The popular TV show Who Do You Think You Are? has highlighted the fact that so many families have a story to tell. Rachel Abraham grew up with stories about a famous rugby player in her family, about a decorated war hero and even about a boxer of some repute. What she didn’t realise is that all the stories were true and they were all about one man – Myles Abraham. Rachel takes up her story.
My name is Rachel Abraham. Growing up in Ireland during the 1970’s any name out of the ordinary usually elicited a double take. This was an Ireland before the Celtic Tiger, before immigration, and with a surname like Abraham you stood out!
As I grew up I got used to, and prepared myself for, the inevitable question “Where does that name come from?” For many years all I could say was that an earlier Abraham had come from ‘the North’ and had changed religion. The truth was, I didn’t really know where exactly he’d come from and I certainly didn’t know who he was!
Over the years the frustration of not knowing grew until finally in October 2007 I began researching my family tree. It has been an interesting journey that has thrown up more questions than answers and also a few surprises.
For example, I knew from listening to my father that we had a famous rugby player in the family; I also knew that a relative had been decorated in World War I; there were even stories about a famous boxer. What I didn’t realise until recently was that all these stories were true and that they were all about one man, my granduncle Myles Abraham.
Myles Abraham was born on July 1st 1887 in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. His father William John Abraham had left Derryadd in County Armagh 10 years earlier. He had married Mary Clarke, in Dublin in 1879.
They spent a lot of their married life living and working at St. Columba’s College in Whitechurch, Rathfarnham. William was a coachman and Mary was a dairymaid there. In total they had eight children. Myles was the sixth child and their fourth son.
He was named after his uncle Myles on his mother’s side, but perhaps due to a clerical error he was registered as ‘Miles’ on his birth certificate. He however signed himself as ‘Myles’ and was known by friends and family as ‘Myley’.
While little is known about his childhood, according to my grandfather (Edward Abraham, Myles’ brother) the Abrahams were all involved in sport. Although out and working from an early age (Myles worked as a solicitor’s clerk and was also in the Civil Service) the brothers excelled at cycling, athletics, gaelic football and of course rugby.
Rugby – Civil Service, Clontarf, Bective, Leinster and Ireland
Like Myles, his siblings Robert and William played rugby; in fact Myles and Robert were in the Civil Service Team together in 1906 (Irish Independent – February 28th). Tragically three of the six Abraham brothers died prematurely.
Of the remaining brothers, my grandfather married and settled down young while Bill lived a quiet life in Dublin working as a manager for the Tramway Company (which later became CIE). For Myles however, it seemed that once he entered the sporting arena he was seldom out of the lime-light.
From what I have discovered, Myles played with Clontarf Football Club and is pictured as part of the first XV in 1907-08.
Reporting on a game between Clontarf and Blackrock College around this period, the Irish Times commented on the “keen tackling of the Clontarf Team of whom Crawford and Abraham were the pick” (Thursday, February 18th 1907).
At some stage around this period Myles’s parents moved to Ranelagh; perhaps this is why he began playing for Bective Rangers. He played in the 1909 first XV Team when they won the Leinster Challenge Cup and he is also pictured among the first XV playing in 1911.
In addition, he was Captain of Bective in 1912–13. From 1911 – 1914 he also featured several times on the Leinster team playing centre against Munster and Ulster.
In 1912 he received his first cap playing with Ireland and during that same year he played against South Africa, England, Scotland and Wales. 2012 then will mark the centenary anniversary of his first game for Ireland.
Myles won a total of five caps; against England, Scotland, Wales and South Africa in 1912 and against Wales in 1914.
His position was usually three-quarters. He apparently was well known around Dublin, counting Barry Fitzgerald, De Valera and John McCormack as friends or acquaintances; his family also think he may have known James Joyce, probably through rugby.
As If all this wasn’t enough to keep anyone busy, Myles had another great sporting love; boxing. According to my grandfather, Myles won the Heavy Weight Boxing Championship of Ireland in 1913 and was the holder of this title until 1920; he was presented with a cup to commerate these wins.
This period of course coincided with World War I. Like millions of men of his day, Myles signed up.
It was a gruelling experience where he was often under fire (he was shot and wounded) and food shortages and exposure to freezing conditions were common.
Fortunately, he was one of those who survived. Myles served in the Royal Field Artillery in the North Command.
Like everything else in his life, he pushed himself to his limits, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and a Military Medal (MM):
From the London Gazette (6th Feb 1918)
Distinguished Conduct Medal.
L/41819 Sjt M. Abraham, R.F.A. (Dublin)
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On two occasions when the battery was heavily shelled while in action he rallied the men, and, in spite of casualties, got his gun into action again. On another occasion a fire was caused in a gun-pit by heavy enemy shelling. He was first on the scene and by his prompt action and disregard of danger extinguished the fire, thus saving the gun and the ammunition. His coolness and gallantry on critical occasions is worthy of the highest praise.”
For his efforts, Myles was also promoted to Sergeant. Myles was also recommended for the Victoria Cross but his Major was killed and therefore the recommendation couldn’t be followed through.
At the end of the war, Myles returned to England, and of course rugby. In the 1918–19 season, he made two appearances as a centre for Leicester Tigers. In the first game they lost against the New Zealand Services but then won 15–0 against Gloucester on February the 8th.
He also went on to play briefly for Ripon in Yorkshire. As far as I know, this was the last team Myles played for; he was approximately 32 years old.
Myles then returned to Ireland and on the 2nd of August 1921 he married Kathleen Rowe in Rathfarnham, Dublin. According to those who knew them, Myles and Kathleen made a handsome couple. They first moved to Port Laois (then Maryborough) where Myles worked as a Social Welfare/Insurance Inspector for the Department.
As the family grew, Myles moved them out to Abbeyleix where they rented a farmhouse called Greenmount. In total they went on to have no fewer than fourteen children! According to locals, they were a very athletic family and the boys were very involved with boxing. I was told “you didn’t pick a fight with an Abraham!”
By 1953 when Myles retired, eight of his fourteen children were living around Exeter in England. Therefore he and Kitty decided to retire there. Although there was contact initially by letter, gradually over the years the Abrahams lost contact with each other.
Through my family tree search however, we made contact once more. My parents and I flew to Exeter in 2009 where we met many of his children and extended family. We got to see his caps and military medals and also got copies of photos from his years at Bective and during the war.
In June of that year, some of the family travelled to Ireland to visit us and we have kept up contact since. We are delighted to be in contact once more and without a doubt Myles (and his incredible life story) was the catalyst for doing so.
My granduncle Myles Abraham died in England on the 7th of July, 1966 long before I was born. Even though I never knew him, seeing his pictures in Clontarf and Bective was quite a moving experience for me. Although the photos were over one hundred years old, I felt a connection to the face looking out at me.
It made me feel proud to be related to this man and proud to be an Abraham.
However, knowing how high the bar has been set by past generations is also a bit intimidating. I guess in some ways that old saying is right: sometimes ignorance really is bliss!
From The Archives – Some interesting articles of historic note.
Irish Rugby: A History by Edmund Van Esbeck – Extracts from the book including international team lists.