Following last weekend’s historic victory over the All Blacks, we look back through the international triumphs that had the nation on its feet
Ireland’s historic test series win against New Zealand last weekend has thrilled rugby fans and it was deservedly talked about as one the country’s all-time greatest sporting moments.
But where does it rank in a list of Irish sporting triumphs, and what other great days captured our attention in a profound and lasting way?
We set ourselves one decisive parameter. The events have to have international significance, so that rules out extraordinary moments on the GAA pitch, such as Offaly’s last-minute goal to deny Kerry’s footballers the five-in-a-row in 1982, or Herculean rugby tussles between Leinster and Munster.
And we were keen to identify those sporting events that had a significant impact on as much of our population as possible — moments that had even those who tend to avoid sport getting as excited as the rest of us.
Everybody loves an underdog. When our women’s hockey team qualified for the World Cup in London four years ago, only those enamoured with the stick-and-ball game took notice. But Ireland were in giant-killing mood and, thanks to one gutsy performance after another, they made it to the final — and it took a thrilling penalty shoot-out against Spain in the semis to get there.
They may have been comprehensively beaten by the Netherlands in the end, but the nation was right behind them and stalwarts like Chloe Watkins and Anna O’Flanagan rightfully got their time in the sun. We certainly love to jump on a bandwagon and will get behind minority sports when the going is good, just as we’ve done with our rowers, cricketers and sailors.
The arrival of RTÉ television in the early 1960s changed Ireland profoundly. Its significance has probably been underestimated and one area in which it transformed lives was sports broadcasting. It helped to make celebrities of local GAA stars and enhanced the fame of our soccer players who were plying their trade on the other side of the Irish Sea. But, arguably, the most celebrated Irish sports star of the 1960s was four-legged. Arkle, trained by Tom Dreaper in Co Meath, and ridden by Pat Taaffe, was nothing short of a sensation in the world of steeplechasing and won an unprecedented three Cheltenham Gold Cups, in 1964, 1965 and 1966. That third victory cemented the gelding’s status as the greatest racehorse of the era.
His career was cut short by injury but those successes would mark the beginning of Ireland’s dominance in the thoroughbred game and consolidate the nation’s love affair with horse racing.
One newspaper headline suggested last weekend’s win in Wellington was Ireland’s greatest ever rugby result. It’s certainly right up there. Where once beating New Zealand seemed to be the stuff of dreams — Munster’s famous 1978 victory was, for a long time, the only Irish win against the All Blacks — we’ve almost got used to beating the Kiwis at their own game in recent years. What makes this one so special is the fact that it happened on New Zealand soil — two victories after one defeat to give Ireland test glory. It moves Andy Farrell’s side into number one spot in the world rankings and bodes well for the country’s chances of tasting ultimate glory at the World Cup in France next year. But such has been Irish rugby’s persistent failure on the biggest stage that many are already wondering if we have peaked too soon.
Almost nobody would have seen Ronnie Delany win Ireland’s fourth Olympic gold in Melbourne — Ireland was still largely television-free in 1956 — but they basked in the glory of it all the same. Huge numbers rose early to gather around the wireless to hear the commentary of the Dubliner’s stunning 1,500m triumph. Here was a 21-year-old doing something extraordinary on the other side of the world. It was Ireland’s first gold medal at the Olympics in 24 years and it thrilled a then insular nation. His victory would have long-term ramifications for athletics here and a golden generation, including Eamonn Coghlan and John Treacy, would following in his footsteps two decades later. By then, Ireland — like much of the rest of the world — was in the throes of a running boom, one that’s still going strong today.
The move to professional rugby union in the mid-1990s would help to transform the sport in several ways. One side effect was its new-found popularity among Irish people who would traditionally have had little interest in the oval ball game.
A new generation of players — spearheaded by Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell — seemed to epitomise Irish rugby’s changing fortunes. That illustrious trio helped deliver many special moments in the 2000s — not least the emphatic win over England at an emotion-drenched Croke Park in 2007 — but it was bagging a Grand Slam at the end of that decade that truly marked rugby’s arrival as a sport enjoyed by all.
It was only Ireland’s second Grand Slam and first Six Nations championship since 1985. And it was done in nail-biting fashion. There was a narrow win over England at Croke Park (the new stadium at Lansdowne Road was still under construction) and it took a last-gasp O’Gara drop-goal to beat Wales in Cardiff.
Sonia O’Sullivan was one of the seminal Irish sports stars of the 1990s and a role model for girls in an era when most of the media attention was centred on male athletes. Track and field lovers had long known about the Cobh native’s potential, but her tenacity on the track would soon ensure that she transcended her sport and became a national treasure.
