It’s 44 years to the day famed Cork hurler Christy Ring passed away, aged just 58. Ring is regarded as one of the greatest hurlers of all time, winning eight All-Ireland hurling medals for Cork, nine Munster medals, and three National Hurling League medals.
Born in Cloyne, Co. Cork, the hurling giant is widely regarded within the rebel county and beyond as Ireland’s greatest hurling player. Cork GAA posted this tribute to Ring in October 2020, to mark the centenary of the birth of a man who had a remarkable twenty-five-year career with Cork:
Today, October 30th, 2020, marks the centenary of the birth of Ireland’s greatest ever hurler, Cork’s own, Christy Ring. https://t.co/i8kCTtiSMg pic.twitter.com/emZOqFIxID
— Cork GAA (@OfficialCorkGAA) October 30, 2020
Ring was born Nicholas Christopher Michael Ring on 30 October 1920. He first played competitive hurling after being encouraged to do so by his local national school teachers, Michael O’Brien and Jerry Moynihan. At the age of 12 came his first appearance on the Cloyne minor team.
He would later go on to win a county minor championship medal with the nearby St. Enda’s team. This was closely followed by a junior championship medal with Cloyne. The talented young sports star would go on to establish many championship records, including 64 career appearances.
Ring made his debut on the inter-county scene at sixteen when he was selected for the Cork minor panel for the All-Ireland final. In spite of victory, he was denied an All-Ireland medal because he was Cork’s last non-playing substitute.
Ring joined Glen Rovers in Blackpool in 1941 following a dispute with the club. Over the next 26 years with the club, Ring clinched one Munster medal and 14 senior championship medals. He also won a county senior championship medal as a Gaelic footballer with the Glen’s sister club, St. Nicholas’.
Ring’s first taste of All-Ireland glory was to come in 1941, the first of Cork’s four-in-a-row victories as All-Ireland champions. He was captain of the Cork side on three successful campaigns in 1946, 1953 and 1954. A huge amount of Cork’s success during that era is credited to Ring, and the inspirational impact he had on the men he played beside.
After he was selected as a substitute on the Munster interprovincial team in 1941, Ring was an automatic choice on the starting fifteen for the 22 years that followed. He went on to score 42-105 as he won a record eighteen Railway Cup medals during that period, in an era when his skill and combative nature drew crowds of up to 50,000 to Croke Park for the annual final on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ring was a record-breaker, and became the first player to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup three times as captain. He won a total of eight All-Ireland medals, including a record four championships in-a-row from 1941 to 1944, a lone triumph in 1946 and three championships in-a-row from 1952 to 1954.
He was denied a record-breaking ninth All-Ireland medal in 1956 when the Munster champions lost to their Leinster opponents, Wexford, at Croke Park on a score line of 2-14 to 2-8.
With 83,096 spectators present, the game, played on 23 September 1956, has the second highest attendance of any hurling final since 1887.
The final moments of the game are still remembered as the stuff of legends, when Christy Ring, with three minutes to go, caught the sliothar in the left full-forward position, and made a dash across the goalmouth shouldering team mate Paddy Barry out of the way en route.
Ring sent in a shot towards the goal, however Art Foley managed to block it, deflecting it into the palm of his hand, and clearing it down the field. A whole host of legends have developed about Foley’s save, which has gone down in history as one of the most important in championship history.
The decisive passage of play is recalled in Michael O’Hehir’s live commentary on Radio Éireann, that day. He described the closing moments of the game as follows:
“Paddy Philpott, standing all alone, 50 yards from his own goal, gets the ball and sends it up into the centre of the field. The clash of the ash as it blocks down there by Terry Kelly. Terry Kelly up there to Christy Ring. Ring in front of the goal is going through. He steadies himself, he takes a shot. It’s blocked by Art Foley and it’s cleared out by Art Foley. Oh, a great clearance there by Art Foley”.
