Ring, Christy (1920–79), hurler, was born Nicholas Christopher Ring on 30 October 1920 in Kilboy, near Cloyne, Co. Cork, second youngest among three sons and two daughters of Nicholas Ring, gardener, and his wife Mary. In his childhood the family moved to Spittal Street in Cloyne village. After attending Cloyne national school until age 14, Christy worked for a few years as an apprentice mechanic. Thereafter he earned his living as a tanker driver with Irish Shell Oil Co., but hurling was his life. He played at juvenile, minor, and junior levels with Cloyne, winning a county minor championship with Cloyne's associated club, St Enda's of Midleton (1938), and a county junior championship with Cloyne (1939). He joined the successful northside Cork city club Glen Rovers in 1941, the year in which the club won a record eighth consecutive county senior championship. Ring won fourteen county senior hurling championship medals with ‘the Glen’, the last in 1967. He also played some Gaelic football at club level, winning a county senior championship with St Nicholas in 1954 (and a football–hurling double), but is reputed to have said there was ‘no skill’ in that code.
Competing in inter-county minor and senior hurling for twenty-seven years (1937–63), he won all-Ireland minor championship medals as a substitute in 1937, and at the unusual position of left half-back in 1938 (but coming forward to score a goal on a twenty-one-yard free). He made his senior inter-county debut in a league match against Kilkenny in October 1939, and his first senior championship appearance in the drawn and replayed 1940 Munster final against Limerick. In a brilliant senior inter-county career, he starred for Cork in all six forward positions, winning eight all-Ireland medals (1941–4, 1946, 1952–4), a record achievement that he shares with John Doyle of Tipperary. He won nine Munster championship medals (1942–4, 1946–7, 1952–4, 1956), and played twice on Cork teams that were beaten in the all-Ireland final (1947, 1956). He played on the Cork side that lost the 1941 Munster final, postponed to October owing to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, one month after winning all-Ireland honours. The third man to captain three all-Ireland winners (1946, 1953–4), he remains the only man to do so since the inauguration of the Liam MacCarthy Cup in the early 1920s. He played on Cork teams that won four National Hurling League championships (1940–41, 1948, 1953). Appearing for Munster in a record twenty-two consecutive Railway Cup finals (1942–63), he was on winning sides a record eighteen times, losing only in 1947, 1954, 1956, and 1962. Playing in forty-four Railway Cup matches, he scored 231 points (42–105), for a match average of 5.25, and failed to score in only three matches. His prowess did much to retain public interest in this inter-provincial competition; huge crowds, including tens of thousands from Northern Ireland, would attend the annual St Patrick's Day final, drawn largely by the opportunity to see Ring's genius on display.
‘Ringy’, as he was known to his legions of admirers, made the game of hurling a living art form. Generally considered the greatest hurler in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, he displayed an abundant range of skill and technical virtuosity, allied with speed, courage, intense mental concentration, ardent determination, and immense physical strength. Though not a tall man – ‘middling small’, as one ballad line has it – he weighed some thirteen stone with a powerful physique, and was especially strong in the legs, arms, and wrists. He commanded an enormous repertoire of strokes with the camán, which he could execute with either hand, and was supremely adept at scoring from first touch. A perfectionist, he practised long hours daily, alone or with teammates, to develop and maintain his skills. He always carried a camán and sliothar in the cab of his lorry, and would practise in fields and against walls at intervals throughout his working day. A non-smoker and non-drinker, he revelled in hard training, and maintained himself in peak fitness throughout the many years of his career. Confident in his ability, he did not suffer from false modesty in his estimation of his own genius. He once remarked that modesty was not to deny the ability that one knew oneself to have, but to know one's own ability while also knowing one's weaknesses. A pre-television superstar, though shy and reticent in social situations, he had tremendous charisma on the sporting pitch, a presence that drew and fired the crowds.
