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Ring was at his peak for a decade

November 3, 2020

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Christy Ring having an exchange of views with a longtime rival, the Limerick hurler Mick Mackey, who that day was a match official.

 

 

CHRISTY RING CENTENARY

PART 1

 

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By Dave Hannigan

In the 13th 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 O Dulaing on RTE. “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 realized 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-hack 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.”

 

Christy Ring in the colors of Cork.

 

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 synopsize the life of Jesus 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 in the dressing room 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 colorful 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 Oct. 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 fervor 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 thirty 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 one hundred 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 maximize 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 8th 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 in from to 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 realized 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 mesmerizing a 300-second spell as hurling has ever seen.

Read Part II here.

 

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