The Story of James M. Ryan of Ballyslateen – World High Jump Champion

Supplement Nationalist Centenary 1890-1990, p 76


August 19, 1895 was the outstanding day in the life of J. M. Ryan. At the first sports meeting held in Tipperary town for eight yerrs, before an attendance estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000, he soared over 6' 41/2'' on his third attempt to wipe out the world record held by the Irish-American, Michael F. Sweeney. The 'Nationalist' report of the event was sober and brief: 'At Tipperary Sports yesterday, J. M. Ryan, the well-known athlete, raised the world's record by clearing the bar at 6 feet 4 and a half inches. The ground was tested by levels and every precaution taken to ensure its acceptance as a record.' 

The report didn't do justice to the excitement of the occasion. In another account we read: 'The good people of Tipperary, doing honour to their idol, may have umwittingly prevented him from negotiating an inch higher. When he had cleared his extraordinary jump, a rush was made by the spectators and J. M. was carried, shoulder high around the enclosure. It was only after a lapse of about ten minutes that he extricated himself' from their attentions to resume operations at 6' 51/2", all but succeeding, having gone over and landed when one end of the bar fell off the pegs. 

Six Feet

Up to 20 years previously the 6' high jump was regarded beyond the scope of human endeavour. But, in 1876, M. J. Brooks of Oxford University topped 6' 21/2'' at Lillie Brdige. Within four years one of the famous Davin brothers of Carrick-on-Suir, Pat, cleared 6' 23/4'' in his native town for a fresh world record. This record, beaten by M. F. Sweeney in 1892, was to last as Irish record until 1893, when J. M. Ryan jumped 6' 31/2'' at Nenagh. When Pat Davin heard who had done it, he declared his delight 'that it took another Tipp man to beat him.' J. M. went on to beat Sweeney's record at Tipperary.


Who was this world champion? James Mary Ryan was born in Ballyslateen in the parish of New Inn on April 3, 1871. His father, Michael, better know as 'Little Mick' had the distinstion of being able to jump into an ordinary barrel from a standing position, and out again!

This skill was to be passed on to J. M. and his sister, Katie. Both were capable of jumping over the two-sided, five-foot high, iron gate leading into their homestead, from a standing position on one of the gate piers. When it is realised that Katie died at the age of 16 years, the schievement is all the more remarkable!

There was a family of six. Michael, junior died at the age of 32 years. Katie and Mary died in one month from diphteria, aged 16 and 13 years respectively. William left home as a young man, qualified as an engineer in London and went to the U.S. John took up farming and lived at Rathgallon, after the Ballyslateen farm was sold early in the new century. James M. became a teacher.

St Patrick's Training College

James M. spent two years, l890-92, as a Queen's Scholar in St. Patrick's Training College. One of seven training colleges the students were officially known as Queen's (or King's) scholars and age limits for entrance were l8 to 35 years. Entry was confined almost entirely to ex-monitors and ex-pupil teachers. Monitors could he appointed in any suitable national school. They were selected from promising pupils in the higher classes and appointed by the manager, on the recommendation of the inspector for the district. The age limit for appointment was 12 to 16 years. If successful at an examination, held by the Board at the end of the third year, the monitor was con­tinued for two additional years, when a further examination was held which, in practice, was a competitive examination for entrance to a training college. 

A trained teacher was obliged to serve a two year's probationary per­iod, before being awarded the final training diploma. No increment was paid him until after the receipt of the diploma. James M. Ryan received his diploma on December 21, 1894 and it reads: 'Having ful­filled the prescribed conditions, including that of satisfactory probation as teacher in a Public Elementary School,(James M. Ryan) is awarded this Training Diploma of the First Grade.' 


It seems fairly certain that J.N. spent his two years probationary period in Coolderry N.S., and may have spent some time after that. 

In 1893, after winning the I. A. A. A. championship with a jump of 6' 11/8'' a profile stated that 'he lives the quietest of quiet lives in the prettiest part of the King's County, Coolderry. Here he industriously labours as head teacher of the National School. This little instit­ution has, under his energetic direction, grown into a flourishing concern and its success has earned for it the name of Ryan's Academy. Master and pupils are mutually proud of each other and so well they may, as many of the boys who have been finished off by the athletic pedagogue have secured good positions in business, while the discip­line maintained is so firmly estab1ished that the dreaded cane is an unknown qantity in the schoolroom paraphernalia.' 

However, in l895, after setting up his world record in Tipperary, we read that he was then teaching at Mount Bruis, two miles from Tipperary Town. On the day following his feat, in celebration of his winning jump, his pupils showed their appreciation of his efforts when they chaired him around the school. 

