve is also chairwoman of Coaching NI.


[i] ‘Ireland was such a different culture then. ‘The Catholic Church ruled and men just didn’t understand women. We were frail creatures who needed protection. The Archbishop even issued a Lenten edict to say that we shouldn’t run or, if we had to, then we shouldn’t run in an unseemly manner or wear unseemly clothes.’
‘My father felt the Catholic church would lose its grip when they stopped the Mass in Latin, because nobody understood what they were saying. I always thought he was misguided but he was probably right.’ Just as opera would lose its appeal if it was all in English, it’s the sensations rather than the words.

[ii] ‘Otters are lovely creatures. All they want to do is play. That’s all we wanted to do too. And life was an adventure.’

[iii] The schools alumni include Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley and Admiral Beatty of Jutland fame.

[iv] Carrodus remained headmaster for the next thirty-five years, during which time he designed the single-span bridge in Kilkenny City, as well as two grass tennis courts and a swimming pool beneath the river weir for the school.

Maeve’s grandfather Robert Shankey, an accountant, was born in Donegal in 1852 and was married in 1878 to Margaret Parke. Although born in Lancashire, it is believed she was from a Donegal family who may have been migratory workers. ‘Granny Parke always said her prayers in Donegal Irish’, recalls Maeve. The Shankeys are said to have later joined with the small group of the so-called Glens Protestants up in the Glens of Antrim, where some of their children were born.

Their son, Carrodus Gilbert Shankey was born in Dundalk, Co. Louth, in 1888. He was one of 10 children, eight of whom survived. At least four emigrated, two when he was a small boy. One of his brothers was killed when when he fell from a tram in South Africa. His sister Daisy worked as a governess in St Petersburg for the Romanovs during the strange days of Rasputin and Revolution. In 1910, he successfully applied for a job as a teacher in Kilkenny College, becoming headmaster at the age of 27. He was one of the youngest headmasters in Ireland at that time. He continued to practice his engineering and apparently helped build the single span bridge in Kilkenny, once the biggest in Europe.
They lived a in a lovely big Georgian house, freezing cold with huge fireplaces that devoured the headmaster’s salary in logs. There was a nanny in the house who was still there when Maeve got married. Her father wouldn’t let them wear shoes in summer. ‘He thought it was a total waste of money. But it was a very different world. Carrodus also designed beautiful grass tennis courts on John Street and created a swimming pool below the weir.

The essayist Hubert Butler was one of Enid Shankey’s good friends.

[v] Although raised a strict Protestant, Kilkenny has long been a haven of religious liberalism and she recalls many occasions where her father, a Presbyterian, would go off to play golf with one of the Catholic bishops or tennis with the Marques of Ormonde. She recalls the chippers working their way up the city’s black limestone pavements – and the school’s marble corridors - chipping away to give it some grip otherwise it would become too polished and get slippy.

[vi] ‘This was at the end of an age that I call ‘Cultural Ireland’. My grandmother hosted formal ‘At Homes’ every month where everyone would listen to piano recitals. I was allowed to attend but not to speak.’
Maeve’s great-grandfather, Henry George Thrift was born in Halifax, Yorks, in 1837. He came to Ireland about 1876-78, worked with the Inland Revenue and lived at 79 Grosvenor Sq. Dublin. He died in 1900 and was buried in Mt.Jerome, Dublin, where he was later joined by his Manchester-born wife, Sarah Smith (1844-1924). Their daughters Gertrude, Emily and Sarah all taught in Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin.

Dr. William Edward Thrift (1870-1942) was born in Halifax but moved to Ireland as a young boy when his father secured his position with the Inland Revenue. In later life, Dr. Thrift lived at Grosvenor Square, Rathmines, Dublin. He rode a bike competitively; he was one of the first people in Ireland with pneumatic tyres. He also co-founded the idea of University senators. His obituary can be found here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v149/n3791/abs/149726a0.html

Maeve’s great-uncle Harry Thrift features in Ulysses, riding a bicycle, although his name is changed from ‘Thrift’ to ‘Shrift’ in later editions, prompting a article called ‘The Lost Cyclist’ (http://www.jstor.org/pss/25484989). Maeve believes it was actually based on her grandfather, Harry’s brother, who rode a bike competitively and was one of the first people in Ireland with pneumatic tyres. Harry was later Bursar of Trinity College Dublin, prior to John Walsh, grandfather of James Fennell.

[vii] ‘Women were seriously second class citizens at that time’, she continues. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by Algeria and Morocco and Pakistan where women didn’t take part in any athletic events until very recently. Or if they did, they had to run in trousers like the Afghan girl in Beijing. But it was hugely important that she ran. It was a massive step in the right direction. But it was the same with the girls who played camogie in long black stockings, no gap between their knickers and the top of their stocking … I can understand why Muslim girls get upset. It was part of the culture you were involved in. We had to be covered. Our faces didn’t have to be covered but the rest of us did. The first women’s international between Alexandra and England took place behind a wall and men were not permitted to view it! 1896 or thereabouts. The women wore hats with hatpins. The hatpins had to be banned eventually in case they caused a danger. But that’s the way it was.’

The apple of Maeve’s eye is a teenage granddaughter who inspired her fridge magnet: ‘If I’d known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I’d have had them first’.


The Remarkable Kyles, Denis John O'Hara (O'Hara Publications, 2006).

With thanks to James Fennell, Ian Barrett (www.baacni.co.uk) and Alan Sweetman.


Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.