Thursday, 17 July 2014
Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937):
surgeon and forgotten organiser
of the Kilcoole gunrunning (1914)
Kilcoole Heritage Group
17 July 2014
8 p.m., Kilcoole Golf Course Club House,
Kilcoole, Co Wicklow
Thank you for your invitation this evening to talk about Sir Thomas Myles, a key figure in the Kilcoole gunrunning 100 years ago, but who is often forgotten because his political views do not conform to some of the expectations of those who try to set the agenda for many of our commemorations in this decade of commemorations.
Let me say at the outset that this is a particular, personal pleasure, for Kilcoole is one of my favourite places for my regular weekend beach walks, and I have fond memories of Kilcoole from childhood holidays over half a century ago, in the early 1960s. Later, in the early 1970s, I worked for a few years with the People newspaper group, which included the Wicklow People, and where I edited the front page of the Bray People.
Some of the material I am presenting this evening appeared in May in my monthly column in two Church of Ireland diocesan magazine, the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory), which may explain why I have been invited here this evening.
This summer sees the centenary of the Howth and Kilcoole gunrunnings, only days before the outbreak of World War I. The Howth gunrunning continues to be remembered in history, and the key figures involved were members of the Church of Ireland. But why is the Kilcoole gunrunning largely forgotten, and why do we seldom hear about the key figure involved, Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937)?
Myles was a prominent Irish surgeon and an active member of the Church of Ireland, but his name has been written out of many accounts of those events in 1914.
The Myles family were prominent merchants in Limerick City and the surrounding area since the mid-17th century, and they are remembered to this day in street names such as Myles Street and James Street.
The future Sir Thomas Myles was born in Limerick on 20 April 1857, probably in Catherine Street, and was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, on 27 May. His youngest brother, the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), was Rector of Tullylish, Co Down, and Dean of Dromore.
Thomas Myles was a promising sportsman from an early age. In 1873, he played in the first rugby match ever played in Limerick. The following year, he was on the winning rowing crew at Castleconnell. Local legend says he was the first to swim Kilkee Bay, Co Clare, giving his name to ‘Myles’ Creek.’
After a “happy boyhood, although an idle one,” he entered Trinity College Dublin in 1873 with his brother John Thomas ‘Jack’ Myles (1855-1934). As a medical student, he was a prominent member of the Dublin University Boat Club. His brother Jack was capped for Ireland against England in the first Irish rugby international match in 1875, and played in the first Munster team against Leinster at College Park in 1877.
In the 1880s, he met the renowned boxer John L. Sullivan and fought three rounds with him. Sullivan said that “young Myles had greater punch than many an alleged pugilist.”
Home Rule supporter
As a student, Thomas Myles became a supporter of Home Rule, a term coined by the Revd Joseph Allen Galbraith (1818-1890), a Church of Ireland priest and a Senior Fellow and Bursar of TCD. Myles was one of the early members of Protestant Home Rule Party formed by Galbraith in the early 1870s.
After graduating in medicine in 1881, he became the resident surgeon in Dr Steevens’ Hospital. One of his early calls in 1882 was on 6 May to attend to the victims of the Phoenix Park murders, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his Under-Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke. He was one of six doctors who performed the post mortems in the present US Ambassador’s Residence.
He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (FRCSI) in 1885, and until 1890 he was resident surgeon at Jervis Street Hospital. Meanwhile, he took part in the inaugural meeting of the Dublin branch of the Irish Protestant Home Rule Association in 1886. He continued to be a consistent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.
On 21 April 1888, in Saint Peter’s Church, Dublin, he married Frances Elizabeth (Fanny) Ayres, daughter of Canon George Ayres (1813-1881), Vicar of Kilbride, Blessington, and Prebendary of Mulhuddart in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. There was 12-year gap between them. At the time, Myles was living at 30 Harcourt Street – now part of the Jackson Court Hotel and Copper Face Jack’s night club – while the bride was living at 2 Upper Hatch Street; the wedding was officiated at by the Revd Dr Ralph Sadleir (1815-1902), Vicar of Castleknock.
That same year he was received the degree MD at TCD in 1888, and in 1889 he became the first Professor of Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He was still only 32, and was then a surgeon in the Richmond Hospital.
In 1899, he was elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland for the period 1900-1902. During the election he took a libel action and obtained an injunction against his opposing candidate Fitzgibbon, who claimed that Myles’s association with the United Irish League (UIL) would “associate the college with the promoters of anarchy and discord.”
With the office of president came the honour of freedom of his native Limerick in 1900. As president of the college of surgeons, he attended the memorial service for Queen Victoria in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and he was knighted in King Edward VII’s coronation honours list in 1902 – in recognition of this honour, his colleagues presented him with a carriage and an illuminated address.
