This Thursday on RTÉ, a special new show will mark 100 years since the birth of the iconic Rebel hurler Christy Ring. Éamonn Murphy looks at another side of the greatest of all time with his grandfather Eddie Hogan, a huge fan and former work colleague of Ring...
FOR hurling fans who were entranced by the wizardry of the greatest player to ever pick up a hurley, and those weaned on tales of his magic, March 2, 1979, is burned indelibly in the memory banks.
Christy Ring passed away suddenly. Untouchable on the field, he was cut down shy of his 59th birthday. Having been a selector and figurehead for Cork’s three-in-a-row winning team he remained a colossal influence on hurling in that era.
My grandfather, Eddie Hogan, remembers it vividly. He was delivering furniture for Cash’s up in Ballyvolane when the customer told him of Ring’s passing. He recoiled with a sting of disbelief and shock, a pain that pierced the people of Rebel city and county and beyond.
Even now, not a day goes by that Eddie doesn’t recall the brilliance of Ring, someone he was lucky enough to know as a man as well as myth. He treasures the Munster jersey Ring wore in 1952 marked with the number 15 on the back, three crowns on the front, and the knowledge it had been touched by greatness.
He has the minor All-Ireland medal his late brother Paddy Hogan won alongside Ring in 1938.
The programme from the 1942 All-Ireland final against Dublin also takes pride of place. It’s creased and fragile, but the signatures of every player from that team are still visible.
There are Ring photographs in his study; pride of place is given to two framed photos from 1942.
The pictures have a mystical, timeless quality, particularly the Blarney shot, which looks like it’s taken on the film set of a western.
The first was taken at the train station in Dublin after the All-Ireland win, Eddie is in the front row next to Christy; his youthful grin and bright eyes capture his exuberance and pride.
The second (at the top) is a shot from Blarney when the team returned home to Leeside before they departed through Blackpool drawn by horses with the Liam McCarthy held aloft by captain Jack Lynch.
For most fans, their memories of Ring are from watching his epic career unfold, but Eddie was lucky enough to get to know the hurling genius first hand. As well as bearing witness to some of the most iconic moments in hurling history, he struck a friendship with Ring after meeting him in 1938, cemented by a six-year spell from 1950 to 1956 working together on a delivery truck for Shell.
Eddie’s older brother Paddy, a Glen stalwart who featured in a fearsome all-conquering full-back line of the ‘40s and ‘50s and started in four senior county finals for the Blackpool club, was a member of the 1938 Cork minor team. Back-to-back Harty Cup titles with North Mon saw him hurl alongside Ring.
Paddy also got his hands on the senior football county, with St Nick’s, while another Hogan brother John, a soccer goalkeeper, fell in with Nick’s after Jack Lynch petitioned him to fill a gap between the posts. You didn’t say no to Jack Lynch.
“That minor half-back line in 1938 was a great one, my brother Paddy, Christy and Ray Cummins’ father Willie. You could tell Christy was special, but it was the final against Dublin that really showed it.
“Cork were losing by two points and got a free and Christy came up the field and took the free from Kevin McGrath the regular free-taker, who is actually Donal O’Grady’s uncle. He buried it of course.”
Eddie remains a close friend and shares a passion for hurling with one of Willie Cummins’ sons Kevin, who took a breathtaking photo of Ring standing for the anthem in what would be his last game for the Glen, the 1967 county quarter-final final. The circle complete.
Ring’s move to the Glen and Eddie’s grá for sport (though an injury meant he couldn’t play himself beyond his teens) led to their paths crossing frequently. The All-Ireland win in 1942 highlighted Ring’s decency.
“The team arrived at the Castle Hotel in Blarney and Christy had made sure I could get brought into the city with the team. When we got there he made sure I got a meal with himself and Con Murphy in the O’Connor’s Kincora Hotel on Cook St, across from the old county board offices. He was always looking out for other people.”
Eddie’s own dedication to GAA and all sports knew no bounds. In 1943 his neck landed him on the bench for the All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Roscommon.
“Myself and John Farnan, who played with Blackrock and St Nick’s, went to Dublin for the hardball doubles final, where Dan Keogh from Youghal and Willy Walsh from Midleton beat the All-Ireland champions, the Clarke brothers from Dublin.
“The football final was on that afternoon but we’d no money to get in, so when we got to Croke Park we offered to carry the drums for the Lawrence O’Toole pipe band. That was grand, but when we got onto the pitch we had to find somewhere to stay out of the way and we ended up sitting on the Kerry bench.
