IN the 30th minute of the 1946 All-Ireland final between Cork and Kilkenny, Paddy Donovan’s clearance dropped around centre-field where Christy Ring had come foraging for possession.
In a flash, he controlled the loose sliothar and embarked on a solo, the ball hopping on his hurley. His first instinct was to find space and he headed towards the corner to shake off the pursuing defenders.
One Kilkenny back would say later the only way he could have possibly checked Ring’s progress at that point was by throwing his arms around him and hauling him to the ground.
As Ring gathered momentum, the crowd noise grew louder with anticipation that something special was afoot. After outstripping the initial cover, he changed direction on the 21, cutting inside towards goal.
He ghosted past Kilkenny’s captain Mulcahy, and sidestepped Walsh and Butler. Having travelled nearly 70 yards, he was near enough then to the target. His left-handed shot flew over Jim Donegan’s right shoulder and billowed the roof of the net
Both sets of fans rose to give him a standing ovation. The following day one newspaper described the goals as a “wonder”, another preferred to call it a “miracle.”
“When you pick up a ball in an All-Ireland final you don’t know where you are going to end up,” said Ring in an interview with Donnacha Ó Dulaing on RTÉ.
“Well, anyway, I picked up the ball and started to run and l suddenly found out that I had shaken off most of my opponents but was in the wrong place, so then I decided that I could move across the goal and picked my spot and hit it into the roof of the net. l don’t know what you’d call it but I hadn’t any idea what to do when I picked up the ball first, but suddenly I realised I was clear. I suddenly decided that I could score a goal.”
By 1946, Ring was 26 years of age, playing his seventh senior championship and reaching a peak he would maintain for more than a decade after. The Cork four-in-a-row team of 1941-1944 had fragmented a little, and now, Ring was not only captain, but the undisputed leader of the attack, a role he would underline at another crucial juncture in that final when his determined solo run set up Mossie Riordan for the goal that finally clinched victory and Cork’s 16th title.
“Up to that point,” said Con Murphy, full-back that day and later president of the GAA, “Christy Ring was regarded as a very good player on a very good team. From ‘46 on, he was seen as a match-winner in his own right.”
There are so many awesome goals, so many breathtaking cameos that the task of profiling Christy Ring for a Cork audience is akin to trying to synopsise the life of ]esus for Evangelical Christians.
How is it possible to decide which of the miracles to leave out? Are any of the parables involving him less worthy of inclusion than others? The biblical language is appropriate about somebody whom Archbishop Morris from Tipperary once described as “the devil himself”.
From a man of the cloth whose people had suffered at Ring’s hands, that sort of blasphemy is of course a kind of praise.
Before one particular Munster final, ‘Tough’ Barry was going through his final instructions as the Cork players readied themselves for Tipperary. After Barry spoke his piece, Ring took the floor and delivered a rabble-rousing oration that had his team-mates fired up and desperate for battle. A priest lurking in a corner of the dressing room wasn’t too pleased with Ring’s ardent tone or his choice of colourful vocabulary and he ventured to complain.
“My dear Christy,” he said, “I’m sure you never read that in the New Testament.”
“‘The men who wrote the New Testament,” replied Ring, “never had to play Tipperary.”
Of all the stories attached to his legend, this one resonates because Ring was a devoutly religious man himself.
Upon moving to Cork city, he was a daily communicant at the Society of African Missions Church in Blackrock, his faith the foundation stone of his character. He was scrupulously honest, and fiercely loyal; a true Catholic of impeccable moral virtue. When he did a good turn for a friend in need or any charitable act, he did so privately and always without display. In Val Dorgan˚s wonderful phrase, he was a “secret humanitarian”.
He later donated his eighth All-Ireland medals to St Augustine’s Church where it was used to decorate a chalice.
Nicholas Christopher Ring was born in the townland of Kilcrone, just outside Cloyne on October 30, 1920, the fourth of five children. He had two sisters and two brothers, and the family can reportedly trace its lineage in that part of East Cork back to at least the 14th century.