In Edwardian Dublin, Myles was a larger than life surgeon. He was a gigantic man with a commanding presence and a ready wit. He was an exponent of the advances in surgery of the day, especially Lister’s antiseptic surgery. To the astonishment of the cook in the hospital kitchen, he boiled his instruments there in a fish kettle to sterilise them – and not to soften them, as she thought – and he quickly adopted the practice of wearing cotton gloves when operating.
He was truly a general surgeon and published papers on fractures, urinary fistulae, amputation techniques and tumours of pylorus. A later doctor remembered him as a ‘good rectum man’ in recognition of his innovations in the treatment of rectal cancer.
Myles was an excellent raconteur, an authority on French literature and had a ready supply of apt Shakespearean quotations. He cheerily greeted his blood-stained surgical dressers with “Bloody ruffians, marvellously ill-favoured.”
His wit – and knowledge of anatomy – let him down when addressing a Debating Society in 1902 on the subject of the recent Boer War. He said, “Was England to stand with her arms folded and her hands in her pockets?” He was much in demand as an expert witness and in his own estimation gave evidence in 1,000 lawsuits.
By the 1901 census, Myles was living at No 33 Merrion Square, Dublin, with his wife, his aunt, Margaret Bradshaw, and three female servants.
Antrim House, or No 33 Merrion Square, stood on the north-east corner of Merrion Square, between Holles Street and Mount Street, and was a fine Georgian House dating from 1778. Antrim House was once the largest house on Merrion Square. The house was designed for the Earls of Antrim by John Esnor, a student of Cassells, and it enjoyed an elegant, lengthy vista up the east sides of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square and Fitzwilliam Street towards the Dublin Mountains.
As Sir Thomas Myles, he remained an active campaigner for Home Rule, but he was not involved in the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in the Rotunda in Dublin on 25 November 1913. However, as an enthusiastic yachtsman and the owner the well-known Chotah, he soon became intimately involved the political events that were unfolding.
In April 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force landed 24,000 German riﬂes and three million rounds of ammunition, mostly at Larne. Myles and his yacht were quickly recruited by James Creed Meredith (1875-1942) to help smuggle German guns for the Irish Volunteers. Within weeks, Erskine Childers landed 900 rifles from the Asgard at Howth, north of Dublin, on 26 July 1914 and Myles landed 600 rifles from the Chotah at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, a week later, on the night of 1 and 2 August.
The main participants in the gunrunnings to Howth and Kilcoole were active members of the Church of Ireland. The gunrunnings were first plotted by a group that first met in the London home of the historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), daughter of Archdeacon Edward Adderley Stopford of Meath, Rector of Kells. The other committee members included Sir Roger Casement, Molly Childers, and the first cousins Conor O’Brien and Mary Spring-Rice (1880-1924), grand-daughter of Samuel Butcher, Bishop of Meath. Those involved also included Diarmuid Coffey and his future wife, Cesca Chenevix Trench (1881-1918), who called herself Sadhbh Trinseach, granddaughter of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886) of Dublin.
Meredith, who recruited Myles to the plot, later became President of the Supreme Court. A younger brother, the Ven Ralph Creed Meredith (1887-1970), was Archdeacon of Waitotara (1925-1932) in New Zealand, Vicar of Windsor, Berkshire (1940-1958), and a chaplain to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. (In later life, Judge Meredith became a pacifist and a Quaker.)
Robert Erskine Childers (1872-1920), skipper of the Asgard, was a grandson of Canon Charles Childers, a member of well-known English clerical family who were intermarried with the Barton family of Glendalough House, Co Wicklow. Myles and Childers were close friends since they met on holidays in Clifden, and both were keen yachtsmen. Childers is also remembered because his son, Erskine Childers, became President of Ireland, and the name of the Asgard continued to be used for sail-training vessels.
Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien (1880-1952) from Limerick, skipper of the Kelpie, was a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, leader of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. Conor O’Brien was also a nephew of the Very Revd John Gwynn (1827-1917), Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity in Trinity College Dublin, and of the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien (1842-1913), Dean of Limerick; his cousins included the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn, closely identified with founding of the Irish Citizens’ Army in 1913, and the late Mercy Simms, wife of the late Archbishop George Simms.
Howth and Kilcoole landings
The gunrunning was masterminded by Erskine Childers, who initially decided to use his 28-ton yacht Asgard, which was laid up in Wales, to smuggle arms and ammunition into Ireland. Childers and Spring-Rice also decided to use O’Brien’s yacht, the Kelpie, and Meredith approached Myles to use the Chotah.
