In an extract from the new book 'The GAA Immortals: 100 Gaelic Games Legends', John Scally reflects on the iconic status of Christy Ring.
IT was a funeral like no other.
"Christy Ring, the undisputed genius of three decades of competitive hurling, yesterday drew the crowds for the last time," Raymond Smith said. "But never did they return out in such spontaneous tribute as they did for the final, sad procession as the nation’s superb hurler went back to the soil of his native Cloyne."
He had lived a public life but his death, at the age of 58, was nearly a private affair. He fell down in a quiet street in Cork and a passing teacher, Patricia Horgan softly whispered an act of contrition into his ear as he took his last breath and prepared to meet his God.
His former teammate and the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, delivered a heartfelt eulogy: ‘
"As a hurler he had no peer. As long as young men will match their hurling skills against each other on Ireland’s green fields, as long as young boys bring their camáns for the sheer thrill of the 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."
He was carried to his last resting place on the shoulders of his teammates, one of whom, Paddy Barry, was heard to remark:
"We carried him at last."
One observer said that the crowd was the biggest in Cork since the funeral for ‘the martyr Lord Mayor Tomas Mac Curtain.’
Ring has a special place in the annals of the GAA. He first sprang to prominence in 1935 when at the age of 16 he played for Cork Minors.
In his 24 years playing for the Cork seniors he would amass eight All-Ireland winners’ medals, nine Munster championships, three league medals and a staggering eighteen Railway Cups – when they were a premier competition. He retired in 1964 when the Cork selectors dropped him, aged 43.
His best guess was that he had played over 1,200 games. He left behind a treasure trove of memories but a small archive of interviews because he famously said: "All my talking was done on the field with a hurley."
His special status with hurling fans was most tellingly revealed on the day of a Munster final when a Cork fan met him and two of his teammates. She sprinkled holy water on his colleagues but assured the wizard of Cloyne: "Ringy, you don’t need any of this!"
One of the many stories told about Ring is that as he was leading his team out of the tunnel, when they were half-way out, he turned them back to the dressing-room.
Then he took off his Cork jersey, held it up and asked his players to look at the colour and what it meant to them. After that the team went out with fire in their bellies and played out of their skins. He was not a man to call a spade an argicultural implement.
Famously after the 1968 Munster final when Babs Keating gave a magnificent performance, scoring 1-3 for Tipperary, Ring congratulated him by saying:
"Great performance Babs but imagine what you would have done if you had concentrated for the whole game."
In Ring’s days as a selector Cork’s ace forward Seánie O’Leary got a belt of a hurley across the nose and was withdrawing from the field when Ring shouted at him: "Get back out there.
"You don’t play hurling with your nose."
Few hurlers are better equipped to evaluate Ring’s career than Tipperary’s greatest hurling legend, John Doyle:
"Christy Ring was by far the best hurler I ever saw. He had unbelievable skill and could do anything with a ball.
"He only thought or dreamed about hurling. Once after we beat Cork in a Munster final in Thurles I saw him in Hayes’ Hotel telling another Cork player what they needed to do to beat us the following year.
"How could you a keep a man like that down? If he got a score he'd dance a little jig to annoy his opponent and straight away won the psychological battle. He was also a very tough hurler.
"I think back to a great tussle between Christy and another Tipperary player in a game in Cork. Though I was not involved in the scuffle, I happened to be lying on the ground close to it and I got a fierce belt of a hurl as they both drew on the ball together.
"As a result I needed four stiches on my chin, and ended up with a scar for life.
"He was a true perfectionist. He was always trying to perfect and practise his skills.
"The interesting thing was that unlike most players, the older he got the better he performed.
"I saw a side to Christy that few hurling fans got to see. He was a very kind, helpful person.
"Back in the 1960s I ran for the Senate and I went down to Cork to do some canvassing.
"I went into Johnny Quirke’s pub and sitting in the corner, drinking a mineral, was Christy. When I explained what I was doing he immediately volunteered to go canvassing with me and we went around all his friends, who not only promised to vote for me but actually did.
"It was a mark of the man that he was so generous with his time."