His father, Nicholas, a gardener by profession, was a hurling zealot who would cycle all over the county to matches. Once Christy was deemed old enough, he was given the space on the crossbar and a glimpse of the sporting world beyond the town they’d moved into a few weeks after his birth.
Christy was just 16 when his father died but by then he’d inherited his fervour for the game.
“Cloyne bore no relation to Las Vegas,” wrote Denis Walsh in The Sunday Times on the 25th anniversary of Ring’s death.
“Outside of hurling, entertainments were scarce. Like all of his peers, Ring was a member of the Catholic Young Men’s Society in the village.
“In the society’s rooms, the lads had access to billiards and darts and table tennis, at which Christy was imperious. Members joined in their teenage years and stayed on into their 20s.
“All of the lads in Cloyne started off as pioneers but few of them maintained a pledge for life as Christy did. An old lady in Mrs Motherway’s shop, known to everyone as Aunt ]o, introduced temperance to every 11-year-old in the village with what was known as a penny pioneer pin.
“Then, after 12 months, you graduated to be a probationer. Christy never bothered with drink or pubs. Hurling was his liquor and in Cloyne he drank deeply.”
He won his first proper hurley when he was 10, a prize awarded to the student with the best results in the school’s six classes. To that point, he’d made do with an adult stick his father had trimmed down for him and the rudimentary crookeens that he and his brothers, Willie John and Paddy Joe, would fashion from ash they gathered themselves.
The basic equipment was enough to start honing the talent, and so began a legendary devotion to self-improvement and mastering the skills. The old chestnut about him practicing by hitting the ball into a bucket dangling from a tree 30 yards away may not be historically accurate. Every word about how hard he worked however, is.
“There is no such thing as practice,” said Ring in a rare interview with the Cork diocesan magazine The Fold.
“There is such a thing as hard work. Hurling is hard work, it’s like carrying 100 bricks before you put one up. You must learn to carry them first. Then you’ll put them up.
“You must work step by step. The hardest things that you must do in training will serve you well in the game because you’ll never be asked to do them as hard again. I got down to hard training and eventually wound up enjoying doing the hard thing. And when you are talking about hurling, the easy way happens in a game. But of course, it only seems easy because you have been doing the hard things in training.”
In the latter stages of his career, a broken arm put him out of work for three months so he left his flat on the Grand Parade and went home to Cloyne to recuperate.
Locals testify to seeing him out in the field, one arm in a sling, the other swinging a hurley. Whatever portion of his talent came from on high, it was overmatched by the desire to maximise every ounce of it that came from within.
Inexplicably kept on the bench by the county minors in 1937, the following year he was playing right half-back in the All-Ireland final when Cork were clinging to a two-point lead late in the game. Without being asked, he sprinted from his defensive outpost to blast a 21 yard free to the net and finish off Dublin.
“Modesty is not saying you’re no good when you know you are,” said Ring. “It’s knowing how good you are and what your weaknesses are.”
Twenty-four years after his first appearance at Croke Park, he wore the red jersey for the last time at the same venue, scoring 1-5 of Cork’s total of 1-8 in a defeat by Kilkenny in the 1962 National League final. A few months short of his 42nd birthday, all but one point of his contribution came from play.
Even still, he returned to Jones’s Road once more with Munster the following spring, collecting his eighth Railway Cup winner’s medal in his 22nd consecutive final This was in an era when that competition was a vital event on the GAA calendar and many directly trace its decline to the departure of Ring from the scene.
The Railway Cup record will never be matched and though his tally of eight All-Ireland medals was later equalled, the Tipperary man who did so put it in proper context.
“Ring won eight All-Irelands for Cork,” said John Doyle. “You’d have to say my lads won eight All-Irelands for me.”
Ring played with some of the greatest hurlers of his time but Doyle’s point is well-made. So often he was the difference between Cork winning and losing. If the goal in 1946 is remembered by many as his finest work, there was another in the closing stages of the 1944 All-Ireland final replay that, while not as aesthetically pleasing, was even more dramatic.
