From pulling a baby from a burning building to shaping a generation of stars: How a New York fireman changed Gaelic football
Enda McNulty was in the backseat of Kieran McGeeney’s car when he got the call.
Less than a week had passed since Armagh had won the first All-Ireland title in the county’s history, with McGeeney erasing many lifetimes worth of agonising near misses when he hoisted Sam Maguire high into the air.
McNulty and his captain were buzzing as they drove down the motorway, en route to team-mate Diarmuid Marsden’s stag in Sligo.
But back to the phone call – it was McNulty’s former college manager, Dessie Ryan.
McNulty had spent countless hours honing his defensive skills with Ryan at Queen’s University, where a Sigerson Cup had been won two years previous.
But Ryan – who coached four of that victorious Armagh back six in college including McGeeney – wasn’t ringing to solely offer his well wishes.
“I congratulated him but before he could say ‘what did I do wrong?’, I jumped the gun and told him right away before he asked me,” Ryan says, laughing at the memory.
“I thought he was a bit slack and gave up a few too many yards to the Kerry forwards. I wouldn’t have said that to everybody but I knew I could say it to Enda - he has thick skin and always wanted to improve.”
And that is how Enda McNulty found himself getting one more coaching session from Ryan – via a crackling mobile phone reception on the way down to Sligo – just one week after his greatest sporting triumph.
Enda McNulty, one of Ryan's disciples, won an All Star for his performances in 2002
Incidents like that pockmark the story of Dessie Ryan, a GAA coach likened to Karate Kid Guru Mr Miyagi by another Armagh All-Ireland winner, Aidan O’Rourke, for his ability to arrive like a gust of wind on your shoulder and deliver a little one liner that might help you put your man off his shot next time around.
Chances are, you won’t be too familiar with Ryan’s tale. After all, he played his last game of inter-county football almost 60 years ago, just weeks after his first.
That was back in 1957 – one of the most successful seasons in the history of Tyrone football until Mickey Harte came along – but that was only chapter one of a story featuring fire-fighting, top class coaching and a kind of physical fitness that would put men half his age to shame.
So who is Dessie Ryan?
The Queen's University coach who shaped one of the most dominant eras of Ulster football, for one thing.
For another, the 120th most influential person in the history of the GAA, according to the late, great, Sunday Tribune – but that came later.
He was born in a fishing community on the Tyrone-Derry border in 1938, where he played for a small GAA club, Kinturk, which is no longer there.
His description of the lure football had for people in his locality speaks to the role the sport occupies in the lives of so many.
“There was nothing else really. Football was it. It was the social scene at the time.”
This social scene was very popular in Tyrone and it turned out that Ryan had a knack for it. A few weeks after lining out for the county minors, he was a sub on the senior team, who themselves were just a few weeks removed from a heartbreaking All-Ireland final defeat to Louth.
At just 17, Ryan enjoyed a magical few months with his county, winning the McKenna Cup, a Lagan Cup medal and the Gaelic Weekly Cup.
A long, prosperous career as an inter-county forward beckoned as Tyrone looked to go one step further in 1958 – but Ryan dropped it all and changed his life with one decision.
“For the life of me I don't know why I went to New York,” he says.
“I was top of the world with regards to football and that was the social scene. I went out in February of 1958. I thought I'd come back in a year or so but that never materialized.
“I was so, so lucky. Think about all the people who played for Tyrone for 15-20 years and didn't win anything. Here I was playing for them for half a year and I won all that.”
Ryan’s story is ostensibly about Gaelic football but you lose yourself when he starts telling tales of New York City in the 60s.
Living in Brooklyn, working in Harlem.
Fighting fires with the New York Fire Department by day, playing football by night.
Ryan joined the NYFD in 1964
When Ryan tells his story, he frequently offers asides that serve as illuminating footnotes to not just his own tale, but society in general at the time.
Like when he mentions how he started playing with a Tyrone football team out in New York, which had been revived after a few years of inactivity:
"They had been disbanded due to a lack of players, a lot of them had been conscripted to fight in the Korean war."
Or when he tells you how he narrowly avoided being drafted himself, with the Vietnam War on the horizon:
“You couldn't believe this, I was so lucky – my draft status was 1A so I was liable to be called at any time. I was 1A for a year and a half and the time was getting close to when I would have been called but then President Kennedy came in and changed the law and said married men didn't have to go. That saved me - President Kennedy came to my rescue.”
There was nowhere on earth more interesting at that time to live than the United States of America, and remarkably, Ryan had a foot in both worlds, working in the melting pot of Harlem with the New York Fire Department while also eventually representing New York in Gaelic football.
There were great days on the pitch, like marking Mick O’Dywer in 1959 and winning league titles in 1964 and 1967 – but lasting life experiences came with the fifth division of the 16th battalion.
To join the New York Fire Department, you had to be an American citizen and be under the age of 27.
Luckily for Ryan, in 1964 he was both, having been in New York for five years, and thus, became one of only five Irishmen in the fire service at the time after nailing the intake exam.
He loved everything about the job – the danger, the fitness it required, the camaraderie.
“I've a son who works as a solicitor - if he had turned around and said he wanted to go over and join the fire department then I would have gone back with him,” he says.
A knee injury ended two of his careers – as a fireman and a footballer – and in an ironic twist, it was at the site of the old Polo Grounds, where many great New York GAA clashes had taken place, where he needed to be pulled from a burning building after his knee went out from under him.
