Analysis: perhaps the Corkman's greatest achievement is the regard with which he was held beyond the county
As long as there is hurling, there will be arguments over who is the greatest hurler. As long as these arguments happen, Christy Ring of Glen Rovers and Cork will be mentioned. However, the constant homages to Ring goes against the nature of the man himself, the game's reluctant superstar.
Ring established himself as the greatest hurler of the modern age during an extraordinary career that stretched over an astonishing 25 years. Known locally as the rock of Cloyne, he joined Glen Rovers in 1941 and played well into his forties. His first taste of Croke Park was with the Cork minors in 1938 and his final appearance there was with the county seniors in 1963.
From RTÉ Archives, Mick Dunne pays tribute to the Cork hurler in 1979's Christy Ring An Appreciation
Ring won all the top awards in hurling and set many records. His roll of honour includes eight All-Ireland senior hurling medals, nine Munster titles, four National Leagues and 18 interprovincial Railway Cup medals with Munster. He captained Cork in three All-Ireland finals and was the first player to receive the Liam McCarthy Cup three times. 1954 was Ring's most successful year of all as he captained Cork to All-Ireland success and won his eighth All-Ireland medal. The record has since been set by Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin whose 10th All-Ireland medal in 2014 saw him become the single player with the most senior medals.
Aside from the impressive statistics of his career, perhaps Ring’s greatest achievement is the regard with which he was held at a national level. Any skillful player can be revered amoungst their own supporters, but it takes an exceptional individual to be admired and celebrated by GAA fans around the country. Ring was even invited to line out for Limerick in Gaelic Park in New York in 1966 where he led them to victory with a personal tally of 2-3 (Irish Times, May 23, 1966). After Wexford beat Cork in 1956 All-Ireland final, Ring was gallantly carried off the field by his opponents. A real tribute to his stature and performance that is scarcely seen on today’s hurling fields.
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Christy Ring demonstrates the skills of hurling
The excitement surrounding Ring was not necessarily welcomed by the player himself. A timid character, he shunned publicity and often refused to be interviewed (Irish Times, March 10, 1979). At the height of his career, two busloads of Kilkenny fans visiting Cork stopped outside Ring’s house in the hope that Ireland’s most famous hurler would greet them, but Ring's natural shyness overcome him and he could not face such an ordeal (Irish Times, June 10, 1950).
In 1963, when the Sunday Press decided to publish his life story, Ring wrote a letter stating that they did not have his permission to do so (Irish Times, December 11, 1963). It seems many were as reluctant to ignore Ring’s wishes as much as he was reluctant to engage in their enthusiasm.
"A colossus", "a total outlier", "the ultimate hurling icon" - this Thursday on @RTEOne Christy Ring: Man and Ball takes a magnifying glass to one of the most majestically gifted sportspeople Ireland has ever produced #RTEgaa pic.twitter.com/ooimZT9Tew— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) December 14, 2020
Inevitably, with personal success comes difficulty and envy from rivals. After Cork’s All-Ireland win over Galway in 1954, Ring was assaulted at the team banquet in the Gresham Hotel. He was 'struck by a member of the Galway team and thrown down steps in the presents of other guests’. The following morning, he was ‘violently assaulted and injured by another member of the Galway team’ in the hotel again. The Chairman of the Cork County Board condemned the attacks and also the insistent booing of Ring by the Galway crowd during the game as he took frees (Irish Times, September 10, 1953).
Ring died suddenly on March 2nd 1979 at the age of 58. People lined the roads along the 20 mile stretch from Ballinlough to Cloyne to show their respects. Taoiseach and former teammate Jack Lynch gave the graveside oration and spoke of Ring’s genius and prowess on the hurling field. "Men who are fathers and grandfathers now will tell their children and grandchildren that they saw Christy Ring play. The story will pass from generation to generation, and so it will live." (Irish Times, March 5, 1979).
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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on the unveiling of a sculpture of Christy Ring in his hometown of Cloyne in 1983
These words were realized as Ring’s legendary status still lives on through his inclusion in the GAA Team of the Millennium. The Cork county ground Páirc Uí Rinn, a bridge in the city and the third tier intercountry hurling championship are named in his honour.
Three years after his death, £65,000 was collected by admirers of Ring, some of which was spent on a statue in Cloyne. The sculpture was erected in what was the site of his own home in Co Cork, at the entrance to the GAA field where he perfected his hurling skills. A second statue was unveiled more recently at Cork Airport, with calls for it to be relocated to a more appropriate location outside the renovated Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Unquestionably, Ring had an astounding career. A remarkable hurler immortalized in many different ways. He was a hesitant luminary in the GAA spotlight, but he still retains much attention in hurling circles because of his immaculate and wondrous skills on the field.
The documentary Christy Ring: Man and Ball will be broadcast on RTÉ One on Thursday December 17th at 10.15pm
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