“It was the effort of an athlete who would not accept defeat,” wrote John Power in The Cork Book Of Champions.
“An effort the like of which occurs perhaps only once in a lifetime. There were Limerick, winners it seemed, all the way. And Cork desperately battling against time to bring down that lead. Point by point, Cork narrowed the score. There was brave Mick Mackey playing several men’s parts to uphold the lead. Then well back in his own half, the unconquerable Ring snapped up the ball. Tim Ryan went for him, Christy tapped the ball on his hurley and sailed around him.
“On for 20 yards went the Corkman still tapping the ball on his hurley. Out came Jackie Power, then Cregan, then McCarthy, then Power again. Christy Ring still had the ball. Suddenly, he stopped, steadied and swung his hurley. Like a buller the ball flew straight and true. Hurleys flashed to meet it but there it was, dead in the back of the net. Tense and dramatic. It was seconds before the crowd had realised the truth. A few moments later, the game was over – Limerick defeated.”
Twelve years later, he broke Limerick hearts again in another Munster final. They were leading by five points with 15 minutes to play. Ring only needed five minutes to turn the game on its head by scoring three goals.
The first was palmed to the net at the end of a run that saw him fight off two desperate challenges en route. The second was the culmination of a solo run, the third the result of a sleight of hand as he snatched the ball from between two Limerick hurleys.
He tacked on a point too in perhaps as mesmerising a 300-second spell as hurling has ever seen.
When Wexford beat Cork in the All-Ireland final that year, Art Foley carved his own place in folklore with a wonder save from Ring three minutes from the end. It was a miss that in time has become as famous as any of his goals.
“Well actually l blocked it with the hurl,” said Foley.
“The ball went straight up in the air. Then it was just like a camera: you’re looking around to see who’s around. (Josie) Hartnett and (Gerry) Murphy were coming in at full belt so l blocked it out to (Jim) Morrissey. Christy was full sure he had a goal and that’s the whole idea of it. He came rushing in after it and when he saw the ball wasn’t in the net the first thing he did was stuck out his hand and says, ‘You little black bastard, you’re after heating us.’”
Even in defeat, Ring was the story as Nick O’Donnell and Bobby Rackard chaired their vanquished opponent off the field that day. It was an incredibly magnanimous gesture that illustrates the regard his peers had for him. Not all of them were fond enough of him to ever pay him the compliment the Wexford duo did that day but they all respected the fact they were in the company of someone special.
“Except among truest friends, the immensity of his generosity and intellect remained well-wadded in reticence,” wrote Kevin Cashman in the Sunday Independent in December, 1995.
‘That changed utterly at every throw-in of a sliothar. He would exhort and goad his own, and seek to disconcert and down-face the other lot with trenchant wit and colour.”
Some of the onfield exchanges have passed into folklore.
“I’ll open you the next time the ball comes in here,” threatened one opponent.
“If you’re still here,” replied Ring.
The physical cut and thrust of hurling in the '40s and '50s exhilarated him. Although some in Galway still nurse a grudge about the incident with Mickey Burke in the 1953 All-Ireland final, and nobody has yet established beyond reasonable doubt it was Ring who hit Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney in the 1961 Munster decider, most of his rivals testify he was, in that classic cliche, hard but fair. Even hard but fair was open to a considerably more robust interpretation then than now, he certainly wasn’t considered dirty.
“During my playing career, I met a lot of players that were faster, taller, and better in several ways but to be good hurler, you have to have something the others haven’t got,” said Ring.
“I had that strength. I never met anybody physically stronger than myself. I achieved this strength by hard, physical training. Allied to this, I had fierce determination when going for a ball.
“I would go through a stone wall to get a 50-50 ball. I would stop at nothing. My strength was largely hidden because I wasn’t a big fellow. I never weighed less than 13 stone. I knew that weighing 13 stone and travelling at speed, I could take on any player. I only used my strength when needed.
