James Ryan always leads from the front on the rugby field
History students at Dublin’s St Michael’s College paid extra heed when learning about the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish War of Independence this week.
According to teacher Brian O’Meara, who earned nine Test caps for Ireland as a scrum-half from 1997 to 2003, his class’s ears pricked up when they learnt about role played by a young revolutionary doctor named James Ryan, who was amongst the last to leave Dublin’s General Post Office and who treated one of the leaders of the uprising, James Connolly, before being taken captive.
That James Ryan — the one-time rebel who went on to serve as an Irish government minister — was the great-grandfather of his namesake, a St Michael’s alumnus, who will captain Ireland for the first time against England at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon at the age of just 24.
History matters everywhere, but particularly in Ireland and even more so ahead of a game against England. Ryan studied the subject at Leaving Certificate level, the Irish equivalent of A-Levels, with one of his bigger projects focusing on the life and times of his ancestor.
“James was like every other student — some days he was very consistent, other days he would have been more inconsistent," O’Meara recalls. "He had a big weakness in history in that he was a very slow writer. But that was the only thing that would have held him back but because James was so determined he worked very hard.
“Twenty per cent of your grade comes from a project a student can do on any historical figure or event. James decided to do his project on his great-grandfather and it was my job to push him in the right direction. It was fascinating as James had diaries of the events the families had kept and a lot of incredible detail.”
For O’Meara, learning of Ryan’s heritage was an eye-opener. “I don’t think his great-grandfather gets the credit he deserves. His life story is like a movie,” he says. “To me, when you look at the contribution James’ great-grandfather made politically, it wouldn’t be far off some politician who was a side-kick to Winston Churchill. He sat in the first Dail [Irish parliament]. That is like the Irish Lexington.”
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It would seem that Ryan was endowed with some of the same fighting spirit as James Sr. On one occasion, as a 15-year-old, he was playing for St Michael’s in the Leinster Junior Cup when his desperation to win almost had catastrophic consequences.
“I remember one match we won in the last play of the game and I think James spent the night in hospital because he was so dehydrated and drained," said O’Meara, who also coached Ryan at school. "It was because he was just so determined and put everything on the line.
“He won the Junior Cup as captain as a 15-year-old but his oratory skills wouldn’t have been there. He captained then through his leadership and work rate – he is unbelievably quick and fast. He has natural abilities that not many people have.
“If you want to play for Ireland in the second row, it isn’t the same as someone saying they want to be a striker for Manchester United. So, if you are big, talented and, more than anything else, co-ordinated. If you are tall, talented and a second row and particularly if you are playing at a private school in Dublin, I would say you have 30-40 per cent chance of being a professional.”
Not that Ryan’s path to the top was smooth. Even in his school days there were set-backs, notably an outing for St Michael’s in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, regarded as the holy grail of schoolboy rugby and a proving ground for generations of Ireland stars.
“James took defeat very badly, which is a good sign, right?” O’Meara said. “The poor fellow wouldn’t talk to me for two or three weeks. I was his history teacher, so it was very awkward for a while.
"It was probably a very good experience for him in terms of dealing with success and failure going forward because in his first year as a proper professional in 2018 he won the Champions Cup and the Grand Slam. He had an easier job then. Now as captain it is going to be completely different."
So what kind of captain will Ryan be? He has no shortage of role models to choose from, with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Jonathan Sexton all staking claims to be amongst Ireland’s greatest ever players, and all captains in Ryan’s lifetime.
“I would imagine he will be a captain in the Brian O’Driscoll mould, trying to be the best player on the training field or on the pitch," O’Meara said. "It is going to be a very daunting experience for him but he is very lucky he has a very sensible father who is a very good leader and he has a lot of people who he can talk to about it.”
Autumn Nations Cup: Ireland team to face England