Thursday 29 September 2016

Poll: Who was Ireland's greatest sports star between 2004-2014?

Published 01/05/2015 | 00:00

Katie Taylor (left) leads Ireland’s Olympic medallists down the steps of their flight back from London 2012
Katie Taylor (left) leads Ireland’s Olympic medallists down the steps of their flight back from London 2012

In 2008 the Celtic Tiger walked into a trap and very quickly it was as if the good years had never happened. From the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2010, the GDP growth rate went into reverse and the economy began to shrink. Double-digit unemployment, high emigration and general despair returned like a trio of 1980s bands who'd reformed for a joint comeback tour.

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The greatest depths of all were plumbed in the first quarter of 2009 when GDP shrank by a whopping 10 per cent and despair was pretty much unabounded. Pretty much because those were also the months when the Irish rugby team delivered only the second Grand Slam in our history. It may not have consoled the people who'd just seen everything go up in smoke but it at least distracted them for a little while.

In fact the resemblance between this period and the one from 1985 to 1994 is remarkable. It is another time of sporting wealth and economic squalor. Katie Taylor became the Republic's first Olympic gold medallist since Michael Carruth back in 1992, Rob Heffernan won the first world athletics gold medal since Sonia O'Sullivan back in 1995 and the Republic's soccer team even qualified for a major finals again in 2008, even if that ended up adding to rather than detracting from the sum of national happiness.

Most remarkably of all we went on a binge of Major triumphs in golf. When Pádraig Harrington won The Open in 2007 he was only the second Irishman ever to win a Major, after Fred Daly who'd won the same tournament in 1947. It looked as though this would stand as one of the great days in Irish sporting history. But it probably won't because Harrington won another Major, then another. Then Graeme McDowell won one, and so did Darren Clarke, while Rory McIlroy now has four of them and counting.

Since Harrington's breakthrough Irish golfers have won nine Majors. The Americans have won 12 and the rest of the world 10. There has never been a more striking illustration of this little island's ability to punch way above its weight in sport.

Harrington is the son of a Cork Garda who played in two All-Ireland football finals and with his friends, built their own golf course in the foothills of the Dublin mountains and McIlroy the son of a man who worked 90 hours a week while his wife worked an eight-hour night shift to pay for their kid's budding golf career. They are a long way removed from the idea of golf as an elitist sport, which would have held sway when we began our story.

But then a lot of things have changed.

Rugby too was regarded, not without reason, as the preserve of the Irish professional classes. In fact when the IRFU were debating the move to professionalism, perhaps the country's best known rugby writer of the time bemoaned that these classes would be forced out of 'their' game if it was infiltrated by people keen to make money from it.

The game was more geographically circumscribed too, the great Irish team which drew with the All Blacks in 1973 contained players from just five counties whereas against Scotland in the deciding match of this year's Six Nations Ireland players from nine different counties, and two born in Israel and Spain, saw action. That's a bigger spread of counties than there was on either the hurling or football All-Star teams.

The fan of 50 years ago might have found that surprising but their mind would surely be boggled by the fact that one of Ireland's most popular sporting figures comes from the sport of women's boxing.

When the GAA voted to allow rugby and soccer into Croke Park in 2005, they were allying themselves with an Ireland where people were inclined to emphasise what they had in common rather than their differences
When the GAA voted to allow rugby and soccer into Croke Park in 2005, they were allying themselves with an Ireland where people were inclined to emphasise what they had in common rather than their differences

There was no Irish women's rugby team then either or All-Ireland Women's Football Championship. Women's sport continues to lag behind men's sport in terms of funding, public exposure and attendance figures, but at least it grows closer every year.

There is, however, no point in pretending these historical disadvantages didn't exist. A lack of funding and facilities matters. The west of Ireland, for example, which also suffered from these structural disadvantages has just one representative in our top 50 individuals.

Perhaps the most incomprehensible thing to a fan of today transported back 50 years would be The Ban. Right up until 1971 a member of the GAA could be banned not just for playing 'foreign games' but for even watching them or indeed going to a dance run by a club which promoted them. Maybe we shouldn't be too harsh on the GAA.

Their policy merely reflected one of the governing principles of a society defined by the Magdalene Laundries, the Censorship of Publications Board and the Industrial Schools. And this principle was that when you were on top, the thing to do was put the boot into the person underneath you.

So when the GAA voted to allow rugby and soccer into Croke Park in 2005 they were doing more than making a commercial decision, they were allying themselves with an Ireland where people were inclined to emphasise what they had in common rather than their differences. And perhaps it's no coincidence that two major Irish sportspeople, Donal Óg Cusack and Valerie Mulcahy, who have come out as gay, were both GAA stars.

Quite a few people will vote yes in the gay marriage referendum because of the respect they have for Cusack and Mulcahy. You see, sport and society can't be separated. They march on together.

Sunday Independent

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