Christy Ring at 100: Greatness came from his dedication to the skills of hurling

Christy Ring at 100: Greatness came from his dedication to the skills of hurling

Leading Cork out against Tipperary in 1942 was Jack Lynch, seventh from right is a young Christy Ring.

WHEN the Ring Memorial Committee set about erecting a suitable monument of Christy Ring after his death, a nine-feet high bronze statue — to be located on Christy’s old home on Spittal Street in Cloyne — was deemed to be the ideal eternal tribute to Ring.

Before Yann Goulet began his work on the memorial, the Breton sculptor was mindful of how the bronze statue would be an everlasting tribute to Ring.

“The Christy Ring whose memory I will perpetuate in bronze will be the perfect athlete he was in his youth, strong but elegant like the Apollo of the Greek mythology or Michelangelo’s David, men never marked by the passing of time,” said Goulet before the statue was unveiled in 1983.

“In Christy Ring we had the typification of an ideal Irish athlete and it is as such that he should be remembered by future generations.”

Goulet’s words neatly encapsulated the sense of mythology, iconography and rich folklore always associated with Ring.

The future generations which Goulet spoke about, none of whom saw Ring play — the majority of which may have never even watched archival footage of Ring — were still always aware of his genius, and what he meant to the game of hurling.

Those future generations yet to come still only need to run their finger along the stories of Ring to gain an appreciation of who he was, and the lore and love eternally attached to his name.

Cork was always immensely proud of their famous son, but Ring’s brilliance was so universally cherished that hurling people everywhere felt he also belonged in some small way to them.

It was as if he was the Godfather of the game, like the central character that everyone could refer to in hurling’s storied and glorious history.

The former Clare hurler Jimmy Smyth once summed up that wider level of appreciation for who Ring was, and what he always meant to the hurling community.

“He would be the GAA’s Shakespeare,” said Smyth.

“He was not alone a Cork man. You could never confine Ring to a county. Ring was Ireland. Hurling is Ireland. Ring was hurling. Ring is Ireland.”

There has always been a mystique about Ring. His iconic status portrayed him like a deity with divine status, an untouchable genius, with an unbreakable mind. Ring was undoubtedly ahead of his time, but his genius was shaped and formed by his brilliant way of thinking.

Ring had to have incredible mental strength to deal with the attention he got on the hurling pitch, to be able to handle the incessant pressure and expectation continually heaped on his shoulders.

Ring may not have been au fait with sports psychology but, in many ways, he was one of the first sportsmen to espouse and practise so many sports psychology principles.

He was the master because Ring was always sought to master elite preparation and practice. In a rare television interview weeks before Ring’s death, Donnacha Ó Dualaing asked Ring if he practised after school as a child.

“After mass,” said Ring, “after school, in the morning, in the evening, after matches.”

Long before modern coaches or managers were referring to the terms ‘deliberate practice’ or ‘purposeful practice’, Ring was the ultimate example of their validity. Ring often said that hurling was not inherent, but something that could be learned.

“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,” Ring once said.

“The easy way happens in the game but of course, it only seems easy because you have been doing the hard things in training.”

If Ring was a natural, it was because he made himself so naturally comfortable and competent with all the skills of the game. He became a hurling genius, but that genius was moulded by how he learned to think and work.

His lessons began early. Although Cloyne played Ring in goal on their Junior B team in 1934 when he was still short of his 14th birthday, Ring’s maiden spin as a Cork minor three years later was a hard learning experience.

Ring failed to make the team. He spent the whole year on the bench. Ring wore the number 26 jersey for the final against Kilkenny in Killarney. Ring didn’t get a medal after Cork won the title.

A year later he was selected at right half-back for the Cork minors. The All-Ireland final against Dublin was Ring’s first appearance in Croke Park. Cork were hanging on to a two-point lead when they won a 21-yard free in the dying minutes.

Kevin McGrath, the Cork captain, was a prolific scorer and the free-taker up front but, without any licence or instruction, Christy sprinted from wing-back and took control of the situation.

A point would have put Cork three ahead and at least safe from defeat. Ring went for the goal. And buried it.

Ted O’Sullivan later added another goal, but Ring’s mentor Jerry Moynihan said to him afterwards that going for goal was ‘madness’.

