The tallest branch on the Ryan family tree

James Ryan squirms at the idea that he might be recognised on civvy street these days.

The tallest branch on the Ryan family tree

Not just that.

He scoffs at the theory that he might shop in Brown Thomas.

“Sure, I won’t get my sizes in there.”

And he offers a quizzical look when it’s suggested he might have missed a trick by trying his hand in the back row.

“Ehm, have you had a look at the stocks in Leinster?”

Dan Leavy likes to joke that the 21-year old phenom sees himself as ‘The Big Cheese’ but the impression of the 6’ 7” second row all season has been one of an unassuming, no-nonsense type who would sooner relax with his Playstation than pose for a picture.

Short thrift has been given to the constant comparisons between him and Paul O’Connell and the prospect of emulating the Munster legend by one day captaining his country elicits the sort of stare that would make a statue go weak at the knees.

That said, it’s a modesty that only stretches so far.

Ryan has no issue with displaying the fruits of his labour. His Grand Slam and Champions Cup medals are perched at home on the mantelpiece. His first Irish jersey sits proudly on a wall in his uncle Brendan’s pub, Lynch’s, in Clonbur, Co. Galway.

It may be that he picked that trait up sub-consciously.

Among the photos hanging up in the family home in Dublin is a black and white shot of 21 men in the sort of smart attire that screams early 20th century. Just to the right of centre in the middle row is a young man with impeccable hair and a pleasant smile.

That man is Dr James Ryan, a member of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, medical officer for the GPO garrison in the 1916 Rising and one of 105 successful Irish candidates in the 1918 general election campaign.

Oh, and great-grandfather to the James Ryan who plays for Leinster.

Dr James Ryan, member of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, medical officer for the GPO garrison in the 1916 Rising.
Dr James Ryan, member of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, medical officer for the GPO garrison in the 1916 Rising.

The building to the rear of shot is the Mansion House in Dublin. The date is January 22nd, 1919 and the occasion is the very first meeting of Dáil Éireann in the wake of the decision by the majority of MPs on this island to shun their seats in Westminster.

Today’s James Ryan has always been aware of the illustrious family past so it seems perfectly natural that he should be juggling his professional playing career with studies at UCD where he is taking politics and history.

The latter is proving much more to his liking.

“I’ve a mildish interest,” he says with a smile when asked if politics stirs him, “maybe more than the guys in the changing room because half of them are idiots.”

The story of Irish emigration and the famine fascinates him but it is this country’s revolutionary history that really strikes home.

So much so that he undertook a history project on his renowned forebearer during his Leaving Cert days.

Dr Ryan studied and practised medicine, he also ran the large family farm back in Tomcoole in Wexford where the Ryans had a long and distinguished presence and he was central to this country’s independence movement and its politics.

Interred by the British in Stafford Jail and Frongoch after the Easter Rising, and Spike Island and Beare Island during the War of Independence, he was locked up again, this time by former comrades, in both Mountjoy and The Curragh, during the Civil War.

No surprise then that he was a founding member of Fianna Fail.

A long-time Minister for Agriculture, he held similar positions in Health, Social Welfare and Finance and his posts seemed to coincide with matters of huge historical import: from the Economic War with Britain in the ‘30s to Sean Lemass’ economic reforms a generation later.

A spell as a Senator followed, until a year before his death in 1970, and his son Eoin Sr and grandson Eoin Jr both followed him into the Seanad. His great grandson even managed to learn something new when he rummaged through the archives in sixth year.

“He was in the GPO (in 1916) 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.”

Dr Ryan gave aid to IRA men who were shelled by pro-Treaty forces in the Four Courts in 1922, he had family links to the likes of the de Valeras, Sean T O’Kelly and Richard Mulcahy and his wife Mairín Cregan was a renowned author of Irish language children’s books.

But it’s not just the family’s history that is important to James Ryan now.

His father Mark played for Leinster and still provides advice far beyond the boundaries of rugby while his uncle Aidan has, along with his schools coach Andy Skehan, been a key influence on his career.


yan followed a well-worn path to Lansdowne before leaving mini-rugby behind with the dawn of his teenage years for St Michael’s where he found the daily diet of rugby education to be a pleasure rather than a pain.

Michael’s was the ideal launchpad for a kid with his talent and ambition. As with so many of the big rugby schools in the province, it provided a foundation in structure, excellent on-pitch coaching, gym work, analysis and so much more.

Noel Reid, Cathal Marsh and Leavy had laid out the path from Michael’s to Leinster sub-academy and on to the senior squad and maybe the chief regret is that his twin brother, also named Mark, had his career scuppered by a succession of misfortunes.

Two cruciate injuries, the first in his mid-teens, were the worst of them but Mark did his collarbone twice and damaged a wrist too. The last time they played together was on a school rugby trip to Italy when they were in fifth year.

James cherishes the photo taken at the time of the two siblings – the back row and the full-back - linked arm in arm in their Michael’s jerseys and he may yet get to play pro with another sibling given younger brother David featured recently for the Ireland U19 in the centre.

James would experience his own injury torment when a serious hamstring problem tore last season to shreds but the rate of his progress since making his professional debut, for Ireland against the USA last June, has made up for any lost time.

He is 22 games into his full-time senior career and yet to lose. His performances have been continually hailed and if there was a Lions squad touring this summer he would be swapping blue and green for red.

Come to think of it, he’s already done that.

It was Joe Schmidt’s idea that he should feature on a Munster development team that was facing the Ireland U20s this time last year. The thinking was to get him up to speed on his return from rehab and ready for his big break with the national side.

He’s heard all the jokes about that peculiar day before, taken all the ribbing, and, no, he didn’t keep the jersey.

“Do you know what, I’d play for anyone if it means getting on an Irish squad,” he declares without apology.

Being coached by Paul O’Connell was an added bonus at the time. “Cool” and “class” are the words Ryan opts for in describing that experience but his language is more colourful when describing his most recent experience of the provincial cousins.

He looked his usual self during the Guinness PRO14 semi-final at the RDS last week. Only James Lowe earned more carries, yards made and beat more defenders among those in Leinster colours but the image of a man gliding serenely through the game didn’t match the scrambling underneath the bonnnet.

The pace and the intensity hit him like a truck when he awoke the morning after but he had already felt the effects when making a line break and 30 metres early in the first-half before he was swallowed up by the posse.

“I was absolutely knackered. I thought the first ten, 20 minutes were very tough. There just didn’t seem to be any stoppages at all. It was just go, go, go. Then the gap opened up and I just felt like I had nothing left.

“It was trying to find another gear that maybe wasn’t there.”

Australian great John Eales earned the nickname Nobody during his storied career on the premise that nobody is perfect. Ryan isn’t there yet but he is hinting at it. Until asked what that history project about his famous ancestor earned him in his Leaving Cert, that is.

“A B1,” he replies.

Ah well, he still had the rugby.

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