That was Ring’s last All-Ireland final appearance. At the age of 38, he was named Hurler of the Year, and also won nine Munster Medals and four National Hurling League medals during the course of his career.
He played for Cork until 1962. In 1963, he failed to be selected for the Cork team by a vote of 3-2. However, remarkably, at the age of 46, he was called back onto the panel and selected as a sub, however 33-year-old John Bennett was preferred.
His last game for Cork was in June 1963, after he made the haughty declaration: “The people of Cork will never see the day when Christy Ring is a sub on a Cork team to John Bennett”. Determined to be nobody’s second best, Ring called a day on his inter-county hurling career.
Ring’s personal life drew attention at the height of his fame. He married Rita Taylor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Ballinlough, Cork, on 12 September 1962.
Reports from the time detail how traffic in and around Cork City was held up for over an hour, with thousands turning out to see the wedding.
It was a major departure for the national radio broadcaster, Radio Éireann, when it included news of the event in their main news bulletin. It was also their first report on a sports celebrity wedding. Fledgling television broadcaster, Telefís Éireann, also filmed the wedding with the footage broadcast on the Nine O’ClockNews – an indication of the level of Ring’s fame.
The Rings lived at Avondale Park in Ballintemple, Cork, for the majority of their married life. They had three children, twin boys Christy and John, born in 1963, and a daughter, Mary, born in 1966. They went through personal tragedy when John died as an infant.
In 1964, Ring was the star of a Louis Marcus film. The film was an instructional one – with Ring demonstrating the various skills of the game and ending with highlights of the 1960 league final. It premiered at the Savoy in Cork on 16 October 1964 and ran for a number of weeks.
After retiring from his playing career, Ring had a career in team management and coaching, and was a selector on the Cork side which won three successive All-Irelands from 1976-78. He died prematurely at the age of 58 in March 1979.
A non-smoker and non-drinker his entire life, his early death came as a shock. He had remained active, playing squash right up to two days before his death.
On Friday 2 March 1979, Ring was in Cork city centre to attend a scheduled appointment with his doctor and former teammate Dr. Jim Young. However, as he was walking past the Cork College of Commerce that afternoon, he suffered a huge heart attack and collapsed.
The news of his death sent shockwaves and grief across Ireland, particularly in his beloved Cork. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Cork, with up to 60,000 people flooding onto the streets to pay their respects. The funeral was a remarkable occasion in the world of hurling, with many of his former Munster teammates in attendance.
Thirty books of condolences were filled by the thousands of people who attended the removal of his remains, with his coffin draped in the iconic black, green and gold Glen Rovers colours. Former Cork teammates involved included Fr Con Cottrell, Fr Bernie Cotter and Fr J. J. O’Brien.
Ring’s graveside oration was delivered by former teammate Jack Lynch, whose brother Fr Charlie Lynch, was chief celebrant of the funeral Mass.
Ring was remembered for his “genius and prowess” in the moving and poetic oration delivered at the graveside by Jack Lynch, who told mourners:
“As long as young men will match their hurling skills against each other on Ireland’s green fields, as long as young boys swing their camáns for the sheer thrill of the feel and the tingle in their fingers of the impact of ash on leather, as long as hurling is played the story of Christy Ring will be told. And that will be forever.
“As long as the red jerseys of Cork, the blue of Munster and the green, black and gold of Glen Rovers – colours that Christy wore with such distinction – as long as we see these colours in manly combat, the memory of Christy’s genius and prowess will come tumbling back in profusion”.
The poet Tom French penned a poem, A Pieta, about Ring’s death. The hurler has also been the subject of a number of biographies, including Christy Ring by Val Dorgan (1980) and Christy Ring: Hurling’s Greatest by Tim Horgan (2007).
So many have paid tribute to and remembered Ring down through the years. G.A.A. Ballads of Rebel Cork contains 20 different pieces on Ring, including a poem in Irish by Seán Ó Tuama. Billy Ramsell and Theo Dorgan have also written poems about one of Ireland’s most renowned and skilled sportsmen.