Rugby legend Ronan O’Gara paid an emotional tribute to the people of Cork as he was conferred with the freedom of the city he said he loves.

The former Munster and Irish number 10, who held the record for the most Irish caps when he retired from playing the game four years ago, and who still holds the Heineken Cup points record, said the people of the city where he grew up supported him during some of the toughest times of his career.

His recalled the “many dark nights” after Ireland’s poor performance in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.

His voice cracked with emotion as he recalled the reception he received a few months later as he lined out in his return game in a Munster-Edinburgh clash in Musgrave Park.

“Everyone gave me an incredible, incredible reception,” he said. “I’ll never forget the people of Cork for that. It was something small to ye, but for me, when I was on my knees, Cork people were there. And that’s what I’ll remember.”

He said he was “unbelievably humbled” to follow in the footsteps of previous sporting legends to receive the Freemen of Cork, including Roy Keane, Sonia O’Sullivan, and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

“I didn’t expect this and it’s a little bit surreal but unbelievably humbling,” he said. “People like Roy and Sonia, they are heroes of mine. They were my sporting heroes growing up. I’m up at the big table today.”

Ronan O’Gara, wife Jessica, and their children, Rua, Molly, JJ, Zac, and Max sign the visitors’ book with Lord Mayor Des Cahill.
Ronan O’Gara, wife Jessica, and their children, Rua, Molly, JJ, Zac, and Max sign the visitors’ book with Lord Mayor Des Cahill.

Flanked by his wife, Jessica, and their children, Rua, Molly, JJ, Zac and Max, he said: “The kids are a little bit lost for words, which is the first time they’ve ever been like this.

“But it’s fantastic. It will be a great day and will be hugely special for the family. It’s means everything.

“Cork people, in sporting terms, they always had the tone or the pitch of how you felt as a person, and there were times when they picked me up off my knees and there were times when they brought me back down to earth as well.

The setting in City Hall yesterday for the question and answer panel session with Ronan O’Gara and Donal Lenihan after the Freedom of the City ceremony. Pictures: Larry Cummins
The setting in City Hall yesterday for the question and answer panel session with Ronan O’Gara and Donal Lenihan after the Freedom of the City ceremony. Pictures: Larry Cummins

“There is a special bond in this sporting city between the sporting people and the supporters, and it’s something that when you travel around the world, you never forget and it’s a great quality of ours.”

Lord Mayor Des Cahill said he was delighted to confer the Freedom of Cork on O’Gara who consistently inspired, achieved, and delivered for Cork over the years.

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