RENA BUCKLEY IS thinking back to a summer week that captured Eamonn Ryan.
In a career stacked with highlights, Buckley part of a decorated team and Ryan the guiding figure from the sideline, it seemed a partnership of constant success.
But even an 18-time All-Ireland winner could not hit every nail on the head.
“Eamonn was involved running the summer camp in the Mardyke in Cork and he had me in as a coach one time when I was younger. I remember I spent the week running after the children, trying to get them to fall into groups.
“Eamonn would once or twice a day, walk into the middle of the field, go down on his haunches, and the children would just flock in towards him.
“I used to be scratching my head saying, ‘What is it about this man?’
“But he just had this fantastic way of connecting with people, young or old.
“Likewise we might go for dinner after a match and the waitresses would inevitably bring him a plate of biscuits by the end of the meal. They’d have warmed to him.
“He was the kind of person, it was a pleasure just to have him in your life.
“I was quite young when he took over Cork, I was only 16.
“I do remember when the news came true that Eamonn Ryan was getting involved, I knew he was a serious name. But we didn’t realise just how much we had struck gold.”
Rena Buckley lifts the Brendan Martin Cup.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Memories have come flooding back this week for the multitude of players who lined out under Ryan’s careful watch.
He passed away on Thursday at the age of 79 after a life packed with All-Ireland, Munster and club successes on the pitch but more saliently after forging countless friendships off the pitch.
Orlagh Farmer got the call up to the Cork senior squad in 2010, a teenager at the time in 5th year in school in Midleton.
It was another member of the Ryan family who helped put her on the radar of the county manager.
“I was playing an East Cork junior final down in Aghada with Midleton, we were playing Watergrasshill.
“Eamonn’s son Don, he was involved in the Cork setup in 2010, he was training Watergrasshill. He came up to my trainer and asked, ‘Who’s that number nine? I must tell my Dad about her.’
“Sure I was young and only delighted to get a bit of praise. And then only a few weeks later I got a call to Cork senior trials. It’s just amazing, it was actually his son who spotted me in a club game. I remember Don telling me that later.
“It was a massive step up for me playing with all my role models like Valerie Mulcahy and Juliette Murphy. But what I remember is that sense of belonging and togetherness. I felt that straight away. The older girls were like parenting figures and Eamonn had instilled that to merge us all together.”
Eamonn Ryan celebrating Cork’s 2013 All-Ireland final success.
Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
Annie Walsh first linked up with the Cork panel in 2008, another eye-witness for the wave of success that ensued. Ten All-Irelands and nine National Leagues are the eye-catching totals that encapsulate the heights the team soared to with Ryan in charge.
“It’s only when you look back, you realise you were involved with someone so special. I’d always be so grateful for my time involved with Eamonn and the Cork team. He probably wouldn’t like to hear everyone praising him so much because that was just the type of man he was, he was just so humble.
“People ask over the years, ‘What was the secret?’
“There was no secret. It was just a big focus on the skills and hard work and your attitude.
“He’d always say that he never kicked a ball for us. That was true but he did so much more for us outside of that.”
Angela and Annie Walsh celebrating a 2014 All-Ireland semi-final victory.
Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO
His modern coaching tale hinged on the Cork ladies football dominance yet there were a whole series of stages before that where Ryan prospered. An All-Ireland senior finalist as a player for Cork in 1967, a trainer for one of their most famous Munster wins over Kerry sixteen years later. Taking Cork minor teams and steering them to a couple of All-Ireland victories in the early ’90s.
Then there were club conquests in Cork with his native Watergrasshill, his adopted Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh and most strikingly with Na Piarsaigh.
In their history they have delivered senior hurling glory three times for their pocket on the northside of the city and Ryan was a common thread linking those triumphs. Coach in 1990 and 1995, selector in 2004.
John Gardiner achieved it all as a hurler with Cork. He now lives in Florida.
News from home of Ryan’s death this week sparked no shortage of local memories.
“1990 would be the most celebrated win in our club as it was the first breakthrough. My Dad was a selector at the time. I was at the majority of the training sessions with Stephen O’Sullivan, his father John was corner-forward.
“Then I later played under Eamonn and I would have asked about that 1990 panel. There was some very skilful players there like Tony O’Sullivan, Paulo (O’Connor), Mark and Mickey Mullins, Christy Connery, yet Eamonn talked about their honesty, how they were good characters.
“And the bond in the club as a whole from underage to supporters to the ladies committee feeding the team.
“But even though the team had been knocking on the door in ’87, he was the one that came in and gave the belief to get them over the line for the first time.”
That kicked off a relationship that lasted almost three decades. As recently as 2019, Ryan was back helping out their senior hurlers.
In 2004 Gardiner was coming down off the high of a win with Cork in Croke Park over Kilkenny when club matters took hold. The winning ways continued and that achievement rounded off a magical personal year.
John Gardiner in action for Na Piarsaigh in 2004.
“We travelled to Inchigeelagh the weekend before the county final in 2004. Looking back I think Eamonn was a master at creating situations where teams would really bond together. It was a decent training session from memory but it was more important for the frame of mind that Eamonn had us in than anything we could have done on the field.
“And if you look back at that final it was the sheer determination that was driven in to the panel which got us over the line. He brought the character out of teams and created a platform where everyone gave of their best.”
The joy of that victory is tinged with a sad reflection now, Ryan’s passing coming just over eight years since that of Na Piarsaigh’s 2004 winning coach Paul O’Connor.
