When Jack Ryan and six of his seven children left Ireland and landed at the port of New York City in 1928, Jack was greeted by reporters shouting questions about his big win. The County Tipperary breeder’s brown gelding, Tipperary Tim, had won the Grand National Horse Race with the odds of 100 to 1 while Jack and his children were crossing the Atlantic.
Jack, a widower, returned to Ireland months after the family’s arrival in New York, leaving his children in the Bronx with relatives. He lived out the rest of his days breeding horses with the one son, another Jack, who had remained in Tipperary. The other children spent the rest of their lives in America. Jack’s son, Patrick, was only 8 at the time his father left them. Pat left school in his teens, enrolled in the New York School of Printing, and apprenticed himself to a printer in NYC. After serving in World War II, Pat moved to Albany with two hundred dollars in his pocket and opened his own printing business, Modern Press, in 1946. Pat’s son Michael joined his father in the business in 1971, and Mike’s son, another Patrick, joined his father to run the family owned business on Colonie St. in Albany in 1991. The three-generation family-run Modern Press, now 73 years old, has kept up with technological innovations and continues to be a robust business with customers from around the United States.
Contact with their Irish cousins has remained a constant for the Ryans of Albany, and through this relationship, their very significant family connection to the revolutionary days of early 20th century Ireland has been passed down through four generations.
The Jack Ryan of Tipperary Tim fame was born near Cashel, County Tipperary in 1877, the second of 7 children of John and Mary Ryan. Jack and his younger brother Michael attended nearby Rockwell College in the last years of the 19th century where they were members of the winning Tipperary rugby Team and where they became close friends of Eamon de Valera.
De Valera taught Mathematics and Physics at Rockwell in 1903 and 1904. Sean Farragher, author of Dev and His Alma Mater, writes that de Valera looked at his Rockwell days as among the happiest in his life. He told stories about the place and the people he met there until he died. The Ryans were his dearest friends. While de Valera is more famously remembered as a leader in the Easter Rising and War of Independence, as a Republican in the Civil War, and, perhaps more than any other individual, as the architect of 20th century Ireland as Taoiseach and president, to the Ryan family he was “Dev,” their neighbor and friend.
Jack and Mike Ryan were the powerhouses of Rockwell and Munster rugby, and de Valera loved rugby. According to Farragher, de Valera actually saw them play in one of the 1899 Triple Crown matches in Dublin. Ireland won the Triple Crown that year, beating Scotland, Wales, and England for the first time. So when de Valera came to Rockwell a couple of years later, he was delighted to meet the Ryan family and play rugby with the two Ryan brothers.
[Dev] was accepted as the favorite younger brother [in the Ryan household] not merely by the boys but by the girls. He had freedom of the house and learned to participate whole heartedly in their pastimes other than rugby – shooting, fishing, card playing, studying and racing cards, and putting on a flutter, and becoming an expert in the matter of punch-making. Dev never tired recounting their escapades together, as, for instance, when Mike challenged him to put down a wager that he would not miss Mike’s hat placed on a stake twenty yards away. Dev, suspecting a ruse as usual, secretly switched the cartridge offered him, and to the amazement of Mike blew his hat to shreds!
Occasionally Dev’s efforts to study seriously in his own room were interrupted by visits from Mike. On one occasion a bout of wrestling started and Mike flipped Dev off his feet and crashed him on to his bed. The bed collapsed on to the ground prompting the President, Fr. Nicholas Brennan, to ask Dev the next morning had he heard any thunder the night before!
Jack’s brother Mike reminisced about their Rockwell days in the Rockwell Annual:
Among those I met at the time and with whom I formed a fast friendship were Thomas McDonagh, who was executed in 1916, DeValera, and Tom O’Donnell, who voted against him on the Treaty question. We little dreamed of the stormy days ahead of or the difference of opinion which would divide us … Tom O’Donnell and “Dev” [who was given the nickname by O’Donnell] were ever playing practical jokes. I remember that one day, O’Donnell dropped or said he dropped a ring in to the lake just at the jetty. Dev was all attention at once. His long arm was bared to the shoulder and he was lying prone on the jetty to try to fish it out when, splash!!—he was headforemost into the water and O’Donnell was beating a hilarious retreat. A few days later, Dev remarked innocently at dinner, that he had seen an enourmous pike at the sluice. O’Donnell was all ears … Immediately after dinner he rushed away to the sluice with his particular contraption of pole and line. Dev was there. Just as soon as O’Donnell leant over intent on securing his prize. Splash!!
Dev was invited to the Ryan home often during the Rockwell years, and he remained in contact with the family, especially Jack’s brother, Mike. A testament to the importance of these years is the letter he wrote to Mike when he was in Kilmainham Jail after the 1916 Easter Rising awaiting what he thought would be his own execution:
May 4th, 1916
My dear Mike,
Just a line to say I played my last match last week and lost, I am to be shot, so pray for me, an old sport who unselfishly played the game.
Remember me to Pat, Jack, Nora, Margaret and the Mrs. Tell Colgan we will never have another game of nap together or beat Rice’s bog or the Wood.
