Paddy Blair Mayne was privately a tormented homosexual seeking to escape 1950s Belfast.
At Conway Square in Newtownards, Co Down, stands a bronze statue of a man described in a newly published book as “the single most highly decorated soldier” of the Second World War. He is Robert “Paddy” Blair Mayne, one of the founders of the daring, but ruthless British commando force, the SAS (Special Air Services). Paddy Blair Mayne (all Irishmen in the British Army were known as “Paddy” and Blair Mayne took on the moniker willingly) is named in Ben Macintyre’s ground-breaking new account “SAS – Rogue Heroes” as being a leading influence in the formation of the SAS – and one of the most effective, dangerous and fearless warriors ever.
Blair Mayne, who was born in 1915 to a wealthy Presbyterian family in Newtownards – the family home was Mount Pleasant – and became an outstanding rugby player, boxer (and even golfer) early in life. He played rugby for Ireland three times, gaining his first full cap in 1937, and went on to tour with the British Lions in South Africa where the dark side of his character first emerged. A big guy and an astonishing athlete, he was also wild and savage in drink, and “broke all records for drunken misbehavior” on the Lions’ tour, wrecking hotel rooms and anything else in sight. He had a strong anti-Establishment streak, and when in South Africa, he went out one night and freed some chained convicts from their irons.
Blair Mayne was a fighting legend, and a pitiless killer in war. Behind enemy lines in the North African desert, he personally destroyed up to 100 German and Italian aircraft. He had no compunction about killing those identified as the enemy: he also told my brother Carlos, with whom he was pals in the 1950s, that he had killed “many” Germans with his bare hands.
Blair Mayne used to drive down to Dublin from the North in the 1950s, and Carlos often told me about the mad “skites” they would go on together – they were both wild boozers.
For Blair Mayne, Dublin was an escape from the inhibiting influence of his home place, especially over the weekends of the Calvinist Sabbeth. And besides the easy drinking, there was another reason why Paddy Blair Mayne needed escape: he was something of a tormented homosexual at a time when male gay relationships were criminal, and the law was more strictly implemented within the UK than in the Irish Republic. The British Home Secretary of the time, David Maxwell Fyfe, was a fanatical homophobe who urged the police to “entrap” gay men, which was not a policy pursued by the Gardai in Dublin.
The SAS history admits that there were always “rumours” of Blair Mayne’s gay orientation: and Carlos could have confirmed it.
On one of their many benders together Paddy Blair Mayne – sitting at the wheel of his sports car – leaned over and tried to kiss Carlos, who was a handsome-looking fellow. In rebuff, Carlos turned around the slugged Blair Mayne. Next morning, in the throes of the usual remorseful hangover, he clapped his hand to his brow in horror: “Oh my God, I slugged Paddy Blair Mayne! How could I?” Blair Mayne could have garroted my brother with one twist of his wrist.
But no: Blair Mayne was crestfallen with apologies, and pleaded forgiveness for making such a pass. “Actually,” Carlos told me, “he was a gentleman about it. He was a gay man. He tried it on. When I decked him, he literally took it on the chin.” They resumed their boozing Dublin weekends – usually starting at Bartley Dunne’s pub near Stephen’s Green, then known as a gay bar – until Blair Mayne died in a car collision in Newtownards in December 1955, after another night’s heavy boozing at a local Masonic dinner.
Carlos was convinced that Blair Mayne’s death, at the age of 40, was, if not exactly suicidal, deliberately self-destructive. “He was a born warrior. He couldn’t settle in peacetime.”
Blair Mayne had been highly decorated – awarded the admired DSO with three bars – but he was denied the ultimate honour, which many believed that he merited: the Victoria Cross. After inflicting so much damage on the Axis powers in Africa, he commanded the SAS in France and was described in despatches as “daring, brutal and reckless”. He told Carlos that he thought Churchill obstructed his Victoria Cross because he had been involved – when drunk, of course – in many “brawling” episodes, including punching out cold brother officers. The SAS historian Ben Macintyre suggests that Blair Mayne was denied the Victoria Cross either because of his brawling, his anti-Establishment streak or his homosexuality.
In 2005, a motion was put before the House of Commons, supported by more than 100 MPs, to award Lt Col Paddy Mayne a Victoria Cross posthumously. But if his homosexual orientation was a barrier during his own lifetime, today, other problems might arise for this complex Ulsterman: he might well face accusations of Human Rights abuses, and for crossing the boundaries of the Geneva Convention in wartime activities.
Carlos always talked affectionately about Paddy Blair Mayne, and towards the end of his own life, nostalgically recalled their rambunctious weekends together. “You should write a biography,” I urged my brother. No, he said, he didn’t want to be “disloyal”. Blair Mayne’s sexual orientation was never accepted by his family (he was one of seven children, and had a “formidable” mother). But eventually history tells the whole story of a man’s life and times, and more than sixty years after his death it has now emerged in all its complexity. @MaryKenny4.. Irish Independent newspaper 10 October.