Tuesday 21 August 2018

'I love learning about the Easter Rising and the Troubles' - James Ryan inspired by great grandfather and his role in Irish politics

James Ryan
James Ryan

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The mantelpiece in the Ryan family home is beginning to sag under the weight of the medals James is delivering, but up on the wall there is a reminder of another young man of the same name who has his own place in history.

When he was a Leaving Certificate student at St Michael's College, the youngster was tasked with writing a 'special project' for his history exam and he chose to investigate the life of his great-grandfather after whom he was named.

Right now, James Jnr is leading a remarkable life as he takes the rugby world by storm, but his ancestor has set quite a standard as a doctor, a revolutionary, a member of the first Dáil, a founder member of the Volunteers and of Fianna Fáil as well as serving terms as Minister for Finance, Health, Agriculture and Social Welfare during a 42-year career in politics that spanned the early decades of the state.

Since he was five or six, James Jnr has wanted to be a professional rugby player and he is certainly fulfilling that ambition; but when he is not preparing for, and winning, matches he can be found in the UCD library preparing for his history and politics exams in the RDS.

"I love Irish revolutionary history, so I love learning about the Easter Rising and the Troubles," he says of his current studies. "Recently, I was learning about Irish emigration during the Famine and things like that. That was fascinating too. It's mainly Irish history.

"I've a mildish interest (in politics), maybe more than the guys in the changing room because half of them are idiots."

James Ryan’s great-grandfather of the same name along with the other members of the first Dáil – he was a founding member of Fianna Fail and now his descendant is a lynchpin of the all-conquering Leinster pack.
James Ryan’s great-grandfather of the same name along with the other members of the first Dáil – he was a founding member of Fianna Fail and now his descendant is a lynchpin of the all-conquering Leinster pack.

Engaged

The last line was delivered with a smile. Ryan has kept a serious front in his media dealings so far, but slowly but surely the personality behind the winning machine is beginning to emerge.

And rarely was he more engaged during his sit-down with rugby reporters last Monday than when he was asked about the star of the family tree.

"He was one of the founding members of Fianna Fáil, fought in the Rising," he says of his great grandfather.

"I did my Leaving Cert project on him, I was always aware of it growing up, my family are very proud of their history so it was definitely something I was conscious of.

"There's a photo of him with the other members of the first Dáil in my house, I think it's in all my relations' houses, and some of the medals he got during the war are in my uncle's house. He's certainly someone that we're all aware of and proud of.

"I think the Ryan family was kind of divided right down the middle in terms of pro and anti-Treaty, so I think it kind of tore the family apart; split brothers and sisters - I suppose like every other family during the time. I don't know how active he was during the War of Independence, but during the Rising he was certainly quite active.

"He was in the GPO and since he was one of the younger men in the GPO and given the fact that he was a doctor as well, they thought that if the British guards stormed the building they might spare him.

"So, they were kind of telling him the story why the Rising took place and who was a part of it so that if they were all killed and he survived he'd be able to tell that story.

"I always found that fascinating."

On Wikipedia, the entry for the elder Ryan, who died in 1970, runs far longer than his great grandson's, but give it time and he will catch up.

Already, he is a Grand Slam and Champions Cup winner who, remarkably, is yet to lose a senior professional rugby match in 22 attempts.

Standing 6ft 8ins, he is a prototype modern second-row who will achieve great things in the game if his body permits him.

Today, he is part of a Leinster team on the cusp of a unique double and yet he appears to take all of this success in his stride as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

If you want to make him uncomfortable, just bring up his winning record.

"I've lost a lot," he says when he is asked if he'd forgotten what defeat tastes like. "I lost a Senior Cup in my final year in St Michael's, so I know exactly what losing feels like.

"Fear of failure does drive you, definitely. Especially when you're playing at such a top end, you don't want to let the guys beside you down by not showing up, or not knowing your detail or things like that, so it's probably that combined with just winning. That combines to drive you."

He appreciates what he's got all the more because he has seen how opportunity can be taken away cruelly. His twin brother Mark was a promising full-back in his early teenage years, but a pair of cruciate ligament injuries, two collarbone breaks and a wrist injury halted his progress.

"I played my mini rugby in Lansdowne and then I kinda had to stop playing mini rugby when I got to about 12 because St Michael's was taking up two or three training sessions a week plus a match on the weekend, so I had to pick between one or the other, and it was always going to be Michael's," he explains of his early years. "I played with my twin brother Mark, who was a good player in fairness to him. He did his cruciate twice, so I was kind of the lucky one in that sense. My dad (Mark Snr) was a big rugby man. He played for Lansdowne and Leinster.

"So it was always rugby for me growing up. I played a small bit of GAA (in Clonbur, Co Galway), but rugby was the main thing.

"I think the last time I played with Mark, and it was actually pretty cool, was in fifth year, that summer on a rugby trip to Italy, and played with him which was class. They weren't much use but it was cool. Then he unfortunately got injured again.

"We've a nice photo after the game where we were linked with our Michael's jerseys on."

Clonbur is Ryan's sanctuary and his Grand Slam-winning jersey now has pride of place on the wall of his uncle Brendan Lynch's pub on the main street. After the win over England in Twickenham, he made his way west to celebrate.

"It was great. They're so warm and welcoming down there, so it was great to get down and see my family and people that I know. I was with a couple of my mates, so we had a couple of pints and chilled out. It was nice," he says.

"There's a lot of jerseys in the pub up the road, it's called Burke's. There's not a lot of jerseys in my uncle's pub, so I thought maybe I could try to fill the wall a small bit more."

They might want to clear some space, because Ryan is showing no signs of slowing down.

Since he attended St Michael's, he has been marked out as a star of the future and the Ailesbury Road institution was the perfect place to develop his talents.

Sessions

"The environment is really good," he says of the school that doubles up as a factory for producing professionals for Leinster.

"You do your analysis and stuff at lunchtime, doing your gym sessions in the morning and you do your pitch sessions after school. That's similar in some ways to what's going on here so maybe when you make the step up to the Leinster sub-academy or academy you have that experience of that kind of schedule.

"A lot of it is just the same things (as in Leinster), it is just much better now obviously and more detail but it is kind of the building blocks are the same, your analysis, your gym sessions, your pitch sessions. Obviously they are more advanced now. But in some ways they are pretty similar."

Some baulk at the idea of schoolboys doing video analysis and it all sounds very serious, but the 21-year-old relished the chance to better himself and work towards achieving his dream.

"It was never something I looked on as a chore," he says. "It was something you get so much value out of. You know, how do you improve yourself if you're not looking at your mistakes?

"So, it is something that is highlighted in St Michael's and other big rugby schools from a young age. It is definitely a cornerstone of preparation."

In time, he will look back on this season and appreciate all it has brought to him but there are still four games to go and two more trophies to win.

"A Leinster team has never done a double, so that's such a big opportunity, isn't it? Like, how often does that come around?" he says of today's game. Then, another driving factor is guys like Straussy, Jordi and especially Isa... to send those guys off on a high... there's plenty of motivation this week."

Once again, history beckons for a young man named James Ryan living up to his name by carving out his own place in Ireland's sporting lore.

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