“All round physical strength was my best weapon. I never did weightlifting or anything like that to develop this strength, l had it automatically and I’d say it was in the mind; 75 percent of everything is in the mind and it’s mind that counts.
“Most times, if you get the better of your opponents, the rest takes care of itself. When you are playing games a while, you have great confidence in yourself, if you are really a great player. You actually put it up to the other fellow.
“It’s like saying to your opponent, ‘that’s the ball and l am going to get it’. You let him make up his own mind but if you are really good you’ll get it... you have eight or nine skills that you have really perfected and you decided that you are going to use one or more of them. The game is all about confidence in what you have learned.”
His supreme confidence and inordinate strength also came infused with passion. He hated to lose and was always conscious of the record books. As he was being carried shoulder-high following the victory over Tipperary in the 1952 Munster final, blood was leaking down his face but when he saw Eamonn Young approaching, he manically shouted, “For the Doc... For the Doc”. Young’s brother, Dr. Jim, had been one of the Cork four-in-a-row team and Cork’s win had ended Tipp’s gallant attempt to emulate that feat.
“The greatest win we ever had was against Tipperary in the 1952 Munster final,” said Ring.
“We went into Limerick in 1952 and we had trained hard, we had 10 changes from the year before. From a Corkman’s point of view, we said we were going out there to play for Cork, and when you play for Cork there’s no looking back. We played that day in Limerick but it was with heavy heart we came to Carrigtwohill that morning when Mattie Fuohy said he wasn’t playing.
“Mattie, I reckon, is the best man on our team. No doubt about it. Mattie is the man. We threw Wille John (Daly) back in the back line and we were short a forward, but when the full-time whistle blew in Limerick there were two points in it. I think that was a great achievement for this Cork. There were some of them new and some of them never hit a ball in a Munster final, but that day they hit them harder than any Cork team that came before.”
That quote is taken from an interview with Ring done in Barry’s Hotel on the morning of the 1953 All-Ireland hurling final. Three Cork fans, Ger Murphy, Sean O’Connor and Jim Ahern brought a basic dictaphone along to record some of the players, and Ring, intrigued by the new-fangled technology, agreed to speak to them.
When Michael Moynihan wrote a piece about the trio in the Irish Examiner half a century later, the fresh quotes were a welcome addition to the canon.
Ring gave few enough in-depth interviews in his time, although whenever he did speak out, it was always with a purpose. On one occasion, he called for the abolition of points, games of greater duration and the throw-in to be replaced by a puck-out.
Befitting his standing as a true Corinthian, he eschewed countless opportunities to cash in on his fame. He wouldn’t allow a pub in New York to pay him to take his name in its title, rebuffed repeated lucrative offers from newspapers and publishers to write his life story and made do with his earnings from driving an oil truck.
The oil truck from which he would alight in a field most lunchtimes with his hurley and ball to further work on his skills. Admirable as those decisions were from a quality of life point of view, they added to the eccentric view many had of him.
One afternoon in 1964, Ring was walking along Patrick Street with the journalist Breandan Ó hEithir when their progress was suddenly checked by the sound of jeers coming from across the road.
At a safe distance, a gaggle of students were boldly chanting ‘Dirty Ring' in their direction, a mocking reference to an incident the previous Sunday in a county championship match where the UCC player marking the Glen Rovers’ man had suffered a broken wrist.
The result of a bad fall, the injury nevertheless spawned a false run rumour about foul play and spotting Ring in his civvies, these miscreants sought to milk the moment for all it was worth.
Duly rising to the bait, he fired back abuse at his assailants, his apoplexy only adding fuel to their fire. As hEithir tried his best to calm him down, advising that the best policy was to ignore the taunts, Ring turned on him too.
“That’s all you know then,” said the winner of eight All-Ireland hurling medals.
“You probably think I’m a respected man in this town. There are people in this town, boy, who think I’m locked up in the red house (the mental asylum on the Lee Road) on the hill all week and only let out to hurl on Sundays.”