Ring disagreed. He said he was absolutely certain he would score the goal. He had no reason to doubt himself. It all came back to practice. Ring had taken hundreds of close-in frees in Cloyne. Scoring them was a natural act.

There were so many stories of Ring’s dedication to his craft that nobody was fully sure what was true and what was just fantasy.

One yarn was that he honed his accuracy by shooting a ball from 20 yards at the bell button on the parish priest’s door. Another was that he used to lob a ball into a bucket hanging from a tree 30 or 40 yards away.

In Ring’s world, practice was probably too serious for those gimmicks. But all those stories of his practising became part of Ring’s legend.

Reading the books written on Ring by Dorgan and Tim Horgan, Ring’s absolute love for the game, his desire for the contest, and his hunger to improve his skills is glaringly obvious at every turn.

Ring had honed his craft in Cloyne and, even after he joined Glen Rovers, he continued to refine that craft whenever he returned to Cloyne.

Ring at his peak.
Ring at his peak.

He would often be in the field by 2pm after his lunch. The hurlers of the village, men and boys, would be waiting for him.

Some of those afternoon sessions would last four hours. The first hour was normally a full-scale match, where nobody was spared, including Ring.

That’s exactly the way he wanted it. The locals remember Ring playing in those matches the day before a Munster championship match, and Ring going as hard on the Saturday as he would on the Sunday.

“The contest was the most important thing for me,” Ring said in that Ó Dualaing TV interview.

“It wasn’t what I got from it, or what was at the end. Playing the game was the most important thing as far as I was concerned.”

The 1954 Ireland hurling team. Back: J McGrath (Westmeath); T Leahy (Kilkenny); Bobby Rackard (Wexford); Liam Dowling (Cork); John Doyle (Tipperary); Pat Stakelum (Tipp); P. Kenny (Tipp); C. Murphy (Dublin). Front: Tim Flood (Wexford); Christy Ring (Cork); Willie Walsh (Kilkenny); Billy O’Neill (Galway); Tony Shaughnessy (Cork); Willie John Daly (Cork); Sean Duggan (Galway). Picture: Cummins Sports.
The 1954 Ireland hurling team. Back: J McGrath (Westmeath); T Leahy (Kilkenny); Bobby Rackard (Wexford); Liam Dowling (Cork); John Doyle (Tipperary); Pat Stakelum (Tipp); P. Kenny (Tipp); C. Murphy (Dublin). Front: Tim Flood (Wexford); Christy Ring (Cork); Willie Walsh (Kilkenny); Billy O’Neill (Galway); Tony Shaughnessy (Cork); Willie John Daly (Cork); Sean Duggan (Galway). Picture: Cummins Sports.

Ring won all there was to win, with Glen Rovers, Cork and Munster, but the game was always about more than glory for him, which is why his failed attempt to win that ninth All-Ireland in 1956 is remembered more gloriously than Ring actually winning that medal.

As Wexford supporters stormed on to the pitch afterwards, Wexford players Nick O’Donnell, Bobby Rackard, and Art Foley were immediately focused on paying an incredible tribute to Ring; they carried Ring on their shoulders off the pitch; O’Donnell, a shy and soft-spoken farmer, planted a large kiss on Ring’s cheek.

Back in April Morning Ireland ran a ‘Favourite Sporting Moment Series’ on RTÉ Radio 1 to acknowledge some of the best sporting moments in Irish Sport.

When they selected the 1956 All-Ireland final, Donal O’Grady, former Cork manager and player, spoke about that incredible tribute to Ring, and the God-like status Ring carried everywhere.

O’Grady also spoke about how his father had hurled with Ring, and how he felt anytime he was in Ring’s presence.

“When they (Ring and O’Grady’s father) met, I would always hang back as a young lad,” said O’Grady. “I was really in awe of Ring. To me, I realised then what it was like to be in the presence of a God.”

All these years later, Ring’s name, and the mere mention of his deeds and feats continues to inspire and convey that eternal connection between Ring and the game, and the immense and glorious legacy he left.

“As long as hurling is played, the story of Christy Ring will be told,” said Jack Lynch at Ring’s graveside oration in 1979.

“And that will be forever.”


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