Brother John Chrysostom Ring (1924-79)

Obituary by Br N D O'Halloran

John Ring and I were at school together at Sexton Street, Limerick, in the 30’s. Sexton Street was a fruitful source of vocations to the brotherhood and to the English province in particular. I remember that when Limerick celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation in 1966, the kind superior invited all past pupils in the English province to attend, but there were so many that the schools could not function without us and consequently we could not go. We had been taught by the famous Brother Otteran Andrews and the equally famous Raymond Keogh—both admired members of the staff who perhaps unwittingly by their influence and presence were the source of our vocation. When we left 1st Year we had the formidable Brother Joseph Young— Cricky we used to call him. He was an actor manqué and many a time that rung of a chair with which he whacked us was the dagger which he saw before him, its handle towards his hand, and any available bundle was the pillow with which he smothered Desdemona. When we succeeded in persuading him to indulge in histrionics we had a good day, but alas, he was not to be diverted all that often from the prosaic task of checking whether we had learned by heart the literary gems he selected for us. Despite his unusual methods, he did, however, succeed in laying the foundations of a lasting love of poetry and drama in at least two of his pupils.

I had been in Ledsham a year when John came. It was a great pleasure for me to see a former classmate join us in the Juniorate, not that there was any shortage of Limerick people there, but having two from the same class was not common. We were processed quickly in those days. We matriculated in 1939, did our novitiate at Carlett Park during the first year of the war when it developed from the phony stage to the nightly attempts by the Germans to bomb the Manchester Ship Canal at the end of the drive, and we can still remember the novice master Casimir Allen reprimanding us for singing during an intensive air raid on the canal, telling us to keep quiet or the Germans up there in their aeroplanes would hear us and let us have the contents of their bomb rack. The war brought us no concessions, but the rigours of rationing, sleepless nights with wailing sirens, and the ever-present possibility of meeting our Maker prematurely only served to provide Casimir with all manner of extra refinements which he could add to his inventory of psychological and physical irritations specially collected to advance us in the spiritual life. Small himself in stature, to him the first principle of spirituality was to reduce everybody to size — preferably his size. Giants of men quailed under a frown which reached no higher than their cinctures, and before they had undergone his regime for two months, any lingering satisfaction they might have felt in the attainment of even the matriculation of those days was erased by his continued belittling of the modest academic heights they had scaled. No doubt his object was to make sure than we felt compunction, but it was perhaps a pity that he should discourage us so much from trying to define it.

We survived, some of the edges honed away, and went on to university. John must have been one of the youngest ever to attend—after all he was only sixteen and a half when he began, and not much more than nineteen when he graduated BA. One of his subjects, naturally, was English, a subject which he taught with great success later. His first teaching post was St Joseph’s, Blackpool, and there his humanity came across with lasting effect on his pupils. He gave, as one of his former pupils wrote last year, not only the subjects he taught, but also, much more significantly, himself. He would talk to them of his home life, of his father, Regimental Sergeant-Major Ring of the Royal Munsters, and of his brother Patrick, the singer. He had a fine strong voice himself, which he raised—and not only in song. He would persuade the musicians among his pupils to accompany him, and one or two of them who became organists and choirmasters later on remember with gratitude now the brother who long ago initiated them in the arts of choir-mastering and accompaniment. They pay tribute too to his teaching of religion and to his being years ahead of his time in his exposition of the theology of the Mass, stressing at a time when it was not fashionable the communal nature of the sacrifice. “Never forget that the phrase after Orate, fratres is your sacrifice and mine; it’s not just the priest’s, and don’t you forget it.” He could not play a musical instrument, but that did not prevent him from enjoying music to the full. Brass bands to John were irresistible, and when Wordsworth said 'the child is father of the man' he was certainly right about John Chrysostom Ring and brass bands. He had been born near Edward Street in Limerick, and everybody knows that Edward Street is the home of the Boherbuoy Brass and Reed Band. Years later when he became headmaster of St Ambrose’s, Hale Barns, he acquired the instruments of a regimental band at a very reasonable cost and set up a brass band in the school. After the band had established itself he went on to introduce the playing of stringed instruments and woodwind, so that today—after a relatively short time, the quality of St Ambrose’s orchestral music is quite as high as that of some of our other English schools where the tradition of orchestral music has been much longer established.

John spent seven years in Blackpool, and was transferred to Bristol in 1950. Travel between the houses of the province was not as frequent then as it is now and the only opportunities most brothers had of meeting were during the summer holidays spent usually at Howth, Co. Dublin, and then when the shift to the south side gathered momentum, at Dalkey and Greystones. It was during the vacations of the 50’s that many of the mannerisms which were later to become part of him were cultivated or developed. He would pluck you by the sleeve to emphasize a point, or prod you with his index finger; he would startle you by the loudness with which he cleared his sinuses; he would repeat some familiar story with a disarming introduction like: “You may have heard me say this before but it will bear repetition.” I think that there was a certain insecurity somewhere in those early years. For some reason he felt he had to be known as a raconteur, as a teller of yarns, as a man among men. It wasn’t the real John, but it was the persona he assumed, for reasons, which were known only to him. Possibly the deaths of his parents, followed soon after by the deaths of other close relatives may have accounted for this—possibly also the inevitable spiritual struggle which a growing man has in accepting himself with his limitations and his sexuality. Whatever the reasons were, his reactions to people whose views disagreed with or whose judgment of events, say at Rugby match, did not accord with his own, could he downright, vehement, blunt, and even intemperate. People were taken aback at the violence of his language. It was, I think, based on the assumption that emotion should not be recollected in tranquillity, but should be immediate and explosive to be natural. This John was to undergo a metamorphosis.