In 1995, she had one thing on her mind: gold at the World Championships in Gothenburg. And her form was sensational: she won 23 out of 25 races in the lead up to the Swedish tournament. There was considerable pressure on her going into the 5,000m final, but her grit and determination was there for all to see as she gave it her all on the final straight.
Her achievements on the track — as well as those of another great Irish athlete, Catherina McKiernan — helped to push up the numbers in athletics clubs all over Ireland, with increasing numbers of women encouraged to lace up too.
It’s possible the Cork woman was cheated out of medals on other occasions too. Many of the Chinese runners who pipped her on the line were rumoured to be part of a state-run doping programme.
For years, the national football team threatened a breakthrough but either fell at the last hurdle or suffered desperate bad luck. Generations of richly talented Irish players never got to play in a European Championship or World Cup. That all changed with qualification for the Euros in Germany in 1988 — and we needed help to get there: a Gary Mackay goal for Scotland ensured it was Ireland, rather than Bulgaria, who made it to the tournament.
And what a tournament it turned out to be. A Ray Houghton header against England was enough to give Ireland victory against the old enemy and give birth to an enduring chant: “Who put the ball in the English net?” And Ronnie Whelan’s long-range volley against the USSR is still regarded as one of Ireland’s best-ever goals.
The tournament was, perhaps, bittersweet for some football devotees. After faithfully getting behind the team for years, now they were having to share them with many who had once given Irish football a wide berth. A national love affair was blossoming with manager Jack Charlton, and it would only intensify as the years went on.
For cycling purists, there’s almost universal acceptance that Ireland’s greatest-ever rider is Seán Kelly. But while the Carrick-on-Suir native helped put Irish cycling on the map in the 1980s, it was his Dublin counterpart, Stephen Roche, who truly grabbed the headlines.
For those with only a fleeting interest in pro cycling, the Tour de France is the only competition that matters. When Roche won it for the first and only time, he became not just the first Irishman to achieve the feat, but only the second from outside continental Europe to win the world’s leading bike race. His performance in the ‘87 Tour gripped the public, with the 21st stage etching itself into the collective memory. After the gruelling Alpe d’Huez the day before, he had to do everything in his power to contain the challenger Pedro Delgado. A defining image is the sight of him sprawled out on the ground at the end, receiving oxygen — but it was the moment that he effectively sealed victory.
The hundreds of thousands who turned up for his homecoming demonstrated just how passionately the country was behind him. Remarkably, in 1987, he also won the Giro d’Italia, and the UCI Road World Championships — completing cycling’s holy trinity.
If there’s one Irish sports star deserving of a Hollywood biopic, it’s Katie Taylor. We are all so familiar with her story that it no longer feels extraordinary — and yet that’s exactly what it is. Women’s boxing was virtually unheard of when she was starting out. There were few female role models in the sport that she loved, but she persevered anyway.
It was largely thanks to athletes with the steely determination of the Bray woman that women’s boxing was granted Olympic status and was first staged at the London 2012 games. Taylor, of course, qualified — but could she go all the way? We all know that the fairy tale came true and she won gold after a ferocious fight at a raucous Excel arena.
Not only did Taylor helped encourage girls to take up boxing, but she paved the way for a sea change in female participation in sport. A decade on from London, and women’s sport in Ireland is in a far better place than anyone might have imagined. And the evergreen Taylor is still going strong — a champion in the professional ranks, just as she was in the amateur game.
George Hamilton’s commentary captured the moment perfectly. “The nation holds its breath,” he gasped, as David O’Leary stepped up to take the final penalty in the shoot-out against Romania. The net bulged. “Yes! We’re there.” The spot-kick put Ireland — World Cup debutants then — into a scarcely dreamt-of quarter-final against hosts Italy. A single Totò Schillaci goal ended our tournament in Rome, but by that stage there was hardly anyone left in the country who hadn’t fallen in love with the Boys in Green. They even had an audience with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
Two photos in particular captured the mania: one, a completely empty O’Connell Street during matches; the second, throngs of green-clad fans gathered at a normally traffic-choked Walkinstown roundabout in Dublin. The veteran sports reporter, Con Houlihan, later reflected on how the World Cup had captured the public’s imagination like no other. “Italia ’90? I missed it… I was in Italy at the time.”
After a bleak 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of mainly young people were forced to emigrate, that World Cup adventure seemed to herald the arrival of a more joyful decade, one in which Ireland finally appeared to leave old shackles behind. From Kevin Sheedy’s goal against England to Paul McGrath’s heroics in the Stadio Olympico, the occasion is burnt into the hearts of all of us old enough to experience it.