Denis Coughlan on Christy Ring: ‘He was very upset. He went pale when the hurley broke’

Denis Coughlan on Christy Ring: ‘He was very upset. He went pale when the hurley broke’

GLEN MEN: Ring and his Glen colleague and friend, Denis Coughlan. “He meant the world to me, he really did,” Coughlan says now.

When I was a child, people like Jack Lynch and Christy Ring were gods.

I remember Garvey’s Bridge, it was halfway between Blackpool and where the old Glen Rovers pitch used to be — in the country, really.

Some of us, when we were boys, would go up there on summer evenings and we used to wait under the bridge just to see the senior Glen players coming up. They would walk up or cycle up to the pitch to train.

In fact, Christy Ring was the only person with a car, mainly because he was living in Cloyne at the time and it was the only way he could get to training. His car was an old Ford Anglia. So, he might leave his car in Blackpool and then walk up with another player — all the players would make their way up the hill to the Glen field in twos or threes.

And myself and my friends used to ask them if we could carry their hurleys up to the pitch. I’m sure they were embarrassed by this — I know I would’ve been embarrassed when I became a senior hurler — but we did it anyway and they humoured us.

It was a big treat — that’s how innocent children were those days. And then we used to go behind the goals while they were training and hit the ball back out to them.

Shy

Of course, Christy Ring was the foremost hurler at that time, not only in the Glen, not only in Cork but in Ireland, so you had to be very brave to ask Christy to carry his hurley. But that was only because we were shy of him — it wasn’t anything to do with him — it was our shyness.

When I did get to know him, years later, I realised that he was a very shy person. If you didn’t know him, he could appear aloof or haughty, but in reality it was shyness. Christy used to talk about himself in the third person but it was in no way egotistical, it was just a habit he had.

My relationship with Christy changed in 1972 in unusual circumstances. That year I was playing with the Cork hurlers and we were in the Munster final against Clare. And on the Friday before the match, I pulled into the garage at the top of the Monahan Road to get petrol. And Christy was in the garage before me getting petrol as well. It was around one o’clock in the day. He had a red Cortina at the time, 25 DRI.

While we were both getting petrol, he said to me, ‘What kind of a hurley do you have for Sunday?’ And for some strange reason, I had my hurley in the boot of my car. This was unusual because I was very finicky about my hurleys. I minded them religiously and I wouldn’t have my good hurley in the car for love nor money in case anything happened to it — my hurleys were that important to me.

I said, ‘Here, I’ll show you,’ and I took my hurley out of the boot and handed it to him. And whatever he did to the hurley, he broke it in half.

His own hurleys were heavy as far as I remember and strong whereas my one was light — I preferred them light — and he must have misjudged its strength. I think he might have been testing the spring or something, but whatever he did, the hurley ended up in bits.

‘Christy!’ I said, in shock. ‘What are you after doing?’ This was three days before a Munster final, remember. And as soon as I spoke, I regretted what I’d said. He was very upset, I could see it in him. He went pale when the hurley broke.

‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he said, the two bits of the hurley in his hands. ‘No, of course I won’t,’ I said, shame-faced.

‘Do you know what you’ll do?’ Christy said. ‘Go on away home and have your dinner and I’ll sort this out.’ I said I couldn’t, that I’d have go and get a hurley for the match straightaway. I used to get my hurleys handmade to my own specification by a Mr McCarthy in Glanmire.

Coincidently he used to make Christy’s hurleys too, but Christy wasn’t playing any more by ’72.

Now, Mr McCarthy used to make only 10 or so hurleys a year so I thought I wouldn’t have a hope of getting a good one in time for Sunday — a total disaster.

‘Go on away,’ says Christy, ‘Go down home and then back to work and I’ll call to your office at four o’clock and I’ll have a new hurley you can use on Sunday.’

I didn’t have the heart to contradict him, so I drove home to Blackrock and Margaret was there with my dinner ready. I told her I couldn’t eat anything, I would just have a glass of milk.

I told her I had to leave immediately to go straight down to Glanmire and get a new hurley because I broke my own and I needed to get a replacement.

So, I went back out the front door and who was standing there only Christy. ‘I thought I told you to stay at home and have your dinner and I would bring your hurley to your office at four o’clock?’ says he.

Didn’t he follow me home without me knowing it. He knew I wasn’t going to do what I was told and I got caught. Now, when Christy Ring told you to do something related to hurling, you did it.

I had no choice but to nod and go back into the house, and eat a meal I didn’t have the stomach for.

But he was as good as his word and at four o’clock, he arrived into my office with a hurley identical to the ones that I always used.

It was perfect, in fairness. Panic over.

‘There you are, now,’ says he. ‘That will bring you luck on Sunday.’ And I said thanks very much and I was very grateful.

Generally, Christy was a very soft-spoken man, but in the context of hurling, in the dressing-room — where I got to know him very well for the Glen and for Cork — he could come alive, especially if things weren’t going well. I remember many memorable speeches he gave in dressing-rooms but the one that had most impact on me and the team was at half-time at the Munster final against Clare in 1977.

In 1975, Christy was involved with Cork as a selector. This was the first time many Cork players from clubs like St Finbarr’s and Blackrock had any close-up experience of Christy Ring the man, and not Christy Ring the legend.

The only interaction they would have had with him before that was in playing against the Glen — having Christy as an opponent, which was no easy task. So, a lot of those men got to know Christy between 1975 and ’79.

And I think it brought Christy out of himself too, because he enjoyed the training; he enjoyed working with different players with different skills, from different backgrounds and different clubs.

He enjoyed the matches and — most of all — he enjoyed Cork winning All-Irelands. And we enjoyed having him there and we all learned so much from him.

I remember my father taking me into MacCurtain Street — it used to be called King Street — when Cork came back after the three-in-a-row in 1954, on the day after Christy Ring had won his eighth All-Ireland medal.

I was nine-years-old at the time.

The place was packed — thronged. As a child I had never seen anything like it. The excitement, the joy, the anticipation. The word went up… ‘The lorry is coming! The lorry is coming!’ And as the truck passed, I could see the cup and the players waving. And there was Christy Ring, suddenly, looking right down at me. At me. I know he was looking at everybody, but he actually looked straight at me. I have no doubt about it, to this very day.

‘Christy Ring looked at me, Dad,’ I said. ‘He looked at me.’ And my father smiled.

‘Christy Ring looked at me,’ I told my mother, when I got in home. And I never thought in my wildest dreams — never — that I would go on to know Christy Ring and to play with him and to later call myself his friend. He meant the world to me, he really did.

When Christy died on the 2nd of March 1979, it was like the light had gone out of that world. What was the point of a world without Christy Ring, anyway?

But thinking about a world without Christy Ring isn’t the way to look at it, at all. The way to look at it is how blessed we were to have ever had him in our world. And how amazing it was to have lived in a world where such a wonder as Christy Ring was possible, imaginable, let alone true.

In a world like that, anything was possible. Everything was possible.

- Adapted from the acclaimed Denis Coughlan autobiography, Everything, published by Hero Books (print €20.00/ebook €9.99) and available in all good book shops and online at Amazon, Apple and all digital stores.

- You can purchase the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication to mark the centenary of Christy Ring's birth with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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