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The Sporting Moments That Define Ireland
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The Sporting Moments That Define Ireland

Picture of James Hendicott
Updated: 12 October 2017
Ireland has plenty to recommend it from a sporting perspective. A world-class rugby country, the 4.5 million population of the Republic also have a resilient if unspectacular soccer team, and a selection of their own, highly-skilled and highly-locally-popular sports in the form of GAA. The latter includes Gaelic football – arguably the country’s first sporting love – and the memorably frenetic sport of hurling, sometimes joking described as ‘a cross between hockey and murder’.

Sport has long been key to the social fabric of Ireland, and occasionally crossed into the political, too. We’ve gone for a modern-lean with this list, which explores key victories and the odd moment of devastation. It’s hard to narrow down the absolute height of a sports-mad nation, but here are our choices of critical, unforgettable moments…

Croke Park and Bloody Sunday (21 November 1920)

As Dublin and Tipperary faced off in a Gaelic football match in front of around 5,000 people at the iconic Croke Park stadium, political killings earlier in the day spread to the stadium, with the occupying British army believing that Irish rebel nationalists were hidden within. They opened fire on the afternoon of 21 November 1920, shooting indiscriminately into the crowd in what’s now the undeveloped and iconic ‘Hill 16’ corner of the ground, killing 16 and injuring dozens more. The event was one of a number that contributed to eventual Irish independence. It goes without saying it wasn’t captured on film, but the below scene from the movie ‘Michael Collins’ gives an idea of the event.

Munster overcome the giants of New Zealand (31 October 1978)

New Zealand were (and still are) the undisputed kings of rugby union. Their autumnal contest with the southern province of Munster in 1978 was supposed to be a warm-up for the Kiwis, but they were dispatched confidently by their brazen hosts at Thomond Park by a scoreline of 12-0. It took the national team until 2016 to match the feat. The only win in 30 attempts over 11 years was at a friendly in Chicago.

Ray Houghton scores as Ireland beat England (12 June 1988)

It’s the summer of 1988 and Ireland have qualified for their first ever European Soccer Championships. Even better, they’ve drawn against arch rivals in the group stages. In Stuttgart, one of Ireland’s greatest ever teams score after six minutes through a header from midfielder Ray Houghton, and then cling on for dear life. A nation celebrates.

Ireland go one better at the 1990 World Cup (June 1990)

After their European debut two years earlier, Ireland go one better and reach world level at Italia ’90, and the entire country has football fever. They’re even drawn in a group with England again. Despite failing to win a game – there are ties with England, highly-rated Holland and Egypt in the group stages – Ireland get through a knockout game after having to draw lots with the Dutch, and then overcome Romania on penalties. The lofty heights of a World Cup quarter-final are still the country’s greatest soccer achievement. They lost to hosts Italy 1-0. Watch the penalty save from Packie Bonner that shook Ireland, against Romania in the first knock out stages, below.

Sonia O’Sullivan wins silver at the Sydney Olympics (25 September 2000)

Ireland’s heritage in distance running isn’t spectacular and shows no sign of returning to this heyday. Cork woman Sonia O’Sullivan remains an icon, as only the second Irish woman ever to win an Olympic medal. The first, Michelle Smith, has an asterix next to her name due to later drug bans. O’Sullivan was also Ireland’s first track and field medalist since the early 80s, and is a much-beloved figure throughout Ireland today. There were more ladies’ medals to follow, of course…

Rugby comes to Croke Park (February 2007)

After the GAA relaxed the regulations on the playing of other, ‘foreign’ sports on the harrowed Croke Park grounds, rugby came to the 82,000-capacity stadium for the first time. Ireland narrowly lost in the annual Six Nations tournament to France. The key game for most locals came later the same month, as Ireland hammered rivals England 43-13 at the same venue. Rugby and soccer found their home in the stadium from 2007 to 2010, with the national stadium across the city under reconstruction. It’s also since hosted American football.

Thierry Henry’s handball reverberates through soccer (18 November 2009)

Ireland had outdone themselves in a World Cup playoff, and contrary to all expectations before the match, were leading 1-0 against France in Paris. With France have won the first leg 1-0 in Dublin, the game goes to extra time at 1-1, with a place at the World Cup in South Africa 2010 at stake. During extra time, Thierry Henry controls a ball that’s leaving the pitch with his hand, twice, then crosses it to teammate William Gallas, who promptly scores. The referee misses the handball, but the Ireland team know what’s happened and they’re livid. There’s even a campaign to have the game replayed, or have Ireland added to the World Cup as a 33rd team. Nobody takes the latter very seriously. Thierry Henry has never been forgiven on Irish shores.

Rory McIlroy wins the US Open (19 June 2011)

Rory McIlroy has caused quite a bit of controversy since his 2011 US Open win, with a war of words with Roy Keane, and suggestions he might choose to represent the UK, and not Ireland, in the Olympics (he’s from Northern Ireland so such subjects are sensitive, to say the least). In 2011, he was still Ireland’s golfing golden boy and his astonishing US Open win at Congressional – by a full eight shots – was his finest, defining moment.

Katie Taylor wins Olympic gold (August 2012)

Ireland has a spectacular boxing culture but many now argue Katie Taylor, a lightweight from the coastal holiday town of Bray, is the best ever. She stormed through the field at the 2012 London Olympics, followed fight after fight by a raucous traveling crowd, to take gold comfortable over Tajikistan’s Mavzuna Chorieva in the final. She even has a fan-penned song in the charts. In 2016, her return as Olympic favourite saw Taylor beaten in the quarter-final and turn professional shortly afterwards.

Conor McGregor swats aside Jose Aldo (12 December 2015)

Conor McGregor wasn’t born into a role as an Irish hero at UFC 194, but he certainly cemented his status as a sporting legend when he stopped his rival in a memorable 13 seconds. We all know what came next (that famous money fight with Mayweather), but this was arguably the Dublin man at his peak.