Farewell old friend, you are in my thoughts.
E. De Valera
While the letter today is in the National Museum of Ireland, all branches of the Ryan family on both sides of the Atlantic have copies. The letter refers to Pat, Jack, Nora, and Margaret who are Michael Ryan’s brothers and sisters, and to Colgan, a worker on the Ryan farm. Nap is a game of cards, and Rice’s bog and the woods are places where Dev hunted hares with the Ryans. The letter passed from Mike Ryan to his nephew, another Mike. His nephew gave the letter to a Peter O’Grady of County Clare, who was based in County Tipperary while in the Irish army, because Peter was a huge fan of de Valera. Peter’s wife passed the letter onto Dr. Bill Loughnane, South Galway TD after Peter died in 1973, and Bill gave the letter to the museum. Albany’s Mike Ryan said his father, Pat, told him the story of the de Valera letter, and the lore has been passed down to young Pat and his siblings.
The Ryans have more stories of the family hiding de Valera and other members of the IRA on the run from the British during the War of Independence. Tom Hennessy, a Ryan cousin who lives in Tipperary today says, “The Ryan family was always involved in the national cause … Many IRA operations were planned from the Ryan home and the fact that [Jack and Mike] were international Rugby players meant they went under the radar of local police.” Albany’s Mike Ryan remembers his father, Pat, telling him that on one occasion, de Valera was sleeping in the Ryan’s barn when the British soldiers rode up to the house. Dev quickly hid himself in a barrel of flour. One of Ryans was taken to the police barracks and roughed up a bit for information, but they never revealed that Dev was hiding on their property. When Pat’s father, Jack, died on October 30, 1937, his obituary said he belonged to
one of the most respected Country Tipperary families, who have always been identified with the national movement. During the Anglo-Irish war, [Jack] and his brother, Mr Michael Ryan, sheltered the ‘boys on the run’ and, on several occasions, many noted I.R.A. leaders, including President de Valera, were recipients of the Ryans’ hospitality during these terrible days.
Decades later, in 1965, Jack’s son, Patrick, now living in Albany, wrote to de Valera when Dev was President about his father, Jack, and Uncle Mike. He mentioned an incident passed down from his Uncle Mike about a particular rabbit hunt. The account of Mike Ryan in Cashel from the Rockwell Annualquoted below is the same story nephew Pat in Albany recounted in his letter to DeValera:
I remember de Valera’s first shot. It was Jack’s gun. Jack “spotted” a rabbit sitting beside a large thistle. He pointed it out to Dev, but Dev could not locate it. They daren’t move closer. At last Dev located the thistle and Jack’s instructions were “fire at the thistle and you’ll get the rabbit.” Dev was all excitement. He fired at the thistle and got the rabbit. He became an ardent lover of the gun after that and many a duck did he bring to the Racecourse [the name of the Ryan’s home]!!!
De Valera was in the hospital when he received Pat’s letter, and according to Dev’s secretary, he dictated his reply a day later from his hospital bed on February 6th, 1965 and offered his perspective on the same incident:
Dear Mr. Ryan,
Your father and Uncle Mick were constant visitors at Rockwell when I was there. They were neighbors of ours at Rockwell and the lay teachers and the prefects were particularly fond of them. The privileged ones amongst us used to go occasionally to the Race Course to your Uncle Mick’s place for a game of cards. We usually had supper there before we returned.
Your Uncles Pat and Mick with your father [Jack] and one or two of the priests who were fond of fowling with some of us lay teachers often went for a day’s shooting cross country. It was on one of these occasion that the incident your father told you of occurred. I know now, but I did not know then that my sight must have been deteriorating. Your father’s eyes were keen and he saw a rabbit lying at the foot of a thistle at the far side, about sixty yards a head. He told me so that I might have the prize. I refused to believe it fearing a practical joke and I did not want to waste a cartridge. He repeated, “fire at the foot of the thistle or I will.” I unwillingly obeyed and shot the poor rabbit. I am afraid I had not then the qualms I would have now.
These days at Rockwell were full of happiness for me and not a little of it centred around your father and your Uncle Mick who were our heroes of the football field. I would give a lot to have these days back again. I know your brother Jack well and his wife at the Race Course and their children. I am glad to say they are doing very well.
With many thanks for your kind letter and good wishes. I send you mine in return.
Eamon de Valera and Mike Ryan.
Of the Albany Ryans, Pat’s son, Mike, and his wife, Helen, have three adult children and six grandchildren. Their son Pat is the third generation of Ryans to own Modern Press in Albany. In the 2009 “40 Under 40” issue of the Albany Business Review, Pat says that “his father and grandfather influenced his career since he was seven … and the opportunity to run the family firm is clearly one for which he’s grateful.” Pat and his brother and their families travelled to Ireland for the first time in 2015. They met the Tipperary Ryans and visited the halls and fields of Rockwell College where rugby team photographs of Jack and Mike Ryan and Eamon de Valera hang on the walls. Mike and Helen made the same trip in 2017.
With Mike and Helen’s six grandchildren, the Ryan/de Valera history will live on with the 5th generation of Ryans.