In Hamburg, Childers and Darrell Figgis (1882-1925) bought 1,500 second-hand German rifles and ammunition for £1,500. They were moved to O’Brien’s yacht, the Kelpie, and later transferred off the Welsh coast to the Chotah skippered by Sir Thomas Myles and the Asgard, navigated by Erskine and Molly Childers, and with Mary Spring-Rice on board.
Back in Ireland, there were so many rumours that the authorities were confused. This confusion was compounded by a late change of plans for the Kelpie and the Chotah.
On Sunday 26 July 1914, the Asgard landed its consignment in Howth, where it was met by a group that included Countess Markievicz, Bulmer Hobson and Darrell Figgis. No soldiers were present, for all eyes were on the Kelpie which was expected to land in Dalkey. Instead, it arrived off Bray Head that morning, but was empty. Two days later, on 28 July 1914, Austria invaded Serbia and World War I began. All available coastguards were withdrawn from Ireland, leaving behind a skeleton force to patrol the coastline.
The coast was now clear for Myles and the Chotah, still at anchor off Wales and waiting to sail for Kilcoole. They set sail on Saturday 1 August 1914, as a Volunteer force arrived at the Holy Faith Convent in Kilcoole. As darkness fell, a convoy of vehicles was brought down to the beach from the convent, commanded by Seán Fitzgibbon and Seán T O Ceallaigh, a future President of Ireland.
The Chotah came in as near as possible to the beach, small boats went out to meet it, and rifles and ammunition were ferried ashore. These activities at Kilcoole went unnoticed mainly because the police were distracted by a fireworks display to the south in Wicklow.
However, Constable Dalton and Constable Webb from Greystones RIC Station were patrolling the railway line between Greystones and Kilcoole. They spotted the Chotah and an exchange of light signals, but when they headed to Kilcoole Railway Station to contact the RIC Station in Greystones, they were surrounded and taken to Kilcoole by a group of armed men.
By 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, the operation was complete and the Chotah sailed again. The last act of the landing party as they left Kilcoole was to release the two captive constables.
After the landings
No action was ever taken against Childers, O’Brien, Myles or anyone else involved in the landings. But what happened to Sir Thomas Myles after Kilcoole?
Like so many other Irish doctors and medical students, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, becoming a consultant surgeon with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. On 21 November 1914, he was appointed an Honorary Surgeon in Ireland to King George V. He was on duty in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916, and attended James O’Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who was shot dead at Dublin Castle on Easter Monday.
During the Easter Rising, in North Brunswick Street in Dublin, Myles met Éamon Martin, a captain in the Volunteers whom he had met two years earlier in Kilcoole. Meeting Martin once again, Myles told him he was mad, that had Home Rule had been granted and that it would surely come after the war.
As the Richmond Hospital was full of British casualties, Myles asked Ned Daly, Commandant at the Four Courts, not to use the hospital for rebel casualties and an improvised medical depot was set up for them in the Father Mathew Hall in Church Street.
When this proved inadequate and his friend Éamon Martin, known to Myles as ‘Adrien,’ was wounded, Myles set aside a ward in the Richmond and about 25 wounded rebels were transferred there.
After the Rising, the military were rounding up suspects and, fearing that ‘Adrien’ would be arrested, Myles arranged for him to be moved to safety from the Richmond. He did this by arriving at the hospital in his uniform as a Lieutenant-Colonel, putting Martin beside him in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car and driving out of the hospital returning the salutes of the policemen on duty.
The hospital records showed that Martin was recuperating from an operation for a lung abscess. Myles subsequently arranged for Martin to get a passport to travel to the United States. This required the applicant to appear in person, in the company of a police officer before a magistrate. Martin was certain that both the policeman and the magistrate were working in concert with Myles, and that all he had to do was to say that he was invited to California by friends.
For his distinguished medical services during the Easter Rising, Myles was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) on 1 January 1917.
On the night of “Bloody Sunday” in 1920, John Healy, editor of The Irish Times and two other journalists were trying to get to their office in D’Olier Street. The city was cordoned off by the army and they could only get as far as Merrion Square. There they were accosted by a squad of drunken Auxiliaries, who decided they were “Shinners” and determined to shoot them.
They were pushed into a nearby house, which happened to be No 33, then the home of Sir Thomas Myles, and forced to stand in the hall, faces to the wall and hands in the air. When Myles arrived on the scene, he recognised the three journalists and cheerily remarked to the Black and Tans: “It seems to be thirsty work. How would you boys like a drink?” He brought them to the dining room and plied them with alcohol while Lady Myles telephoned Dublin Castle. Half an hour later, the adjutant arrived with a strong force of Auxiliaries, arrested the squad and drove Healy and his companions to work in an armoured car.
