‘It’s not overstating to liken it to the Kennedy assassination in terms of its impact on the city’

A city stunned, a Taoiseach shocked, and the greatest one-liner ever at an Irish sporting funeral. Michael Moynihan revisits the passing of Christy Ring, 40 years ago today.

When Christy Ring passed away unexpectedly on Morrison’s Island on March 2, 1979, the news rippled out across Cork city and county almost immediately.

Mobile phones and social media were still confined to science fiction, but an event on this scale went viral long before the concept even existed.

The signs were visible all over Cork.

Those alighting from the Dublin trains in Kent Station remarked upon the silence, and the small knots of people discussing the news quietly, while one man travelling in the opposite direction summed up the reaction on Leeside.

Then Taoiseach and a long-time teammate of Ring’s with Glen Rovers and Cork, Jack Lynch was heading to Dublin in his state car when he stopped for an Evening Echo near the Coliseum.

“Did you hear the news?” the Echo seller asked Lynch. “Ring is dead.” Shocked, Lynch said: “It can’t be,” and slumped back in his seat.

The experience of Jerry O’Sullivan in Ring’s home place of Cloyne was more typical.

“I was chairman of Cloyne for 16 years, and I played for the club in every one of those years,” says O’Sullivan. “1979 included.”

He continued: “It was a Friday evening and we didn’t have a phone at home at the time, the same as a lot of people then. A neighbour of ours had a business, and a phone, and he called me down to the house for a call around 5pm. Christy had died.”

Dr Con Murphy had spent the previous three summers sitting next to Ring in the Cork senior hurlers’ dugout, getting an accelerated PhD in hurling as the Rebels collected three All-Irelands in a row.

“I was at home and got a call to tell me. The first person I rang was Denis Coughlan, and he couldn’t believe it. Neither could I.

It’s not overstating it, certainly, to liken it to the Kennedy assassination in terms of its impact on the city. Everywhere you went for those couple of days, you’d see people in twos and threes talking in hushed voices.

“And you knew that there was only one subject they were talking about.”

Back in Cloyne that Friday, however, Jerry O’Sullivan had a difficult call to make at a time when communications were far more primitive:

“This was when club dinners were the event of every club’s calendar, and ours was on the same evening in the Garryvoe Hotel.

“We were left with a situation where if we wanted to cancel it, we’d have to contact 150 or 200 people, a tall order at a time when there was no social media or mobile phones. Everything was by word of mouth.

“We made the decision to go ahead with it, and it was an absolute disaster, obviously. People had the dinner and a few might have had a drink, but the bad news was all that was on anyone’s mind. We scattered early enough and headed home.”

The funeral was one of the biggest in the history of Cork, on a par with those for Lord Mayors Terence MacSwiney and Tomas McCurtain, who were buried in 1920, the year Ring was born.

It’s striking to think that there were people at Ring’s funeral who also attended the ceremonies 59 years previously. The crowd was variously estimated as between 50,000 and 60,000 people, on a par with the attendance at those sulphurous Cork-Tipperary games Ring starred in during the early 60s.

The roads from the city to Cloyne were clogged for most of the day: what was usually a half-hour jaunt eastwards became a three-hour odyssey for many.

“From my memory the funeral was mainly organised by the Glen and the county board,” says O’Sullivan.

“Our involvement was really a matter of helping out in Cloyne, but there were plenty of arrangements to be made, because even though we expected a big crowd, obviously, I’ve never seen anything like the crowd that was there before or since.

It took hours to get to the village from the city, and members of the club went to the outskirts to meet the cortege, and different teams of people carried him to the cemetery. It was a remarkable event, but he was a remarkable man.

The men who had opposed Ring on playing fields all over Ireland were sprinkled throughout the crowd.

“It was amazing to see all these great players there in Cloyne that day,” says O’Sullivan.

“To a lot of us they were really only names. With the crowd that the funeral drew you had people from all walks of life in the village, from Jack Lynch down, but the former players really caught my eye.