He was moved to Bristol in 1950 and then did a stint at St Edward’s, Liverpool, from 1953 to 1955. He went to Altrincham in September 1955, and remained there till 1960. When we take into account that he was to return later as superior, he spent eleven years there altogether. It was there that he first began to visit Dr Egan, a Liverpool psychiatrist, in whom he had great confidence, and whose ministrations helped him through some of the darkest periods of his life. He continued to visit Dr Egan regularly until his death. What was fascinating and edifying about all this was that with the undoubted and sometimes obvious tensions there was an equally undoubted and equally obvious deepening of John’s spirituality. It showed itself particularly in the scrupulosity with which he attended to his prayer life, the restraint which he practised and increasingly perfected in situations where hitherto he would have overwhelmed in a tirade of oral vituperation some unfortunate who had crossed his path, and the conscientiousness with which he prepared his school work. He cultivated a softly-spoken tone of voice, which was rarely raised; his patience became almost palpable, and his love and regard for his brethren was quietly but most persistently expressed in his relations with members of his own community and the province at large. His own mental sufferings made him particularly tolerant of and sympathetic towards those who might in any way have been going through the dark night.

He fulfilled various offices in the communities he was in from 1957 until his death and was a most loyal subsuperior to those whom he served in Altrincham, Ledsham and Orrell. It was in the last house that for the first time since our novitiate we were together in the same community. His support in house and school was a tremendous prop during the years when a decision regarding our future in Orrell was being taken. Later on, when he became superior during the final year of our spell in Orrell, his self-effacement in relation to the school was evident daily in his total availability for any job which I as headmaster asked him to do. Later on, when as the representative of the Congregation he was obliged to say public farewells to our friends in Orrell, his eloquence made an impact on all who heard him. The people of Wigan and Orrell, and with some reason held us in high regard. Their regret at our going could only have been heightened by the magnificence of John’s speech making at our departure. His patron Chrysostom had smiled on him. He had already spent five full years in Altrincham between 1955 and 1960. At the time the school was small, consisting of about 200 boys, mostly non-academic. Considering the nature of the material, John and his colleagues did surprisingly well. The staff was small and had to be versatile, being liable to be asked to teach anywhere. His duties were multifarious. He was full-time teacher, bursar, seller of blazers and badges and ties, games master, pumper-up of footballs, putter-up of cricket and tennis nets, liner of pitches, referee and umpire. His nervous breakdown was not surprising.

St Ambrose’s, when he returned as superior and headmaster in 1973, was a different school. There were new and impressive buildings, the academic quality of the intake had improved, and recognition by the Department of Education and Science had been obtained. John capitalized on the new situation and immediately set about exploring the possibilities of his pupils’ entry to Oxford and Cambridge as well as to the provincial universities. He was immediately successful, and for this alone St Ambrose’s is indebted to him. But it was in the teaching of religion that he placed greatest emphasis. He considered it his most important duty as headmaster and spared no money either in the employment of experts or the acquisition of books and teaching materials to further this end. His own spiritual life was cultivated with an undeviating regularity. He spent the half hour before school in prayer in the chapel. In addition to those parts of the Office prescribed for public recitation, he set aside time daily for prayer during the day. Staff, boys, and parents thought of him, and still do, as a very holy man. Only God knows the innumerable acts of kindness he did for boys and parents when the need arose. He never spoke about them. They are only now coming to light.

His care for the fabric of the school was unending, and like Goldsmith there was nothing that he touched that he did not adorn. Its pleasant setting he beautified still further with the laying of paths, lawns, and trees. The sports facilities he improved out of recognition with the laying down of new cricket pitches and new jumping pits, and the provision of equipment and space for field events of every kind. He planned the new music building now in course of erection, and restored the community house to its original Edwardian beauty. In all he displayed exquisite taste, devoid of extravagance, but with a simplicity aesthetically pleasing. His room was simply furnished and scrupulously neat, reflecting unerringly the person he had become with its religious books and his quiet reading.

He had done much for St Ambrose’s and naturally he was sad to leave it, but he recognized with his customary humility and objective judgment that after six years as superior and headmaster he had contributed as much as he could to community and school. He was looking forward to his tertianship in Rome. He saw it as an occasion for renewal in the religious life—for above all else he was a man of prayer. It was, too, an opportunity to meet the brethren from other provinces and to spend some time in exploring Italy, for whose history and culture he had an enthusiasm, matched only by his love for his native Ireland and his adopted England. Alas, it was not to be. He went on holiday to Majorca and was found dead after a swim on 31st July 1979. His body was brought back to Altrincham. After requiem Mass presided over by the bishop, the Right Reverend Eric Grassar, in the Holy Angels Church beside the school, at which a panegyric was preached by Reverend A. Cogliolo, who had been a friend of his for many years, he was laid to rest next to Canice Healy. The crowds that attended the requiem were an indication of the respect in which he was held. The following lines from a parent sum up much better than I can the feelings of those to whom his years in Altrincham meant so much.

A Brother Remembered

It was so still that August evening.
There was only the sound of rain, so much rain,
Cleansing, life-giving, water from the eternal fount,
Warm, summer rainfall drenching the Hale Barns earth,
Drumming against the Holy Angels’ tower
As they laid him, our Brother John, the gentle one,
Sleeping in the folds of love, before the altar.
There was so much love and prayer. So many gathered together.
Sadness and joy, thanksgiving and asking, mingled,
And over all the Peace of Christ and the warm caress of rain.

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