“I probably would have been okay to continue but the city was in dire financial straits at the time and they were shipping fellas out because the state rather than New York City was picking up the bills," Ryan said.
So with that, he returned home to Ireland, eventually settling in Derry where he opened a pub.
That professional life was just a guise for his true passion though. Within a few years of coming back, Ryan has already established his coaching credentials, guiding Ballinderry to three straight Derry county titles as well as an Ulster championship in 1982.
He has been on the coaching staff ever since.
“Like a mascot,” he says with a laugh.
If his stint with Ballinderry got people’s curiosity, it was with Queen’s where he got their attention.
Ryan took over the Belfast college in 1990, leading the university to a coveted Sigerson Cup title in his first season and to another final in his third.
He stepped away for a few years only to return and lead them to glory again in 2000. It was in his second spell that he came in contact with numerous players who would help shape the direction of Gaelic football for a decade.
McNulty and O’Rourke were just two (McGeeney was from his first spell) – Tom Brewster was a key man on the Fermanagh team that reached an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 while Philip Jordan may well be the perfect case study to illustrate Ryan’s effectiveness.
The eventual four-time All Star and triple All-Ireland champion arrived at Queen’s having been a nonentity at minor and U21 level.
After being pitched into the first team at Queen’s for a challenge game against the Ulster provincial side, Jordan grew into one of the best wing backs of all time.
"I played under Dessie for about five months and I learned more about the game in those five months than I did for the rest of my career. Without Dessie I would never have played county football. He was the man who taught me everything," Jordan told the Irish News in 2014.
Without sitting in on one of Ryan’s training sessions, it is hard to know exactly how he went about moulding a generation of footballers, but just like when he explored his time in New York, his frequent football digressions offer a whole pile of insight.
Philip Jordan won four All Stars and three All-Irelands with Tyrone after working with Ryan
At one stage, Ryan refers to a study done in Australia about the importance of efficient kickpassing in Australian Rules - before launching into an unprompted reading of its finer points.
Some of his answers to questions aimed at establishing a timeline of his career begin to drift into the aforementioned Mr Miyagi territory, as he drops hints about the sort of advice he dispensed to players that have them referring to his brilliance over 15 years later.
“There is a three to four yard difference between reaction and anticipation - if you can anticipate the flight of the ball then you can be 80-90% sure that it is going to break a certain way.”
Ryan’s training sessions were famous for regularly lasting for over three hours. The players at Queens could start things off at 2pm and were still being coached on the finer points of 1 vs 1s with the goalkeeper at 5.30pm.
Sessions would start with the coaching of isolated skills, then move on to a run to maintain fitness levels before rounding off with a game where the earlier theory could be put into practice.
Ryan’s sessions were so informative that even after he graduated – both from Queen’s and from Sigerson Cup to inter-county football – Kieran McGeeney used to drop in from time to time.
“Ah, that is true, Kieran was something else,” Ryan says.
“He came back up and at first it was to say hello to the boys but then he started coming to train. Nobody passed any remarks. He just went out there and joined them, he was another body. My sessions weren’t works of art – they were simple, stuff like breaking ball and catching and turning with the ball.”
Ryan never took an inter-county job outright although he did spend some time on the coaching staff with Tyrone when Art McRory and Eugene McKenna were co-managers.
Whatever about the merits of having two men at the helm, Ryan didn’t think he fit into a three-headed managerial set-up and left after a few months.
Today, he is content with being a sounding board at Ballinderry, still keen to take a player aside to offer some advice on his blocking technique or his kicking mechanics.
Ryan has been involved with Ballinderry since 1980
That undoubtedly keeps his mind sharp, something which his body doesn’t need given his rigorous devotion to athletics.
Remember earlier in the piece when it was mentioned that Ryan’s fitness would put men of half his age to shame?
He won the British Championships a couple of years ago in Birmingham for his age group in the 100, 200 and 400 metres and ran his 100m – over the age of 70 – in 14.09.
He still trains a number of times a week in Derry with his friend and fellow sprinter Patsy Forbes.
"I haven't done it competitively for a while but four or five weeks would leave me competitive,” he says.
“I'm actually going training tomorrow morning at 8.30.
“Not bad for a 77-year-old.”
There’s no better place to finish than with Ryan’s place on that Sunday Tribune list.
How does it feel to be called one of Gaelic football’s most influential people?
In typical Ryan fashion, and in keeping with how he’s told his story throughout the chat, his lengthy answer is far more memorable than any clichéd platitude would have been.
“I mean, when I hear things like that I think again of how lucky I am,” he says.
“I’ll tell you a story. It was 4.30am and we got a call to go out to a building in Harlem when I was with the fire department.
“I never liked getting those calls because the bars closed at 4am and you had people going back to their apartments and trying to cook food at that time. We got there and went inside and pulled out five people.
“They were unconscious from the smoke. I thought I heard a moan but I couldn't see anything else. When we got back outside I just had this feeling. I ran back into the building even though the other firemen were screaming, 'get out, get out'.
“There was a room to the left just as you came in the main door. I felt around in there because I couldn't see very well with the smoke and I found a baby.
“We brought them all to hospital and they all ended up surviving. I don’t really know what made me go back in.”
Ryan says it was luck that brought him back into that building. Luck that saved the baby’s life. Luck that saw him win three trophies with Tyrone and luck that he got into the fire department in the first place and gave him such wonderful players at his disposal at Queen's.
He might well be the luckiest man in the world. Either that, or the Sunday Tribune were a damn good judge of character.