Christy Ring: The legend in art and in verse

Statues in Cloyne and Cork Airport, a stadium and a city bridge all honour the memory of Christy Ring. Poetry in motion, they said.
Christy Ring: The legend in art and in verse

Christy Ring and American actress Jean Seberg at the Cork Film Festival in 1959.

Christy Ring’s fame was amplified in his own time by press reports and popular ballads, and he still reaches down the decades to artists today.

Two Cork poets of different generations have paid tribute to the hurler: Billy Ramsell’s ‘Lament For Christy Ring’ is a neat counterpoint to Theo Dorgan’s ‘And Did You Once See Shelley Playin?’.

The latter saw Ring take the field late in his career, however. Ramsell was born a decade after Ring’s retirement. Doesn’t that make him a distant figure?

“He is, but I think one thing to remember is that there are images of him, and film of him,” says Ramsell.

“I remember being at a match in Croke Park around 2005 and they showed some of the footage from the film made about Ring down in the Mardyke on a continuous loop in the GAA Museum. It was the first time I’d seen it and I was very taken by it.

“Outside of that, though, there’s not a whole lot of material. I’d think of someone like Puskas, the Hungarian footballer, another person on the cusp of the televisual age.

The fact that there’s not a vast amount of film makes their fame more word-of-mouth — your Dad or your uncle tells you about them, and in Ring’s case it’s ‘no matter what hurlers we have now they wouldn’t be fit to tie Ring’s shoelaces’, that kind of thing. I think that makes the legend all the greater.

“To me that kind of retelling makes it more powerful rather than less powerful.”

The influence of older figures resonates with Theo Dorgan also. In fact, so does the entire experience of seeing Ring in action down at the old Cork Athletic Grounds.

“Before you’d ever have seen him you’d have heard of him. As a child under the table, as it were, you heard the adults talking about people, and he had the same status as a character in a story.

“Then you see him in the flesh, though like most people I would have mostly seen him on film. But he’s in the zone of the imagination.

“Now, Cuchulainn is a fairly tired notion in Irish poetry at this stage, but at the time Ring had that same legendary or mythic status — and then you see him and he’s an old boy, though still playing away.

“I can remember being down the old Park with my Dad one time for a Cork-Tipperary game and he called me, and this Tipp lad said to me, ‘are you anything to Theo English?’ — and me, aged 8, disgusted, saying, ‘Theo is my first name’.

“But incidents like that, the voices and the accents, the rustle of the blue paper around the orange you’d get from the stall going in … that all fed the imagination. And these fellas were all out there in the field of the imagination.”

When it comes to the poems themselves, each has a different starting point, obviously enough.

“Going back to around 2011, I was spending a lot of time visiting my girlfriend, now wife, in Galway,” says Ramsell.

“We often ended up in a pub called The Bunch of Grapes there.

“As you go down the stairs in the pub, you pass a painting of two hurlers and it’s an amazing image, very impressionistic, that really stuck with me. It catches the speed and motion of a game of hurling, and I think it’s Cork and Tipperary players in the picture.

“Around the same time, I heard Sean Ó Tuama’s Irish language poem Christy Ring recited by Professor Joe Lee, and that combined with the painting in Galway in my mind.”

A third factor was also significant, as Ramsell’s interest in sport threw up an interesting milestone.

“In school in the Mon, I was one of the lads doing laps and laps of cross-country running until about fifth year, when I started listening to The Smiths and The Doors.

“But around the turn of the last decade, I became aware that players of my own generation, like Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Donal Óg Cusack, Ben and Jerry O’Connor, Joe Deane — they were passing out of their own prime and into legend. 

“When athletes your own age start to move on like that, you get a real twinge of mortality, as opposed to seeing older athletes retire. When those three things came together, the goal was just to capture something of the spirit and beauty of Cork hurling as exemplified by Ring.”

Ring’s status in the city and county as a whole was a spark for Dorgan.

“Ring would have been in the air as a presence for us — going to the North Mon, the hurling, all that — but there’s another question worth asking here.

How many really mythic figures do we produce? Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney would be along those lines, but in fairness they’re probably vague enough figures to people in a lot of ways a century after they died.

“Ring, on the other hand, would have been seen in his time by thousands of people and would have entered the folklore. And we keep an eye to the slow clock of history in Blackpool, as a man said once.”

Of course, Blackpool keeps an eye on a lot of other things as well, laughs Dorgan.

