IT was a Friday evening in early March 1979, people were getting on with their daily lives and preparing for the weekend.
Then came the news that all but brought a city and county to a standstill, Christy Ring had died. The word spread like wildfire to the great hurling homes of Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford and so on, the one that was almost indestructible on the playing fields of Ireland was gone at just 59 years of age.
That dark day was 40 years ago, very hard to believe but fact.
Last Saturday week, Christy Ring’s widow Rita was buried alongside him in Cloyne, the place that was always home. As a hurler, he might have left to join Glen Rovers but Cloyne never left him and the couple who were so devoted to each other are now united again.
That Friday evening 40 years ago is still vivid in our memory. The late Jim O’Neill, a former Limerick hurler, was the librarian in this office and it was from him that I learned the sad and devastating news.
The phones hopped in the offices and places of work, some refusing to believe that the greatest hurler that ever graced the green sward was gone. A couple of months earlier, Ring was one of the masterminds of Cork’s three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles between 1976 and 1978.
Galway denied them the opportunity in the semi-final of ‘79 to make it four, many believing that Ring’s passing was a major factor in the outcome that day.
The motivator-in-chief was not in their corner when the hard questions were posed. So much has been said and written about the Cloyne maestro but no words could ever do justice to a hurling prince.
'Did you ever see him play?' is a question frequently posed.
The answer from this quarter is just a couple of times when his glittering career was winding down. Once or twice in Thurles, maybe the Gaelic Grounds and a few times with the Glen in the old Athletic Grounds.
Even in the dying embers of those playing days he was still capable of conjuring up magic, doing something that few others if any could do.
As a young fellow, your eyes never left him because of that ability to do something extraordinary. Eight All-Ireland medals, 14 county titles with the Glen, 18 Railway Cup medals, the standout achievements in a career that ended when he was 46 years of age, a Cork County quarter-final win over UCC in 1967.
Can you imagine somebody four years shy of a half-century playing at that level today?
The respect and affection that he commanded was widespread, as much outside the county as within. During the years when Cork and Tipp’s intense rivalry was at its greatest, when they flaked the living daylights out of each other, the respect for Ring never waned.
Being very fortunate to have conversed in the past with two of Tipperary’s greatest, the late Mick ‘the Rattler’ Byrne and the late Jimmy Doyle, their admiration for him had no boundaries, they simply idolised him. And in Byrne’s home in Thurles there were pictures of him adorning the walls.
Here are some of the things that his peers said about him in the past.
Waterford All-Ireland medal winner Christy Moylan:
“The greatest hurler ever to have graced a playing field."
Bobby Rackard, former Wexford great:
“Any of us who saw him play were privileged, we will never see the likes of him again, in my book Ring was number one and always will be."
Pat Fanning, former GAA President:
“He enriched the game of hurling more than any man I knew over 40 years. He lived and breathed the very spirit of hurling, he was a giant among giants."
Eddie Keher Kilkenny:
“To us kids, Christy was the ultimate, we all modelled ourselves on him"
Tipp icon John Doyle:
“Tipp won eight All-Irelands for me, Ring won eight for Cork, he’s something that comes around every 100 years, I haven’t seen anything like him and I don’t believe I ever will."
Three-time Cork All-Ireland medal winner Paddy Barry from Sars referring to the times when Ring carried Cork, now they were carrying him to his grave:
“We carried him at last..."
Thousands upon thousands lined the streets of Cork for his final journey. The cortege took up to four hours to reach Cloyne as it passed through the many towns and villages of East Cork. I can vividly recall being in Cloyne on that Sunday morning, a bitterly cold morning in a village that could barely hold those who had come to pay their final respects.
So many of those he had played with and against were there, Mick Mackey, the ‘Rattler Byrne’ John Doyle, Tom Cheasty, Jimmy Smyth, Theo English, Nick O’Donnell.
Two of Kerry’s greatest footballers, Mick O’Connell and Jim Brosnan even turned up. His dear friend, another Cork and Glen great, Jack Lynch delivered a stunning graveside oration which captured everything about Ring and his final words that morning summed it all up.
“As a hurler he had no peer. As long as young men will match their skills against each other on Ireland’s green fields, as long as young boys bring their camáns for the sheer tingle on their fingers of the impact of ash with leather, as long as hurling is played, the story of Christy Ring will be told. And that will be forever."
Forty years later that story is still being told, that morning in Cloyne when they mourned and celebrated the man who had made their village famous.
He was the greatest and he was one of our own.