The Reverend Robin Roe
The humble giant took rugby glory and army honours in his stride
Published 05/09/2010 | 05:00
THE Reverend Robin Roe, who has died aged 81, played rugby for Ireland and the Lions and was awarded a Military Cross (MC) for his courage in Aden while an army chaplain.
Rugby led directly to his army duties as, when England played Ireland at Twickenham in 1952, Roe was one of two novice clergymen -- both Protestants -- on the Irish team. The other, Canon 'Gerry' Murphy (now chaplain to the Queen at Sandringham), had done military service and encouraged his team-mate to do the same. Despite the presence of the two men of God on their side, Ireland lost 3-0. Roe was commissioned into the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in 1955.
Twelve years later, he was attached to the 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Regiment, on a nine-month operational tour during the Aden Emergency. On June 20, 1967, elements of the South Arabian Armed Police mutinied. Roe was in Radfan Camp and, hearing gunfire, jumped into his Land Rover. He raced out through the camp gates, facing a 400-yard drive across desert to reach an army lorry that had come under attack, leaving several dead and wounded.
His vehicle was brought to a halt, its radiator riddled with bullets. Forced to turn back, he devoted himself to assisting the medical orderlies with the local casualties until the victims of the main attack were recovered. He was already a popular and inspirational member of the battalion. Unarmed, save for a stout blackthorn stick, he used to accompany soldiers on patrols in danger areas of the slums known as 'grenade alleys'.
"His complete disregard for his own safety in the face of danger, and his infectious enthusiasm and confidence under all conditions, has had the most profound effect in the maintenance of morale in the whole battalion," his citation noted.
Robin Roe was born on October 11, 1928 at Borris-in-Ossory, Co Laois, and started playing rugby at the age of 10 at King's Hospital School in Dublin.
He was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1953 after studying for six years at Trinity College. By then, he had already won his first cap for Ireland, replacing hooker Karl Mullen. Roe won 21 caps in successive matches until 1957, when he was replaced by Ronnie Dawson. Roe was chosen for the Lions tour to South Africa in 1955.
Although he was kept out of the Test side by the brilliant Welshman Bryn Meredith, he played valiantly in 11 games for the midweek 'dirt trackers', once turning out with two cracked ribs and also playing as an emergency prop forward. He shared a room with Tony O'Reilly, then a 19-year-old prodigy, who joked that his huge 20-inch neck would be "great for a Catholic collar".
Roe was attached to the Life Guards the following year and to the HAA Regiment RA in Malta in 1958. While there, he scored a try playing rugby in Rome against an Italian side. The Italians could not believe that a clergyman was playing and they jumped up and down in their seats shouting: "Make him Pope!"
Roe played his club rugby for London Irish, where he appears in the Hall of Fame. He also appeared 11 times for the Barbarians and for the army and the Combined Services, retiring from the game at the age of 40.
Postings to 12 Infantry Brigade in British Army of the Rhine and 28th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade in Singapore were followed by successive moves to HQ 3 Division, 1 Division and 1st (BR) Corps. On one occasion, after preaching a sermon, a general took him aside and asked him to restrict himself to 10 minutes. "Any longer," he said, "and you will send the soldiers to sleep." The following Sunday, Roe had been speaking for 12 minutes when he saw the general glowering at him. He looked at his watch. "Jaysus!" he exclaimed. "I'm into injury time."
Roe was promoted chaplain to the Forces 1st Class in 1973. He was made an honorary chaplain to the Queen in 1977 and appointed CBE on leaving the army in 1981.
He then took over a parish in the Guildford diocese, from which he retired in 1989. He became a bereavement counsellor and was described by a fellow churchman as "a humble giant with a gracious spirit" who never let his parishioners know about his MC or his rugby career.
He married (dissolved) Vera Brown in 1957, who survives him with their three sons.