“I picked the title because it comes from a Robert Browning poem, ‘And Did You Once See Shelley Plain’, in which someone is asked if they actually met the poet Shelley, this huge figure in English literature.

“But years later, I was told that a guy nicknamed Shelley (William Hyland) actually played for the Glen, back in the ’20s and ’30s. And as usual, it was some fella said it to me — ‘hey, that was very clever the way you got Shelley into that poem, fair play’.

“I didn’t know that when I wrote it. But I accepted the compliment anyway.”

Lament for Christy Ring.

By Billy Ramsell

(to my father)

Aboriginal, electrical, 

his great bulging eye

amid the stadium’s temper

amid the furies and exultations of the great-coated stands, 

as he lopes in a bull’s diagonal goalward.

Improbable balance

 of ball on broad bas, 

on his stick of ashy liquidity

that’s rippling, eel-flexible, alive.

And now his body it is liquid too,

an impressionist version of itself

as he slights the wall of three defenders,

pours himself through some improbable gap

and on the other side resolidifies.

Is it only in his own mind

 the underwater silence for his backswing,

 for his shape’s familiar coil into potential, 

for the glance, the pull and the connection?

And the cork-hearted ball

becomes nothing at all,

is too nimble, too cute for the eye

and the goalkeeper’s beaten, 

and Clare and Tipp and Kilkenny are beaten

and the terraces inhale themselves

and the air is vibrating in shock and in awe.

Patricia Horgan’s was the last face he saw.

She stepped out for the messages

and walked into history.

She went to buy butter

and became a minor character.

His chest clenched, clenched and accelerated,

bucked and ratcheted,

in the eye of the forming throng

as he flopped there watching

behind her cow-eyed gentle expression

the usual mergers of cumulus, a crow,

and the gulls at their shrill affairs over Morrison’s Island

until the clouds themselves clouded over.

She said:

Ní fhéadfá an fear sin a adhlacadh, 

Mór an peaca an fear sin a adhlacadh.

You couldn’t bury that man.

It’d be a sin to bury that man.

And to this day I still can’t bury Christy Ring.

We’ll carry his washed and scented remains,

in procession, by candlelight, by handheld electric light,

from the cemetery at Cloyne

to an undisclosed location in the Midlands, 

shoulder him into a mossed-over dome, 

to the burial room

through the long corbelled tunnel, 

and in that chamber of must and slow-tutting stones

lay him out on a bier of amethyst

that’s been carved, 

that’s been perfumed

with palm and with cinnamon.

And on all sides

the surprisingly petite skeletons of our ancestors, 

the priests, the chieftains, 

all the princes of swordplay and laughter:

their careful lines of dowry and cousinship

all merged in a carpet of loam, 

the victories, the enmities rusted, 

and the quarrels, ah the quarrels all gone,

the quarrels all long processed by worms.

Leave him there in that society of bone

and walk back through sock-drenching grasses, 

the spiders and the daisies, watercresses, 

past one particular field of rape outside Edgeworthstown

that stretches in primrose, 

that soaks up the buttery sunlight of late morning, 

that never knew his name to forget it.

And Did You Once See Shelley Playin?

By Theo Dorgan

I saw Cuchulainn in his latter years, 

Great knots of muscle in his shoulders, 

The basilica of his skull in the afternoon.

I saw him drive younger warriors from the field, 

By the fierce power of his eye on the frozen ball, 

His gift for gathering and unleashing force.

He fought each autumn match through a fog of glories, 

Already legend, the air he prowled in doubled, 

And his step doubled with a younger self.

I saw his last matches for the Glen, the young bucks 

Already impatient to sweep him to the heavens 

Where blood and frozen knuckles, 

mud and defeat 

Or victory would fade into remembered youth 

– A child myself

I sensed their insensate cruelty, 

The rightful precise impatience of the young.

Powerful because legend, his powers already fading, 

Each match by then a match with himself only, 

The grammar of ageing played out in the Mardyke mud 

– Christ he was younger than I am now!

My father’s age, who seemed so old to me.

And now so young. 

So it goes on the old parade 

Through sweat and mud and memory, the hero, 

His followers and his fellow warriors 

– Out there on the grass-banked terrace 

A round-eyed child in his own fog of doubt, 

Testing the fix in a spin or words and meanings, 

“That’s him, I’m looking at him, Christy Ring.”

- 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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