“Now, they had gone well past their playing days at that time, they were in their ordinary clothes, but you’re talking about absolute legends of the game. Mick Mackey, Mickey Byrne, Jackie Power, all of them mourning just the same as everybody else.”

Christy Ring’s coffin is lowered down on March 4 1979 in Cloyne, Co. Cork.
Christy Ring’s coffin is lowered down on March 4 1979 in Cloyne, Co. Cork.

Dr Con Murphy went to the funeral down in Cloyne with Cork full-back Martin O’Doherty: “At the graveside I ended up standing next to Mick Mackey. It was that kind of day.” (Murphy couldn’t resist the opportunity that presented itself, asking the Limerick legend what Ring had said to him in the famous photo of the two of them taken in 1957: “I couldn’t tell you that,” said Mackey. “I’m not sure he remembered,” says Murphy.)

“It was massive,” adds the medic. “The crowds were unbelievable. Jack Lynch’s oration, of course, was what you’d remember.”

O’Sullivan agrees with the diagnosis: Lynch’s emotional address ended with the famous words: “As long as hurling is played, the story of Christy Ring will be told. And that will be forever.”

“It was magnificent, absolutely,” says O’Sullivan.

“But there was also real sadness in the air when the coffin was lowered into the grave. I know you could say ‘it’s a funeral, what else would you expect?’ but this was different. You could feel it in the atmosphere, the sense of sadness and shock.”

Ring had remained a regular visitor to his home place, which didn’t lessen the sense of shock, adds O’Sullivan: “He came down to Cloyne every weekend, to the home place, and he’d drop into the hurling field and play away with anyone who was there, young and old.

Whether you were 10 years old or 30, you were treated the same when you were on the field pucking around with him, he didn’t spare anyone, certainly.

In sporting terms he was a huge loss to Cork going for four All-Irelands in a row, says Murphy.

“He didn’t speak that much in the dressing room, but when he did he was inspiring. And his presence alone was inspiring.”

Only a few months earlier, Ring had shown his worth, if that were needed, with an exercise in practical psychology to help a Cork team facing a third All-Ireland final in a row.

“We were in the old dressing rooms in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few nights before the final against Kilkenny,” says Murphy.

“The team were edgy enough, the pressure was building.

“Ring spoke, and being honest, it was the first time we really heard him speak at length, and he talked about visualisation.

“That was a very new idea at the time, but he broke it down for the players. He spoke about his playing days, and how he’d envision everything the week of a big match — togging out in the dressing room, the parade around the field, all of that, so he’d be calm when it came time to play the actual mach itself. Then he described the goal he got against Kilkenny in the 1946 All-Ireland final. In detail, the raindrops falling off the net when the ball hit it. All of that gave the team a huge boost.”

However, Murphy points out that the sense of a man who represented all of Cork tends to obscure the loss experienced by his family.

“I think we forget that. Rita, his widow, passed away last week, almost 40 years after losing her husband.

“Ring was such a legendary figure to the entire county — to everyone who followed hurling, really — that that was lost at the time, maybe.

To me he was Cork’s most iconic sportsman, the best hurler ever, and a hero we thought he’d live forever.

“But there was also a house that was without a husband and a father at the end of that day, never mind the sports side of things.

“He was a family man, after all.”

Later in 1979, Jack Lynch resigned as Taoiseach, with one historian linking his departure to the shock of Ring’s unexpected death.

Cork lost the 1979 All-Ireland to Galway and wouldn’t win another title until 1984.

Christy Ring with wife Rita, and children Christy Jnr. and Mary. Rita passed away last month.
Christy Ring with wife Rita, and children Christy Jnr. and Mary. Rita passed away last month.

Could Ring’s loss have had that much impact?

One of his pallbearers, the great Sars and Cork hurler Paddy Barry, had the line at the funeral which still echoes down the decades.

“We carried him at last.”

A giant amongst men

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

– Extract from Jack Lynch’s eulogy

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