6) Ireland v England in Croke Park, February 2007
Croke Park, that great pantheon of pure, Gaelic, Irish games. The site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, when British troops shot 14 civilians dead. The arena where so many Irish sporting heroes excelled at Ireland’s indigenous games. The receptacle of the Irish soul. And to have ‘God Save The Queen’ played there and sung by tens of thousands of English rugby fans? Heresy, surely. But in February 2007, that’s precisely what was about to happen. Ireland’s maturity was to be tested. Would the English national anthem be booed? Would riots break out? Would Irish people disgrace themselves? Not at all. The anthems were greeted with respectful silence. And then, to everyone’s relief, the Irish rugby team hammered England 43-14.
7) The Irish Derby
If the story of Irish sport is one of glorious failure and almost-rans, then horse racing is the exception. As the great commentator Ted Walsh has pointed out, Ireland is the Brazil of horse racing. Dermot Weld, John Oxx, Vincent O’Brien, and Aidan O’Brien are among the biggest trainers. Kieren Fallon, Mick Kinane, Johnny Murtagh, Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy are some of the best jockeys. And Ireland breeds some of the most famous horses: Red Rum, Arkle, Shergar, Istabraq … Coolmore and Ballydoyle are virtual production lines for famous horses. The Irish Derby, run over one mile and four furlongs of prime County Kildare sod on the famous Curragh Plains is one of the biggest races in the world.
8) Michelle Smith
Like Roy Keane, she divided a nation. Three gold medals in one Olympic Games, unheard of for an Irish athlete. But the questions over her astonishing leap in performance, the tampered-with drug tests and her doper husband persisted and persist still. Atlanta 1996 was a time of disbelief in Ireland. An Irish athlete – a swimmer, no less – sweeping all before her. The rumors began to trickle out. First Janet Evans’s tearful press conference. Jealousy, surely? Then her whiskey-contaminated urine sample. Traces of steroids in another sample. But she was never stripped of the medals and remains Ireland’s most successful Olympian. And the most controversial. Just don’t bring her name up in polite conversation.
9) Barry McGuigan
The Fighting Irish. Both in and out of the ring, Irish people have a reputation for being scrappers. But by the late 1980s, that reputation had not translated into gold medals or championship belts in boxing for quite some time. Barry McGuigan, the wiry featherweight from Clones, changed that, albeit briefly. He dropped world champion Eusebio Pedroza of Panama in the seventh round to take his title and the Clones Cyclone became an Irish hero. To both sides of the divide. Born Roman Catholic in the border town of Clones, he took British citizenship to fight for Britain in the Commonwealth games, married a Protestant, and, in the midst of the Northern Ireland troubles, he managed to appeal to both sides of the divide and insisted on a non-sectarian stance. As was said at the time, “Leave the fighting to McGuigan.”
10) Sonia O’Sullivan
Sonia O’Sullivan could be the embodiment of Irish sport. Abundant talent, some great successes, but somehow never seemed to make the breakthrough on the really big stage. Fourth in the 3000 meters in Barcelona in 1992, where the silver medalist later tested positive for drugs. An upset stomach in Atlanta in 1996, causing her to fade out of the final miserably. A silver medal in 2000 seemed a meager reward for her domination of long-distance running in non-Olympic years and her bagful of world and European medals in other competitions. And while Olympic glory would always elude her, she never courted controversy like a Roy Keane or a Michelle Smith, and her loping stride and that kick of acceleration is the iconic image of Irish athletics for much of the 1990s.
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