Kim Bielenberg and John Meagher look back at 20 names that will be remembered from the last 12 months — from those who lifted our spirits, excelled in their field or who defined some of the key events of 2020
Would you have guessed many of these names?
At 78, Joe Biden became the oldest person to be elected president of the United States.
Before the election, opinion polls placed the Democrat far ahead of Donald Trump, but the count proved to be dramatic.
At first, as results came in, the election outcome seemed close and at one stage it even seemed possible that Trump might win. But as more postal and absentee ballots were counted, Biden pulled ahead, and eventually won the popular vote by a margin of 7 million votes. At 81 million, his vote was the highest recorded by a candidate in a presidential election.
Biden had characterised the election as a “battle for the soul of America”. His successful pitch was to moderate, middle-ground voters who wanted to end the conflict and divisiveness of the Trump years.
In contrast to the president’s abrasiveness and aggression, Biden’s dignified tone was calm, reassuring and steady.
With his Irish-American background, Biden expressed concern after his election about the possible effect of Brexit on the Irish border.
“The idea of having the Border north and south once again being closed — it’s just not right. We have got to keep the Border open,” he said. — KB
Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald had a victory of sorts in the general election of February as Sinn Féin won the highest percentage of the vote and disrupted the two-party system.
Her only disappointment was that she failed to translate her party’s dominance into enough seats to become the leading party in the Dáil. It had not planned for such a high vote and fielded too few candidates.
Its performance was partly eclipsed by the emerging crisis of Covid-19, with McDonald having to stand by while her adversary Leo Varadkar continued in a caretaker role before he finally became a junior partner in a government with Fianna Fáil and the Greens. After the previous year’s disappointments in local and European elections, the Sinn Féin leader dispelled doubts that she could maintain the appeal of Gerry Adams, and broadened her party’s support base, particularly among women.
Billing Sinn Féin as the party of change, her strategy was one of constructive engagement with the issues affecting people’s everyday lives, particularly housing and health.
McDonald had her own pressing health concerns when she was infected by the coronavirus. She said on the Late Late Show that her experience of being ill with Covid-19 “floored” her and that she had “never been as sick”.
“Every part of me hurt,” she said. “It hurt to open my eyes. My eye sockets ached. All of my nerve endings were hypersensitised.”
While the sparring between Sinn Féin and the Government was toned down in the early phases of the pandemic, the exchanges became more acrimonious when Micheál Martin formed a new government and McDonald became leader of the opposition.
She has every hope of eventually becoming Taoiseach as leader of a party that is a curious alliance of woke young radicals and dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, unapologetic about the Troubles-era atrocities of the IRA’s past. — KB
The country superstar grew up in grinding poverty but has used her fame and wealth for philanthropic purposes for many years. In November, it was revealed that she had donated $1m to help fund vaccine research by Moderna.
The US pharma firm was the second — after Pfizer — to announce successful results for its trial vaccine, and give much needed hope that the pandemic could be brought to an end. Parton became one of its major donors in April when the Trump administration was downplaying the dangers posed by Covid.
The veteran singer also made a short but memorable appearance on the Late Late Show this month as part its country music special dedicated to the life and career of Philomena Begley.
Parton spoke about her charity, Imagination Library — which has seen 150 million books donated to the poor — as well as her love of Ireland. “I look fake,” she quipped, “but everything inside me is real.” — JM
It was an eventful year for the broadcaster. She began by explaining Covid-19 to the public via her TV show, contracted the virus herself, then in September she took over the coveted mid-morning slot on RTÉ Radio 1.
Claire Byrne Live on Monday nights had a series of memorable broadcast stunts, where it showed how easily the virus could spread, how tests were carried out and how hands should be washed. Byrne helped turn virus experts such as Sam McConkey and Luke O’Neill into household names.
In mid-March, she herself became the focus of attention when she broadcast the programme live from her garden shed. She was self-isolating because she had the symptoms of a cold. Tests showed that she had the coronavirus. Her symptoms got worse; she had a hacking cough and was breathless.