At this remove, it’s difficult to envisage anybody, even students under the influence of drink, speaking with anything less than awe about Ring.
In life, he was adored but in death, he has been, rightly, exalted and venerated.
That the bridge named after him abuts Cork Opera House and the Crawford Art Gallery is appropriate, a recognition that he was as much an artist as a sportsman.
His brush may have been made of ash and his favoured canvas a vast green sward but anybody who has viewed Louis Marcus’s poetic film of Ring teaching the game’s skills would acknowledge the aesthetic quality to his play.
Perhaps the best summation of his standing among his own is Niall Toibin’s account of meeting him for the first time.
At a post-All-Ireland hurling final function at the Spa Hotel in Lucan in the seventies, Toibin had been invited along to do a turn.
Although a selector by then, Ring was a surprise visitor to the dinner and when the seating was hastily rearranged to accommodate him, he was placed sitting across from the actor.
“You’re Toibin, aren’t ya?” asked Ring.
“Yes,” replied the actor.
“I like you,” said Ring.
“I felt that I could relax,” said Toibin. “He had sort of given me permission to stay.”
A veteran of stage and screen, Toibin had wowed Broadway and lit up the West End but he knew was in a room where the imprimatur of only one man really mattered.
The last hurling match he ever attended was a Harty Cup tie between the North Mon and St Colman’s in Buttevant, a game long since consigned to history, but one that of course has yielded yet another delightful Ring moment.
“St Colman’s came out on the field 20 minutes before throw-in and went through an elaborate pre-match routine,” wrote Enda McEvoy in The Sunday Tribune.
“Their calisthenics were keenly watched by Ring, who wasn’t impressed by this exhibition of style over substance and immediately announced that they had ‘only two hurlers.’
A few moments later one of the St Colman’s mentors, a cleric, wandered over and solicited Ring’s opinion. ‘Ah Father,’ came the reply, ‘ye’re wasting yer time. The Mon will beat ye by four goals.’
The priest departed, shocked. The game ended in a 2-14 to 0-8 win for The Mon.”
A couple of days later, Friday March 2, 1979, Ring collapsed on the street outside the School of Commerce.
A schoolteacher named Patricia Horgan was first to his aid and she whispered an act of contrition in his ear in the moments before he died. In an eerie coincidence, the pair had met before.
Twenty-six years earlier a woman had been walking with her pram and baby behind the old Cork Athletic Grounds. As she made her way up by the Atlantic Pond a car turned in from the Marina, Seconds later another followed and tried to squeeze past. The possibility of her pram being crushed between the two cars flashed in front of the woman’s eyes.
The first driver spotted the danger and reacted. He pulled over on to the grass verge and made the other driver stop. The first driver was Ring; the infant in the pram was Patricia Horgan.
As word filtered through the city centre that fateful afternoon, the Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s state car stopped at Brian Boru Bridge so he could buy the Evening Echo. He rolled down the back window and the newspaperman, Johnny Chris Kelleher, told him the news about the death of his friend and team-mate.
“Oh no,” said Lynch, “it can’t be true.”
After an epic funeral that inspired comparisons with those afforded the martyred Lord Mayors, Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, back in the 1920s, they brought Ring back to Cloyne and buried him in a graveyard that had been one of the beloved playing fields of his youth.
Around Ring’s wife Rita and his children Christy and Mary, was a crowd containing perhaps the greatest collection of hurlers ever gathered in one place together. They had come from all over to pay their final respects.
“As long as the red jerseys of Cork and the blue of Munster and the green, black and gold of Glen Rovers, colours that Christy wore with such distinction, as long as we see these colours in manly combat the memories of Christy’s genius and prowess will come tumbling back with profusion,” said Lynch, in his graveside eulogy, his voice crackling with emotion.
“We will relish and savour them for we will hardly see their likes again. And men who are fathers and grandfathers now will tell their children and grandchildren with pride that they saw Christy Ring play. The story will pass from generation to generation and so it will live."
So it will live.