The master

'I'm still learning': The great man behind the bainisteoir bib

A documentary about the life Cork legend Éamonn Ryan will be shown on TG4 tomorrow night.

THERE’S A QUOTE that sits above Jim Ryan’s desk at the school where he teaches in Wexford, which comes directly from the tongue of his late great father, Éamonn.

eamonn-ryan-celebrates-at-the-end-of-the-game Éamonn Ryan left a major impact on others during his life. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m still learning,” he reads down the phone to The42 during the course of a lovely conversation about his dad, who will always be remembered as a legend of their native county Cork.

It was his father’s life philosophy and Jim has inherited the wisdom to know that you can never know it all.

Ryan’s legacy is enshrined in the GAA, specifically Ladies Football. He was the mastermind behind Cork’s incredible journey to 10 All-Ireland titles in 11 years. That unprecedented run began in 2005, just one year on from when he assumed the reins of a county team that was utterly depleted and rankled by club rivalries. 

Before all that, he also managed the Cork men’s football team between 1980 and 1984 and finished that term with a Munster title in ’83. He also delivered two All-Ireland titles during his time in charge of the county’s minor footballers.

He was a successful mentor at club level too, while his playing days for Cork include an All-Ireland final appearance against Meath in 1967.

The Watergrasshill man forged a distinguished career in sport and there are many accounts from former teammates, and players he coached that can testify to that.

But what of Éamonn Ryan’s life away from sport? Anyone who served under him as a manager will tell you about his fatherly approach to coaching, and his appreciation for the human behind the player.

That goes some way towards answering the question, and a documentary that will be aired on TG4 tomorrow night helps to fill in the rest of the blanks.

‘Éamonn Ryan: An Máistir’ charts all the key elements of his life and includes the voices of several people who were touched by his presence throughout his 79 years. It presents a rounded picture of the man who was more than just a coach.

Viewers will get a chance to see the man who was a devoted father to six, a doting grandfather to 16 and a loving husband to wife, Pat.

“Incredible is the word I’d use,” Jim Ryan says about the documentary went about capturing his father’s character.

“He taught me, he coached me and he was a father. As a teacher, he was way ahead of his time. I can still quote Seven Ages of Man from [William Shakespeare's] ‘As You Like It.’ We did it in fifth class in Primary School. We studied Beethoven, Tchaikovsky in fifth and sixth class. He had us doing cross country and founded a club in Watergrasshill. He ran a couple of marathons himself and he was just so rounded and so well-read. He was a highly intelligent character.

“I think he came top of the year in the whole country for Latin when he was doing his Junior Cert and got a scholarship to Coláiste Iosagáin. Up to then, he probably didn’t have much interaction with Gaelic football really. Where we’re from is a diehard hurling club and I suppose he had a huge Kerry influence at Coláiste Iosagáin and was immersed in football there.”


eamonn-ryan Cork legend Éamonn Ryan. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Growing up, Jim can always remember his father being involved in coaching. He never turned anyone away who wanted his help on the sidelines and enrolled in a lot of coaching courses in Limerick in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practice.

Ryan’s first clear recollection of his Dad as a coach goes all the way back to 1974, the year Watergrasshill finished the season as junior champions in Cork.

“There were 30 or 40 men in the house after training. My Mam would have made soup.

“He was still playing at the time as well.

“He was very interested in coaching and in learning as much as he could. The whole coaching sphere started to open up in around the 80s. I remember him going to a lot of coaching courses in Limerick and that was the genesis of coaching becoming an organised pursuit.

“He was very into it and practiced it. He was coaching kids every day at school and there was always a match every day at lunchtime.”

Ryan was known for having a habit of writing things down. Some of the players from that dominant Cork team often refer to his little notebook that contained all his coaching secrets.

The opening scene of ‘An Máistir’ pays tribute to Ryan’s love of recording his thoughts on paper as his two sons Jim and Des open up a huge bag that contains stacks of notebooks. Jim then reads a quote in front of the camera comes from tennis star Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open.

All the notepads are bristling with precisely written gems that Éamonn had jotted down over the years.

“He would have written everyday,” says Jim.