Although she was able to continue broadcasting, some of her symptoms lingered. She explained months later how she suffered “brain fog”.
RTÉ announced in August that she would be the presenter of the Today programme in Seán O’Rourke’s former slot on RTÉ Radio 1.
Byrne had been heavily tipped for the position, despite Sarah McInerney’s strong showing as a stand-in during the summer. — KB
From Limerick, by way of Zambia, the young rapper, poet and singer seemed to be everywhere in 2020. There was a stunning performance on the Other Voices: Courage TV series in May — arriving just at the right time when we were having to accept that going to gigs would not happen for some time — and appearances on the Late Late Show in September and November.
On her first, she talked openly about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. “We had been vocal,” she told Ryan Tubridy, “but it took a very long time for white people in this country to see the reality of the trauma and the wound that black Irish people deal with.”
Chaila also released an eagerly awaited debut album in October, although she insisted it was a ‘mixtape’ rather than a studio album proper. Either way, Go Bravely was the work of a distinct new talent, and one of several illuminating albums from African-Irish musicians. — JM
The pandemic may have induced an unemployment nightmare around the world, but for many of the globe’s wealthiest people, Covid brought even more riches. The Amazon founder has long been the world’s richest person and this year, his jaw-dropping wealth went up and up.
In July, Bloomberg reported that his fortune had risen by $74bn in 2020 as shutdowns around the world meant even more people were buying from Amazon. It is now estimated that Bezos is worth a scarcely comprehensible $190bn.
With the high street suffering due to lack of footfall and the relentless migration to online marketplaces such as Amazon, there have been calls for the super-rich to provide financial assistance for those in distress.
One uber-wealthy figure did just that: Bezos’s ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott. Since July, she has donated $4.2bn to charity. Scott’s divorce from the tycoon was the most lucrative in divorce history and she has vowed to give away most of her wealth during her lifetime. — JM
The presenter may still have his detractors but he confirmed his status at the pinnacle of Irish broadcasting with his performance on the Late Late Toy Show.
Between the live broadcasts, repeats and online streams, well over 2 million viewers in Ireland and around the world watched the show.
After 11 years in the hot seat previously occupied by the late Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny, Tubridy has shown that he is a talented entertainer. He may not be the most incisive interviewer, but how many chat show hosts could take on the role of Fantastic Mr Fox and perform song and dance numbers with panache? Nobody was too perturbed when he swore on air as a bottle of Fanta fizzed over.
The show came at just the right time to raise public spirits after a second period of lockdown. Like his colleague, Claire Byrne, Tubridy was himself infected with the coronavirus, but happily it did not hit him too hard.
“I was very lucky with the Covid experience that I had and that is to say, some people had it really bad and they had a long Covid. I had a very small version of Covid. I had a persistent cough, I only remembered recently I had a bad wheeze and a shortness of breathing,” he said. — KB
The British prime minister began 2020 in bullish mood. His Conservative Party had comprehensively beaten Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the general election in mid-December. He promised to deliver Brexit.
Over the next 12 months, he would lurch from one crisis to the next.
Brexit has been a tortuous challenge and he had difficulties with his former special advisor Dominic Cummings, but everything was overshadowed by the challenges presented by Covid-19. By any metric, Johnson’s leadership of Britain during the pandemic has been shambolic.
Under his watch, Britain’s death rate from the virus is among the highest in the world. Many of the deaths occurred in care homes in the early stages of the pandemic as he struggled to grasp the seriousness of the threat.
While the rest of Europe was battening the hatches, Johnson was shaking hands and failing to wear a mask. Soon, he would contract the virus himself — and it had such a severe impact that he had to be hospitalised for several days. — JM
Ursula von der Leyen
It was a year when Ursula von der Leyen became an important figure in the political and economic life of Ireland.
By the end of the year, the German president of the European Commission was centre stage in the Brexit negotiations.
When Boris Johnson tried to redirect talks by appealing to individual European prime ministers such as Angela Merkel, he was referred back to the commission president.
She was there to represent a united bloc of 27 states, presenting a neat and coiffured contrast to Johnson’s shambolic appearance at meetings.
