James Ryan: The great-grandson of a 1916 Easter Rising rebel

The Leinster lock’s great-grandfather was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and Fianna Fáil.

ON EASTER MONDAY, 24 April of 1916, when a group of Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army members occupied the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin, Leinster second row James Ryan’s great-grandfather was among them.

Also named James, the then 24-year-old was in the very middle of the Easter Rising.

A founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, Ryan was a qualified doctor and he served as the medical officer in the GPO as the rebels were bombarded by British military shelling for days before their surrender on Saturday 29 April.

The story goes that Ryan was one of the last people to leave the GPO along with James Connolly, whose injuries he had tended to. Ryan may even have taken an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation from inside the GPO and carried it out with him.

James Ryan James Ryan and members of the First Dáil.

Leinster and Ireland lock James has had some great days representing his country, including a Grand Slam this year, and his achievements are adding to what is a great sense of pride in family history in the Ryan household.

“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,” says Ryan of the family stories around his great-grandfather.

“So, Thomas Clarke was kind of telling him the story of 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.”

Ryan’s great-grandfather was spared. Jailed in Stafford and Frongoch following the Rising but released soon after, he returned to Ireland to become a prominent politician – although he was imprisoned twice more during the War of Independence.

Part of the First Dáil in 1919, Wexford man Ryan was also a founding member of Fianna Fáil and served as Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Health and Social Welfare, and Minister for Finance under Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass.

Ryan’s son, Eoin, was elected to Seanad Éireann in the late 1950s and served as a senator for around thirty years, while one of Eoin’s sons – also named Eoin Ryan – was Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation in the early 2000s before becoming a member of the European Parliament.

The family history is fascinating – Ryan’s great-grandmother, Kerry woman Máirín Cregan, who was married to James Ryan, was a member of Cumann na mBan and their house in Wexford is said to have been regularly raided by the British Army.

James, the great-grandson, therefore had plenty of material and a deep interest when he opted to do his Leaving Certificate history project on his great-grandfather during his school days at St Michael’s College in Dublin.

Now a second-year student of History and Politics in UCD, 21-year-old Ryan’s favourite area is unsurprising.

“I love Irish revolutionary history,” says the explosive lock, who starts in today’s Guinness Pro14 final against the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium [KO 6pm, TG4/Sky Sports]. “I love learning about the Easter Rising and the Troubles.

“I was also learning about Irish emigration during the famine, that was fascinating too.”

Ryan James Ryan and James Ryan.

Ryan says his interest in the politics side of his degree is “mildish,” particularly with lots of “mathy” bits this semester, although he jokes that his interest is “maybe more than the guys in the changing room because half of them are idiots!”

A photo of his great-grandfather and other members of the First Dáil [the one near the top of this article] is hung in the Ryan family home, as is the case in the houses of many of his relatives.

“I think the Ryan family was kind of divided right down the middle in terms of pro and anti-Treaty, so I think that kind of tore the family apart, split brothers and sisters – I suppose like every other family during the time,” says Ryan.

“But he is certainly someone that we’re all aware of and proud of.”

Leinster man Ryan’s own Six Nations and Champions Cup medals take pride of place on the mantlepiece of his parents’ home, his achievements at such a young age still difficult to fully fathom.

Family is everything for Ryan and he has had a strong support network around him as he has risen rapidly through the ranks of professional rugby – winning all 22 of his games with Ireland and Leinster at senior level so far.

Ryan’s father, Mark, was a flanker for Lansdowne and Leinster in his own playing days and has been present every step of the way as James has impressed on the pitch.

“[Rugby] may have moved on in terms of what he experienced but he’s still somebody that I’d turn to for advice, not just rugby but in everything,” says the 6ft 8ins James.

His uncle, Aidan, has been another big influence, while Ryan calls Andy Skehan, the director of rugby at St Michael’s, “a good mate of mine; he’s been a mentor for me growing up.”

Ryan’s twin brother, Mark, was a good player too and the pair of them – having dabbled in GAA with Clonbur during summer visits to their relations in Galway – started with mini-rugby in Lansdowne before moving into the schools game at Michael’s.

Mark, a fullback, had a cruel time with injuries, however, tearing his cruciate ligament at the age of 14 and again at 18, while also breaking his collarbone twice and injuring his wrist badly.

David Ryan The youngest Ryan brother, David, played for the Ireland U19s this year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The last time the twins played together was on a trip with Michael’s to the Lake Garda region of Italy when they were in fifth year.

“It was class,” recalls James. “They [the Italian team] weren’t much use but it was cool. We have a nice photo after the game where we were linked with our Michael’s jerseys on. That’s the nice image I have of that day.

“Then, unfortunately, he got injured again.”

The youngest Ryan brother, David, is a promising centre, having played for Ireland Schools and advancing onto the Ireland U19s this year.

James does give his younger brother advice if he comes looking for it, but David doesn’t need too much of it.

“I kind of let him find his own way,” says James. “He’s got a steady head on him. Being in a different position to me, I wouldn’t know a lot about what goes on in the centre.

“In terms of preparation or nutrition, if he’s ever looking for it, I give him my limited knowledge on that.”

Twin brother Mark’s struggles with injury have helped James to appreciate what he has now, although he did suffer with a hamstring issue last season, preventing him from pushing on captaining the Ireland U20s in 2016.

“I was kind of the lucky one in that sense,” says Ryan of Mark’s injuries.

“But last year it was kind of dark enough at times because, as the lads would tell you, with the long-term injuries, you’re kind of in here early in the morning and just grinding away in the gym the whole time.

“You’re seeing other guys playing and progressing all the time and you want a bit of that yourself, so having that experience of not playing definitely makes you appreciate it more.”