“That was fine at the start, but when Roscommon scored a point we jumped for joy, I mean it was against Kerry and they weren’t long kicking us out.”
He laughs now recalling the adventures. Throughout those halcyon days for Cork hurling, he soaked in the glorious moments and can still summon them with unerring clarity and accuracy. Cycling to Munster finals during the Second World War, all worth it to watch Ring and a host of Leeside legends.
The majority of the Cork heroes from those teams are gone but their brilliance is shimmering and effervescent.
“Din Joe Buckley was the greatest corner-back of all time — he played in six All-Irelands and only one player, Shem Downey of Kilkenny, the father of the Downey sisters who were camogie greats, ever scored a point from him. You had Jack Lynch — who was the greatest hurler after Christy — and other players like John Quirke, who wouldn’t be talked about as much today but were beautiful hurlers.”
In 1950 Ring was given a job with Shell delivering oil to east Cork and Waterford and Eddie spent much of the next six years travelling with him.
“It was the best job I ever had without a doubt, I loved every day. We’d travel to Waterford all the time and to see the respect people had for Christy — he was the most famous man in Ireland. We’d often meet players like Waterford captain Martin Óg Morrissey, a great goalie or Kilkenny players and they were in awe of him too.
“The oil truck we were driving was supposed to only go 20 miles an hour and that meant a trip to Waterford would take the whole day, but we were able to go a bit faster than that, and we carried hurleys and a sliotar everywhere.”
They would regularly stop next to a field and practice for hours with the camán in hand. Christy was always practicing. He had ability no one had, but he had the dedication as well.”
A common theme for players of all sports with ‘natural’ talent.
While quiet and shy, sometimes intensely so and keen to downplay his fame, especially when confronted by fans on their travels, Ring still ensured they were looked after.
“In Clover Meats in Waterford one day we were presented with two tins of corned beef and Christy said, ‘we’ll be needing two more of those’, he wanted to make sure the two lads on the truck with us got the same as we did.”
At the time Christy lived in a flat over the Grand Parade during the week, travelling home to his family in Cloyne on the weekends. His goodwill came to the fore at this time. Eddie worked as much overtime as he could, but was also courting his late wife Bríd and would often have plans to meet her.
“I’d have to work on and when I did he’d come out and keep Bríd company until I got there. It was something she always remembered and even though she wasn’t a big sports fan, she would always tell that story.”
During this time he received his most precious relic from Ring — the camán he wielded in the 1950 county final for the Glen when they beat Sars 8-5 to 2-8.
Three years later, however, he called and asked after it.
“It was a beautiful hurley and he said to me, ‘Eddie, do you still have the hurley I gave you?’ He wanted to use it in the final but unfortunately, it got broken, though they did beat the Barrs to win their first county since 1950, so it worked, I suppose.”
Though he left Shell in 1956, Eddie maintained a steady friendship with his hero, keeping in regular contact.
“He had the greatest hurling brain there ever was. He proved that when he was a selector.
“I was asking him one day about the Cork team and he was telling me Jimmy-Barry Murphy would be playing. I told him I didn’t think he was physically strong enough and he said to me, ‘Eddie, let me tell you about him’, and there was a pause of 20 seconds and you don’t say anything when he’s speaking, ‘Eddie he’s a thief, he steals scores.’ And of course, he was right.”
And when you question Eddie to try and unravel the mystery of what made Ring so great, there is no easy answer.
“He just had everything: natural talent, frightening strength, a hurling brain and a great attitude outside of hurling — he never smoked or drank and went to mass every day. He trained and trained and trained. There were great hurlers when he was playing and there have been great hurlers since, like Denis Coughlan, Jimmy Doyle, Tony Reddan, Brian Corcoran, the O’Connor twins — who are great lads — but you just can’t compare.”
Eddie is now 96, but his grá for Cork remains.
He was given a gift of the Glen Rovers’ jersey commemorating Ring before the recent county final against Blackrock.
The likes of Donal Óg Cusack and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín were “great warriors who stood up for what they believed in” he reflects. And he never tires of watching Patrick Horgan weave his wand and clip points over the bar from outrageous angles.
But one Ring rules them all and Eddie often headed to Christy’s grave in Cloyne on the eve of All-Ireland appearances by the Rebels.
“It’s great to think everyone stills knows and respects Ring as the greatest.”
He is just thankful he knew the incomparable Ring as both man and myth.