Saturday 14 December 2019

Flashback 1979: death of Cork hurling legend Christy Ring

This weekend 37 years ago, Cork hurling legend Christy Ring passed away at the age of 58

Christy Ring. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Christy Ring. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

Ger Siggins

Christy Ring, perhaps hurling's greatest exponent, died on a quiet city centre street in Cork one Friday afternoon 37 years ago. For a man whose greatest days were witnessed by tens of thousands and followed by millions, he slipped away in the presence of a passing schoolteacher, Patricia Horgan, who had seen him fall and whispered an act of contrition in his ear.

'Ringy' was just 58 years old, and his death was a great shock to many, not least the Taoiseach of the day, who had soldiered alongside him on many of his greatest days for Cork. Jack Lynch told the Irish Independent that night: "He was regarded as the best hurler of all time, although that might be regarded as arguable depending in what county you come from, but for me he was the greatest. It was a privilege and honour to play with him and to be his friend."

That report told readers that "the greatest hurler of all time" was dead. Ring truly had a remarkable career, starting for Cork minors at 16 in 1935, and making his senior debut in the 1939-40 national league. The next 24 years saw him collect eight All-Ireland winners' medals, nine Munster championships, and three in the league. The inter-provincial Railway Cup was a much bigger deal in those days, and Ring played on 18 victorious Munster sides. He retired at the start of the 1964 season when the Cork selectors omitted him, aged 43. He estimated he had played over 1,200 games in his 26-year career.

He stayed in the sport and became a Cork selector, and his role on the sideline was acknowledged as crucial as the county compiled a three-in-a-row. The 1978 final win over Kilkenny turned out to be his last visit to Croke Park.

Ring rarely spoke to the media, saying, "All my talking was done on the field with a hurley", but three weeks before his death he recorded an interview with Donncha Ó Dulaing of RTÉ in which he talked about his career and the many stories that sprang up around him.

One concerned a journey to a Munster final with two teammates, when they met a woman who produced a bottle. She sprinkled holy water on the other two, telling Christy: "Ringy, you don't need any of this!"

In the Irish Independent, Dick Cross wrote that the scenes at his removal and funeral were unprecedented in Cork "since the death of the martyr Lord Mayor Tomas Mac Curtain". Sports writer Raymond Smith painted the scene: "Christy Ring, the undisputed genius of three decades of competitive hurling, yesterday drew the crowds for the last time. But never did they turn out in such spontaneous tribute as they did for the final, sad procession as the nation's super hurler went back to the soil of his native Cloyne."

His coffin was draped in the colours of his club Glen Rovers, and mourners came from far and wide, including New York GAA patriarch, John Kerry O'Donnell. Foes from the fields were there too, a who's who of the game in the 20th century such as Tommy Doyle, Theo English and Tony Reddin of Tipperary; Mick Mackey (Limerick); Christy Hayes and Snitchy Ferguson from Dublin; Paddy Grace and Eddie Keher (Kilkenny); and Jim English and Bobby Rackard (Wexford).

The Taoiseach delivered an emotional eulogy.

"As a hurler he had no peer," said Mr Lynch. "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."

His final journey was on the shoulders of his teammates, one of whom, Paddy Barry, said "We carried him at last".

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