As well as Brexit, she had to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and an EU recovery package.
She also had to handle the crisis over Phil Hogan’s attendance at the Golfgate dinner in Clifden, his resignation as trade commissioner and his replacement on the commission by Mairead McGuinness. — KB
The Manchester United striker has probably done more to dispel the image of the spoilt, pampered footballer than any other player as he campaigned relentlessly for measures to relieve poverty among children.
He was awarded an MBE for services to vulnerable children in the UK during the pandemic. The 23-year-old successfully lobbied the British government into a U-turn over its restrictive free school meals policy during lockdown, ensuring children in need would receive money for meals during the summer.
The England forward later formed a child food poverty task force, linking up with some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets and food brands.
As a result of his campaigning, British ministers made further commitments to relieve child poverty and pledged more than £400m in support through 2021.
Rashford is driven by his own hardships. He was born and raised in Manchester by a single mother who relied on food vouchers to feed her five children. — KB
At the start of the year, it’s unlikely that too many could have named the chief medical officer. Tony Holohan’s name may have been familiar to those who followed the Cervical Check scandal, but from the end of February, he was inescapable.
Essentially the face of the Covid response in Ireland, Holohan largely urged a cautious approach this year although, like many of his colleagues in the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), he was slow to advocate mandatory mask-wearing.
As the year went on, appreciation for his efforts grew and there was genuine distress among many when he announced that he would be stepping back temporarily to be with his wife Emer after she was admitted to palliative care for blood cancer.
His deputy, Ronan Glynn, took charge for much of the late summer and into autumn, before Holohan returned. His first call was to seek stringent restrictions, which were initially rebuffed by Leo Varadkar. Eventually, the government heeded his call and Level 5 lockdown came into effect at the end of October. — JM
With the pandemic dominating everything in 2020, it was little surprise that a host of medics, virologists and scientists would become household names. Trinity College’s Luke O’Neill was among the most prominent, a genial communicator during a period in which the messaging — from both Nphet and the Government — sometimes felt contradictory.
O’Neill would become one of Ireland’s most vocal advocates for face masks, although in the early stages of the crisis, he suggested they weren’t necessary. He later said that as Covid is chiefly spread in the air between people close to each other, masks would help reduce transmission.
On a personal level, O’Neill had a very good 2020. In September, Inflazome, a biotech start-up he co-founded, was sold for €380m to Swiss healthcare company Roche. In November, his book, Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here’s the Science, won the popular non-fiction category at the An Post Irish Book Awards. — JM
The pandemic may have focused world attention on a common threat, but in Eastern Europe, much of the year has centred on the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Belarusian government under President Alexander Lukashenko.
Since coming to power in 1994, he has ruled the former Soviet country with an iron fist. Opponents have been incarcerated, often without trial, and it remains the only country in Europe to have the death penalty on its statute books.
Opposition to his reign has come from 38-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a dynamic, modern politician determined to bring democracy to her country.
She has strong links to Ireland, having been a frequent visitor to Roscrea, Co Tipperary throughout her teens and early 20s. She was one of several Belarusian children who were ‘adopted’ by Irish people during summer holidays under the Chernobyl Children International charity. She continued to travel to the north Tipperary town until her early 20s and is still be in contact with her old host family. — JM
The US was convulsed by nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in police custody.
The father-of-five died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to police, he was arrested on suspicion of “passing counterfeit currency”.
Footage of the arrest on May 25 showed a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the floor.
Chauvin was later charged with murder.
Transcripts of police bodycam footage showed Mr Floyd said more than 20 times that he could not breathe.
Protests against the death of the unarmed victim quickly spread across the US and beyond, including in Dublin. — KB
Adriene Mishler reaffirmed her position as YouTube’s most important yoga guru as millions of viewers sought out her videos during the lockdown.
The 36-year-old was described as “the patron saint of quarantine” with up to 7 million subscribers to her YouTube channel. Fans gave the mild-mannered Texan credit for helping to keep them sane.
The videos also featured her Australian cattle dog Benji, who became a mini-celebrity.