After the war, Sir Thomas Myles adopted the newest practices in surgery, particularly Listerian antiseptic methods.
Thomas Myles remained active all his life. His passion was sailing. In the early 1930s, he was president of the RCSI boat club and while sailing his yacht Sheila near the Isle of Man, he was shipwrecked and lucky to escape in a small boat. Undeterred, he bought the super yacht, the Harbinger, built at Stow & Son in 1920, in 1936 and went on a long cruise.
His obituary in The Irish Times noted that he continued to practice professionally until he was in his mid-70s. He died in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, on 14 July 1937. His body lay in state and numerous eminent callers came to pay their respects including Eamon de Valera. He is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin. His widow, Lady Myles, died on 3 October 1947, and is buried with him.
He has been described as “a great yachtsman, with several beautiful craft under his command.” His later yachts included a 70-ton ketch, the Sheila, and the Harbinger, said to be the “finest of her class afloat.” For probate purposes, his yacht was worth more than his home at 32 Leeson Park. This five-bedroom house was recently acquired by the Embassy of Hungary.
St. John Lyburn, in The Fighting Irish Doctor (Dublin: Morris & Co, 1947), says that “if asked his nationality, he would say he was a poor man used to hardships to which Irishmen are born. He was a devout son of the Church of England [recte Ireland], but, if asked his religion, he would say that he was a poor sinner.”
His medals and decorations were sold at auction three years ago by Adams of Dublin (11 April 2011). They included:
● the Badge of a Knight Bachelor, in silver gilt;
● Companion of the Most Honourable Order of Bath (CB), breast badge converted for neck wear, in silver gilt and enamel, awarded for his distinguished medical services during the Easter Rising;
● the 1914-1920 War medal, with the oak leaf emblem symbolising that he was “Mentioned-in-Despatches”;
● the 1902 Coronation medal (Edward VII);
● the 1911 Coronation medal in silver (George V);
● the 1935 Silver Jubilee Medal (George V).
Myles the surgeon is remembered in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where the Sir Thomas Myles Room is on the first floor, and in his native city by the annual Sir Thomas Myles Lecture at the University of Limerick.
However, the Kilcoole gunrunning remains one of the lesser known incidents in modern Irish history. While Erskine Childers, skipper of the Asgard, and Conor O’Brien, skipper of the Kelpie, are still remembered, Sir Thomas Myles is largely forgotten.
I should emphasise how Sir Thomas Myles was a loyal member of the Church of Ireland, like so many of those who shared his political outlook. His brother became Dean of Dromore, and I believe his yacht the Chotah may have been named because of the Dublin University Mission to Chotah Nagpur, an Anglican mission agency founded in Trinity College Dublin and working in India with High Church values and an emphasis on medical care and education. However, this would need further research.
Today, a stone marker at the railway lines at Kilcoole beside the beach is a reminder of those events 100 years ago. Sir Thomas Myles is commemorated in the inscription on this simple monument. But, apart from the room with his name in the College of Surgeons and his name on the plaque by the railway line, he has been all but written out of Irish history.
There is no plaque in Dublin on any one of the three houses he lived in. Antrim House or No 33 Merrion Square was demolished in 1933 as part of the rebuilding of Holles Street Hospital. But there is no plaque on either No 30 Harcourt Street, although Sir Edward Carson has a plaque on the house where he was born at No 3 Harcourt Street, or at No 32 Leeson Park, now part of the Hungarian embassy.
So, why is Sir Thomas Myles so widely forgotten?
Titles can be confusing in present-day Ireland, so let us be clear that despite his knighthood Thomas Myles was nether landed nor an aristocrat. He was from the middle-class, merchant, shop-owning class, from a provincial city, comfortable but without privilege or inherited wealth. None of this, however, would be a barrier to him being remembered. After all, the Bartons and the Gore-Booths were landed families, many of the Howth and Kilcoole conspirators were from Church of Ireland families and were educated at Trinity College Dublin.
I do not think religious affiliation or social background explain why Sir Thomas Myles has been written out of Irish history. Nor do I think is forgotten because he had no children to perpetuate his name.
I think, perhaps, he is forgotten because he found a different way to display his loyalty for his country in 1914-1918. He was a Nationalist who believed his cause had been achieved with the leigslation for Home Rule, his role in the gunrunnings was stimulated because he opposed the efforts in Ulster to block this legislation, and he remained loyal to his country, which as events unfurled after August 1914, had become embroiled in war.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 17 June 2014 was organised by the Kilcoole Heritage Group.