“Any time he would read a book, he’d write down quotes. Anything he read, he absorbed it and would note it. He’d use anecdotes to get a message across in his coaching.”

the-cork-team-and-eamonn-ryan-with-the-cup-after-the-game Éamonn Ryan celebrating All-Ireland success with Cork in 2014. Tommy Grealy / INPHO Tommy Grealy / INPHO / INPHO

Next month will mark the one-year anniversary since Éamonn Ryan’s passing. Jim explains how his father began showing signs of illness in August 2020 and was later in and out of hospital. This was especially difficult for Ryan as Covid restrictions prevented him from having visitors by his side.

Ryan previously recovered from prostate cancer in 2004, an illness which he battled privately. Some of the former Cork players explain in the documentary how they had no knowledge of his cancer history until years later, such was Ryan’s private way of battling adversity. 

Jim isn’t quite certain if he knew that death was near for his Dad before he slipped away in January.

Ryan’s funeral also coincided with a time of strict Covid rules, meaning that the many people who wished to sympathise with the Ryan family would have to do so from home.

Jim honoured his father with a lovely eulogy.

“Sitting down [to write it],” he begins, “all I did was think about him as my father really and tried to incorporate aspects of his life as best I could. How that worked out, I don’t know but I’d like to think we did him some bit of justice.

“I suppose the way he’d look at it is that you have to give it everything in whatever you do and that’s it.

“I suppose I felt it was the least we could do for him. He had it a bit tough this time last year with Covid and accessibility.”

Towards the end of ‘An Máistir,’ the Ryan family are all sitting down together reminiscing about their Dad and sharing lovely stories with smiles on their faces. Jim recounts one particular memory in which he was given the chance to play alongside Éamonn and his uncle Jimmy.

Jim can’t quite recall whether it was 1983 or 1984 but it is the one “great memory” he has of all three of them sharing a pitch together.

Rena Buckley is another former student of Éamonn Ryan’s football class. She was part of that all conquering Cork team and has her own distinguished record of 18 All-Ireland titles across Ladies Football and camogie.

In ‘An Máistir,’ she recites a quote from a sign at Ryan’s funeral which read, ‘Farewell to the master. A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life.’

That was certainly true for the Cork Ladies, as it was for everyone who came into contact with Ryan and benefited from his outlook on sport and life.

His son Jim can still the effects of his Dad’s influence everyday as he points to a sign of his own at his desk in school. He has lots to thank his father for, including a passion for teaching which he has pursued to the rank of Deputy Principal at St Peter’s College in Wexford.

His mother Pat worked as a teacher too.

“Cad a dhéanfaidh mac an chait ach luch a mahrú,” Jim responds in Irish. The English translation is “I didn’t lick it off the stones,” which is a lovely to sum up his decision to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

“He instilled a love for education in all of us,” Jim continues. “His love of sport [too] and lots of aspects of life. His in depth reading, his interest in literature, music. I’ll remember my first time ever getting interested in the Olympics was due to him.

“He’d often talk about Fanny Blankers-Koen who was a famous Dutch runner. She had three or four Olympic medals and she had done that at the age of 30 after having a family. Even back then, he was trying to sow seeds that nothing is impossible and we grew up in the household where you just go on and do things as well as you can.

“But he never preached about it, he was very subtle.”


Jim Ryan has already seen ‘An Máistir’ and is thrilled with the final product that will be on TV screens tomorrow night. After spending his life happily as a Gaeligeoir, it’s fitting that TG4 is the station that has produced this documentary.

“He’d be absolutely mortified that this was made for him, but at the same time, he would have been appreciative. The thing I’d say about Dad is that he was diligent, very humble, resilient and he got a lot of knocks in life. But the ultimate thing he’d like people to think is that he cared.

“And not just about the sporting aspect of your life but he cared about you in general as a person too.

“I suppose Dad would have been involved in TG4 and worked with them over the years. He had a good relationship with them and taught Gaeilge in UCC. Maybe it was their way of paying him back.”

Éamonn Ryan: An Máistir will be shown on TG4 tomorrow, 30 December at 9.20pm.


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