There were some outside concerns around Ryan’s durability at times during this current season, but he knew his body was in a good place and he has been blissfully free of injury for some time.

James Ryan with Mikey Hoey James Ryan in Leinster Schools Senior Cup action in 2015. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He is already fulfilling the vast potential that the likes of Skehan and others saw in him from the beginning of his time at St Michael’s.

Ryan says he started thinking about being a professional rugby player at the age of five or six and the fact that he has always been tall helped him, as did his obvious power.

Sometimes fielded in the back row during his Junior Cup days, he feels lucky to have come through as advanced a schools set-up as St Michael’s.

“You do your analysis and stuff at lunchtime, doing your gym sessions in the morning and you do your pitch sessions after school,” he explains.

“That’s similar in some ways to what’s going on here, so maybe when you make the step up to the Leinster sub-academy or academy you have that experience of that kind of schedule.”

Captaining virtually every team along the way, Ryan played for Leinster and Ireland Schools, before progressing to leading the Ireland U20s into a Junior World Championship final in 2016.

A victory over New Zealand – a first-ever for Ireland at that level – along the way in that competition remains among the highlights of his young career.

Ryan’s performances at that level deepened the excitement around him, with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt by then very much among the second row’s fans.

Even though the aforementioned hamstring injury wrecked his 2016/17 season, Schmidt had few doubts that Ryan was good enough to tour the USA and Japan with Ireland in the summer of 2017, even though he hadn’t played for Leinster at senior level yet.

Upon his return from injury and with Leinster’s season almost over, Ryan’s lack of game time called for rather unusual measures as Schmidt arranged for him to travel to Munster and play for their development team in a clash with the Ireland U20s.

James Ryan Ryan makes a surge for Munster Development in 2017. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Do you know what, I’d play for anyone if it means getting on an Irish squad,” says Ryan with a smile when asked what it was like wearing the red jersey. “It was grand. The lads were very welcoming.”

Paul O’Connell was part of the Munster coaching team and Ryan says it was a cool experience to meet the great Ireland lock and discuss lineouts with him.

The fact that Schmidt organised it all and brought him on tour with Ireland was a major lift for Ryan after such a tough season with injury.

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“It was definitely a confidence-booster. He put a lot of faith in me to select me for that. It was a great experience and great for me to have it under my belt for the start of this season.”

Ryan’s debut for Ireland came off the bench in a 55-19 win over the US in New Jersey, with the lock scoring a first Test try with just his second touch.

“It was just an amazing day,” says Ryan. “Obviously, it was a dream come true for any rugby player. To put on the green jersey was, I know it’s clichéd and stuff, but it was unbelievable. My first cap.

“The whole experience, the match itself, the second touch. Everything afterwards, getting to see my dad there, my brother, all my mates, it was kind of surreal.”

His second cap came two weeks later in a 35-15 win over Japan in Tokyo and he returned home ready to launch into his first campaign as a senior professional with Leinster this season.

Fittingly enough, the rest is history. Ryan is already well on his way to becoming one of Ireland’s greatest players.

A modest young man with his feet firmly on the ground, Ryan doesn’t have too much time for the talk of his 22-game streak of wins in professional rugby.

“I’ve lost a lot,” says Ryan. “I lost a Senior Cup in my final year in St Michael’s, so I know exactly what losing feels like.

Andrew Porter and James Ryan celebrate winning Ryan has already had great days with Ireland. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Fear of failure does drive you, definitely. Especially when you’re playing at such a top end, you don’t want to let the guys beside you down by not showing up, or not knowing your detail or things like that, so it’s probably that combined with just wanting to win.”

Intelligent and calm off the pitch, Ryan is a ferocious competitor on it and the manner in which he has made major physical impacts in games for Ireland and Leinster at his age has been startling.

Watching Jean Kleyn pushing his head into the ground last weekend at the RDS, only for Ryan to hammer the Munster lock in a tackle minutes later was another reminder of his aggression and power.

“That’s what he brings to his game and fair play to him, it works for him,” says Ryan of that battle with Kleyn. “I do love that kind of stuff as well. You’ve got to when you’re in the tight five.

“You’ve got to love that kind of edge to the game. I think we had a couple of moments there. I probably hated him at the time but looking back now it’s something that he likes to bring to his game and what goes on in the 80 minutes, it’s fair enough.”

Did Ryan see it was Kleyn before that hit, though?

“No, I just saw a red jersey and I just went for it. I didn’t have the feeling of vengeance at that moment, no.”

This season could easily have been a whirlwind for Ryan but he appears to be taking it all in his stride in his composed and mature way.

While big game follows big game, he has done his best to enjoy it all when he can. He headed for Clonbur after the Grand Slam, enjoying pints at his uncle’s pub, Lynch’s, where his first Ireland jersey is hanging.

“There’s a lot of jerseys in the pub up the road called Burke’s. There’s not a lot of jerseys in my uncle’s pub, so I thought maybe I could try to fill the wall a small bit more!

CJ Stander and James Ryan Ryan wants to help Leinster to another trophy today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They’re so warm and welcoming down there, so it was great to get down and see my family and people that I know. I was with a couple of my mates, so we had a couple of pints and chilled out. It was nice.”

The tour of Australia with Ireland follows swiftly on the heels of today’s Pro14 final but Ryan will head for New York after that to meet some of his friends who are doing their J1 in the Big Apple this summer.

He will also link up with some Leinster team-mates in Portugal after that and Ryan will finally be able to reflect on what has been the most remarkable of seasons.

Before that, there are a few more opportunities to write new chapters in the proud Ryan family history.

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