Mishler produced yoga videos that suited a wide variety of types and situations. They included Yoga for Seniors, Yoga for Suffering, Yoga for Weight Loss, Yoga for a Dull Moment, Yoga for Winter Blues and even a video to help viewers to break wind. — KB
Sam Bennett won the green jersey at the Tour de France in perhaps the biggest Irish sporting triumph of the year.
The cyclist produced a stirring finish in the final stage to secure the title in cycling’s biggest race.
While the holder of the yellow jersey is the overall winner, the green jersey winner is rewarded by his placing in each stage, with extra points for certain sprints.
Bennett was the first Irishman to claim the green jersey since Seán Kelly won it for the fourth and final time in 1989.
Remarkably, both men grew up in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, although Bennett was born in Belgium.
The 29-year-old, who rides for Belgian giants Deceuninck – Quick-Step, was already well-established as one of the world’s top sprinters. But few had expected him to challenge Peter Sagan, the three-time world champion, in the green jersey contest. — KB
Before 2020, the Kildare native was probably best known as one of the faces on a TV ad for sausages. Everything changed in April, when he starred as Connell in Lenny Abrahamson’s 10-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People.
The series, set in Sligo and Dublin, was centred on young love. The up-and-down relationship of the characters played by Mescal and co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones (an English actress, whose Irish accent barely slipped) captivated the nation like few other shows.
There was even an Instagram account set up in honour of the chain Mescal wore around his neck. And when he tweeted “I’m Irish” in response to claims that he was British, it became the most ‘liked’ tweet among Irish users in 2020.
Mescal’s Irishness was apparent in other ways. So fond was he of wearing GAA shorts on his strolls around London that Gucci appeared to have been inspired to produce its own, very similar version. — JM
It quickly became known as ‘Megxit’. In January, Meghan Markle and husband Prince Harry announced on Instagram that they were stepping back as “senior members” of the British royal family. They said they had been hounded by paparazzi and wanted to divide their time between Britain and Markle’s native US. Then, in September, it was revealed that they had signed a multi-year deal with Netflix, which will pay them to make documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming. The news drew considerable criticism from the likes of broadcaster Piers Morgan, who suggested Markle had used the royal family to boost her profile.
But even Morgan was silent when it emerged that Markle had suffered a miscarriage during the summer. Writing about the loss of her baby in the New York Times, she reconciled her “unbearable grief” by acknowledging the suffering of so many in this pandemic: “This year has brought so many of us to our breaking points. Loss and pain have plagued every one of us in 2020, in moments both fraught and debilitating.” — JM
If several of the world’s leaders failed to cope with pandemic, not least ‘strongman’ presidents such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, New Zealand’s premier was widely seen as best in class.
Even before the arrival of Covid, Jacinda Ardern was regarded as a modern, progressive leader, but she has enjoyed international acclaim for the way she tackled the pandemic head-on.
New Zealand made the most of its island status by pursuing a rigorous ‘Covid zero’ approach, which has involved severe restrains on travel to the country as well as a two-week quarantine on arrival. The results speak for themselves: transmission has been negligible for most of the year and the death rate among the lowest in the world.
Covid-zero advocates here — including Prof Sam McConkey of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland — have urged the Government and Nphet to follow New Zealand’s example. Others, including the Mater Hospital’s Jack Lambert, insist that such an approach simply won’t work in Ireland. — JM
Ellen Glynn and Sara Feeney
After hours of searching, it was feared that they were lost at sea, but their rescue brought celebration across the country,
Ellen Glynn (17) and Sara Feeney (23), from Knocknacarra in Galway, were found clinging to a buoy 4km south of Inis Oírr — 27km from where they set off paddleboarding on Furbo Beach.
Throughout their 15-hour ordeal, the young women survived wild seas, thunder, lightning and torrential rain, much of it in pitch-black darkness.
Just as hopes were fading, the cousins were plucked from the sea by Patrick Oliver and his son Morgan.
The Galway fisherman had used his knowledge of the prevailing currents and winds to pinpoint the pair’s trajectory. — KB