Paul O’Connor and Eamonn Ryan pictured during a Na Piarsaigh game in 2004.
“We really were privileged to have two of the greatest of all time on the line with us in Paulo and Eamonn,” reflects Gardiner.
“Some teams are lucky to have had one of of the two but in 2004 we had both of them.
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“There’s an iconic photo of them embracing at the end of the county final. It was an honour to play for them.”
Away from the competitive arena, Ryan had a seismic influence. Farmer was one of the players who can testify to that when her sporting and educational lives overlapped.
“When I did my Leaving Cert, I actually didn’t get the points for PE. Then I ended up getting it on a third offer when I got the exam checked.
“But he used to help me with my Irish. I remember some days with Cork going up to league games and he’d be like, ‘Farmer, come on away up there now to the front of the bus and we’ll be ag caint as Gaeilge for a while.’
Orlagh Farmer celebrating after the 2014 All-Ireland final.
Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO
“Or I’d meet him for a coffee in the Mardyke in between lectures. He was always willing to go that extra mile to help people. He used to lecture us in the GAA module as well, it was a practical one.
“He was doing it up until last year, out on the pitch in the Mardyke. All the class loved him. Some of my class-mates were onto me on Thursday, sharing memories of UCC with him. He really did have an impact on everyone.”
In September last year she successfully defended her PhD, an evaluation of the ‘Gaelic 4 Girls’ intervention, and Ryan had been a reliable sounding board all through that process as well.
“I remember one day I was giving out about lesson plans, the paper work with teaching.
“He was telling me with lesson plans, ‘You should bullet point five things you’re going to do before you teach a class. If three of those don’t work, you work on those the next day.’
“He was all about simplifying things but having that purposeful message as well.”
He never stopped keeping an eye on his former players.
In October 2019, Walsh embarked on a whirlwind sporting weekend. On the Saturday she pointed the way as top scorer as her club Inch Rovers lifted the Munster intermediate title.
On the Sunday she ran the Dublin Marathon for the first time, with her twin sister Elaine also partaking.
In the aftermath of crossing the finish line, her old manager saluted the achievement in completing a gruelling schedule.
“He sent me a text that weekend to say congratulations and lovely, kind words. He parted ways with the squad after 2015 but even though he was gone, he was always still interested in people. I still remembering getting that message and the lovely feeling from it.
“He was on The Sunday Game there last year and I just sent him a text thanking him after. We were just saying it was great times with great people.”
For all those afternoons where his Cork teams seemed invincible on football fields around the country, it was a December announcement in a TV studio that springs to mind for Buckley when evaluating the feats that resonated most with Ryan.
“He really enjoyed in 2014 when we won the RTÉ Sport Team of the Year. That was voted by the public and to get that recognition as a county-based team, I know Eamonn and all the players, it meant an awful lot to us. We had the respect of people from all over the country and that gave him great satisfaction.
Eamonn Ryan with Cork players at the 2014 RTÉ Sports Awards.
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
“He was an extraordinary leader of our group, massive personality, huge charisma and we loved being around him. He didn’t have a massive grá for the very deep tactics of the game but he made sure that technically we were footballing as well as we could and that was matched by an attitude of the highest calibre. I think that was his genius.”
Walsh outlines the simple acts of preparation which got them set for so many major games.
“He’d always try and change things up. He’d have a story or a saying for you. It might be something he heard on the news in the car on the way up or something he read. But he’d have some small nugget that you could take away with you, whether it be at the start of training or before you were about to go out in Croke Park.
“We were fortunate enough to get to Croke Park a lot. That memory that would stick out was getting your jerseys presented to you in the dressing-room by Eamonn. He’d grab your hand and give the jersey with a smile. He was just wishing you well for the day ahead. It’s small, nice memories like that.”
Buckley is conscious of all the hours he invested in their Cork teams.
“We’re so grateful to his wife Pat and all his family. The amount of time and commitment that he gave to us was phenomenal. He didn’t once call off training because of bad weather, he never once went on a holiday and missed a session. It’s something we’ll never forget. Our lives are better because we had Eamonn in them.”
Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
His funeral takes place today in Ballingeary. The current restrictions prevent many from attending to say farewell.
“Hopefully sometime down the tracks, we’ll be able to come together and remember him,” says Walsh.
“It’s very sad, just grateful to have those memories and appreciate everything he did for us.
“Particularly his family, for sharing him the way that they did so unselfishly.”
“What he did for our club really is remarkable,” recalls Gardiner.
“We were just privileged and glad that he gave so generously to us as a club over the years. You can see by the outpouring of tributes that he gave his time to everybody.
“And I’d just want to offer condolences to his family from myself and Na Piarsaigh.”
Away from the marquee moments in the All-Ireland spotlight, Farmer reflects on Ryan’s input at the grassroots and the legacy he leaves.
“His sheer joy for the game was infectious.
“He was about humility as well. That we were there because we loved being there and it wasn’t a sacrifice.
“He often would have made reference that he wouldn’t have wanted to be doing anything else of a Sunday morning out in UCC Farm in the rain, training us.
“He’d remind us about being good people and that the people aspect comes before players.
“I’ve no doubt when things get back to normal, we’ll pay respects to his family and share some memories and cherish the good times together as a group. I’m very grateful to have known him, he genuinely cared about all of us.”
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