It was reported in the 'Nationalist' of Saturday, July 24,1965 that the house in which James Ryan had resided still stood in Davitt street, Tipperary and it was stated to have undergone very little change since he had lived there. The area where he had practised for many a long hour was located only eighty yards or so from his home and had been built on by the late William G. Evans, who was also a very leading light in the sports world of bygone days. 


Ryan didn't look like a high jumper. He stood at 5' 10'' and weighed 178 pounds, quite a weight for a man of his stature to take over the bar. According to the 'Referee', reporting on the English Athletic Championships held at Northampton on July 1, 1893: 'Since Davin no such perfect a jumper has been seen; he clears a bar with a perfectly clear leap without the slightest scrambling manoeuvre common to our jumpers.' And another commentator said of him: 'J. M. Ryan took a jump as a youth would take a hedge or a railing, his only change from the perpendicular in mid-air being a tucking up of his knees. He used neither kick, twist or turn and it can truly be said that the world has seldom seen his like.'

Jim, as he was popularly known, first came to prominence as a nine­teen year old by jumping 6' 11/2" at the Limerick G.A.A. Sports of September l890. He was to be one of the three best jumpers in the world of the early and middle nineties, the other two being Michael F. Sweeney, who was born in Kerry a year later than Ryan and left Ireland for the U.S. at the age of 8 years, and Murty O'Brien of Twopothouse, Buttevant. Sweeney took the lead with a jump of' 6' 41/4'' for,a world record at the New York Athletic Club's games in September 1892. Ryan was beaten by O'Brien the same year at the Clonmel Sports and they were to remain keen rivals for the next four years, with Ryan triumph­ing in the end.


Ryan's progress to his world record at Val McGrath's field, as the Tipperary Sportsfield was better known, was steady and inevitable over the next three years. In July 1893 he cleared 6' 21/2'' in the English championships. In August he broke Davin's 13 year old Irish record at Nenagh, where he jumped like a world beater, not touching the lath up to and including 6' 31/8''. Two years later he broke the Scottish record and in the following month smashed the English record with a jump of 6' 31/2'' at Clogheen Sports. Ryan then attempted the world record and virtually got over 6' 41/2", but barely displaced the bar descending. 

Less than three weeks later he was to succeed with his jump at the Tipperary Sports. The G. A. A. awarded him their official gold medal in recognition of his remarkable achievement.


Within a few days of his success there was a public meeting in Dobbyn's Hotel, Tipperary to present a National Testimonial to the world champion. The attendance was very large and representative and £20 was subscribed in the room. A month later there was a letter to the 'Nationalist' from T.S. O'Dwyer, N.T., Kilmoyler, Cahir pro­posing that the National Teachers of Ireland support the J.M. Ryan Testimonial to the tune of 2/6 per head. I:f everybody responded a sum of £1,500 would he raised. Soon after the Birr branch of the I.N.T.O. at their meeting, criticised the idea of putting a limit to the amount any member should contribute to the Testimonial. The Archbishop of Cashel, Dr. Croke, gave his support to the project and senk two guineas to the fund.


The Tipperary event was the peak of J. M. Ryan' s career. Hi s world record did not last long. Nine days later M. F. Sween­ey topped 6' 5" at Travers Island, New York. There was a dispute ahout its legality because it was set up in an exhibition and, it was claimed, exhibitions did not count for world records. Mr. W. H. Carroll, President of the Tipperary Athletic Club, in a letter to the press, claimed that Ryan had actually jumped 6' 6'' outside of competition. Sweeney, however, clinched the issue by attaining 6' 51/8" on September 2 and 6' 55/8" three weeks later on the occasion of the London and New York International match. 

J. M. never achieved these heights and his other rival, Murty O'Brien took the English championship off him in 1896. His athletic career seems to have come to an end in that year. Perhaps his delicate health, which he had despite his robust constitution, was the cause. In spite of his widespread fame he was essentially a shy man. He retired from teaching at Mount Bruis on March 16, 1900 and died exact­ly three months later at the young age of 29 years. The papers said it was the result of a lingering illness. His niece, Mrs. Kitty Hogan of Carron, Cashel believes it was heart failure, which may have been caused by excessive physical exertion in his earlier years. 

Not only was J. M. a high jumper, he also distinguished himself at the long jump, the hop, step and jump and the 14 pound weight. He was even a reputable sprinter! His funeral was one of the biggest witnessed in Tipperary Town for some time and, after Requiem Mass at nine o'clock on Monday, June 18, he was buried in Ballintemple cemetery, Dundrum.