It is reckoned that Ring played some 1,200 hurling games. Among his countless superb performances, several stand out as supreme and defining examples of the greatness of his art. He came of age as one star among many (including Jack Lynch (qv), who was also a Glen Rovers colleague) on the richly talented Cork teams that won a famed wartime four-in-a-row all-Irelands (1941–4). Ring's emergence into pre-eminence in the mid 1940s was epitomised by two celebrated solo runs, each ending in a goal, in critical matches. In the last moments of the 1944 Munster final replay against a Limerick side that included Mick Mackey (qv), Ring soloed from deep in his own half of the pitch to score with a mighty shot from forty yards out, as Cork squeezed to victory by 4–6 to 3–6. As captain in the 1946 all-Ireland final against Kilkenny, he made a spectacular seventy-yard run from midfield just before half-time, eluding numerous defenders and scoring Cork's second goal. Some of his most memorable accomplishments were in the titanic clashes of the 1950s against Tipperary in the Munster championship and Wexford in the all-Ireland. Switching to midfield for the 1951 Munster final, he gave in defeat what many connoisseurs rate his most masterful all-round display. In the 1954 Munster final he beat three defenders to set up Cork's winning goal in added time. Probably his most famous match was the 1956 Munster final against Limerick; having been closely and effectively marked all afternoon, and with Cork down two goals in the last quarter, Ring suddenly scored three explosive goals in a four-minute spell, resulting in victory by 5–5 to 3–5. Later in 1956 he was denied a ninth all-Ireland medal when his point-blank shot in the closing minutes was brilliantly saved by Wexford goalkeeper Art Foley.
Even in his last years Ring was capable of feats of prodigious scoring. In 1959 he scored 4–5 against Connacht in the Railway Cup final, and 6–4 in a league match against Wexford. In three years he was leading scorer in the country, all in the twilight of his inter-county career (1959, 1961–2). At 22–35 in 1959 he became the only player ever to average over ten points per game, and in 1961 scored 104 points in thirteen games. Dropped from the Cork senior panel in 1964, he continued in senior club competition, winning his last two county championship medals (1964, 1967), and a Munster senior club championship (1965). After retiring in 1967 he became a selector with Glen Rovers and Cork, helping to select and train Cork's three-in-a-row all-Ireland winners of 1976–8. As a recreation he took up the game of squash, at which he became highly adept.
Ring married (1962) Rita Taylor, of Victoria Ave., Cork city; they had a son, Christy, and a daughter, Mary. Strongly catholic and nationalist, he was totally loyal and dedicated to the game of hurling, and to his club and county, while having a strong independent spirit and being very much his own man. He was involved in charitable causes, and had the reputation of being helpful to individuals in need or trouble. He died suddenly 2 March 1979 after collapsing on the street in Cork city, and was buried in Cloyne. At his funeral, thirty books of condolences were filled, some fifty to sixty thousand people attended, and the oration was given by Taoiseach Jack Lynch, his former hurling confrére.
Ring's iconic place in Cork tradition is reflected in photographic and verse displays in private and public houses. Partly because of the antiquity of the game, he has the folk status of a pre-historic hurling gaiscíoch (warrior, champion), typified by the many legendary occasions when, in heroic Cú-Chulainn (qv) style, he would snatch victory in the face of defeat. He was selected at right half-forward on the Sunday Independent hurling team of the century (1984), and on the An Post/GAA team of the millennium (1999). He is the subject of a fine Louis Marcus film (1964), and of a striking sculpture by Seán MacCarthy in Cork airport. A nine-foot bronze statue stands in his native Cloyne, where also an ash grove (Ros Uí Rinn) is dedicated to him. In his adopted city a bridge over the River Lee and a GAA grounds are named after him. Of the numerous ballads composed in his honour, the best is Bryan MacMahon's ‘Song for Christy Ring’. The last verse recalls Cork's legendary rivalry with Tipperary, where the cup of summer happiness overflows when the hay is saved and victory achieved over the traditional enemy:
How oft I've watched him from the hill, move here and there in grace,
In Cork, Killarney, Thurles town, or by the Shannon's race.
‘Now Cork is bet, the hay is saved!’ the thousands wildly sing.
They speak too soon, my sweet garsún, for here comes Christy Ring.