European Tour of Sports – Republic of Ireland

The Basics

Population: 4.6 M
Area: 70 273 km2
Capital: Dublin
Summer Olympic Medals: 28 (9 G-8 S-11 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular sports and History

Let’s put the political stuff to bed from the outset. This article is about the Republic of Ireland which for most of sport’s governing bodies is synonymous with just “Ireland”. The Island of Ireland usually fields a single team, and many athletes born on both the Republic and the Northern part participate under the Republic of Ireland’s flag, but there are some notable exceptions. The main one is football, with both nations being part of UEFA, and the Northern Ireland also sends a separate representation to the Commonwealth Games (similarly to what happens with Wales and Scotland), but in many others a conjunct group is assembled for international participation, including in rugby, hockey or basketball. For the Olympic Games, Northern Ireland-born athletes can choose to be part of Team Great Britain or Team Ireland. Thus, for purposes of this article, I’ll limit myself to the intricacies of Ireland-based events and sports venues, and focus on the sports of interest for the people of the Republic of Ireland. As for the athletes, those that represent the Irish teams are included even if they hail from the North. Sometime in the future, I may get back to the “Emerald Isle” to recognize the traditions and achievements of the people that wear Northern Ireland’s colours.

If politics couldn’t stay out of this article, geography also plays a key part, since Ireland’s distance to mainland Europe is one of the reasons the continent’s main game gets pushed to a secondary role on the nation’s sports pyramid. Indeed, the top headlines stirring the passions of the people are pretty much unique to the island, with the Gaelic games taking centre stage. From the group organized by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most relevant, dominating Ireland in terms of match attendances (together hog 60% of total live sports spectators), community involvement and popularity, galvanizing entire counties in support of their local heroes and team representations. Both sports are strictly amateur, with players, coaches, and managers prohibited from receiving any form of payment, thus the love for the game and pride in representing their own fuel the artists.

The teams from Dublin and Kerry took part in the 2015 All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship Final

The similarities extend to much terminology and the field, as both sports pit two squads of 15 players on a rectangular pitch trying to score points by putting the ball into the other team’s goal (3 points), or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) exceeding the ground (1 point). However, while in Gaelic football a leather ball bigger than a volleyball is carried, kicked or punched, in Hurling the players use a wooden stick, called a hurley, to hit a small ball, which results in the latter being considered one of the fastest sports in the world. Naturally, both games are also hits with the large Irish expats communities around the world, even if no country is strong enough to compete with the home nation.

In terms of competitions, the major ones operating every year include the National Football League and the All-Ireland Senior Championship, both disputed on an inter-county basis, and the All-Ireland Club Championship, which is contested by individual clubs. A similar organization (and adapted designations) is used in hurling. The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final is the pinnacle of Ireland’s sport season and the most watched match on the calendar, with more than 80.000 packing Croke Park to crown the best team in the country, but the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship enjoys almost the same buzz. The most dominant sides in both sports come from the provinces of Leinster and Munster, with Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary being considered “the big three” of hurling, while the assortments of Dublin and Kerry are the most successful in Gaelic football.

Players from Tipperary and Kilkenny chase the ball during an All- Ireland Hurling Championship match

Behind these two sports comes finally (association) football, whose fandom is more ingrained in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland’s national team qualified for the third time for the European Championships in 2016, following presence in 1988 and 2012, and has also been in three World Cups (1990, 1994 and 2002), going past the group stage in every occasion and reaching the quarter-finals on their debut. Roy Keane, the irascible former Manchester United midfielder – and national team captain from 1997 to 2002 – is the most famous Irish footballer, alongside Robbie Keane (no relation), the current captain, all-time top goal scorer and most capped player.

Forward Robbie Keane is Ireland’s top goalscorer of all-time

The Irish football fans are fervent supporters of the national team, always travelling in droves to international tournaments (more than 250.000 have applied for Euro 2016 tickets..), and strongly sympathize with leading British clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. However, the scenario isn’t as interesting on the domestic League of Ireland, one of the weakest in Europe, with most of the best talents leaving early to earn a living abroad, particularly in England and Scotland. Shamrock Rovers Football Club is the most important team in Ireland, holding a record 17 National Championships and 24 FAI Cups, but that wasn’t an impediment for a staggering 22-year-period (from 1987 to 2009) without a stable home ground, which speaks for the financial frailty of a league with an average attendance of less than 1600 spectators. Also based in Dublin are Shelbourne FC, Bohemians FC and St. Patrick’s Athletic, while Dundalk, the Champions in 2014 and 2015, are the most important side away from the capital region.

The other team sport enjoying widespread popularity throughout Ireland, especially in urban centres, is rugby, with the National Team regularly positioned on the top five in the World and able to get the best of every other squad except for New Zealand’s All Blacks. From the Shamrock’s laurels are part several Triple Crowns (awarded by defeating Scotland, Wales and England in succession) and thirteen Six Nations Championships (the last in 2015), of which two were Grand Slams (conquered by winning all five matches during the tournament). At the Rugby World Cup, Ireland has been tremendously consistent, advancing to the quarter-finals in six of eight tournaments, but never getting past that hurdle. The national team represents the entire Irish Island and eight former Ireland players have earned induction into the International Rugby Hall of Fame, including Brian O’Driscoll, former outside centre, captain and Ireland’s all-time leader in tries scored, widely regarded as one of the best rugby players ever.

Former Ireland’s captain Paul O’Connell lifts the 2014 Six Nations Championship trophy

At the club level, Ireland’s provinces field professional squads that compete with the best in the continent, and those teams have achieved relevant performances in recent years, in part boosted by sell-out crowds in decisive matches. They take part in the Pro12, the annual rugby union competition involving twelve professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – one of the three major professional leagues in Europe along with the English Premiership and the French Top 14 – and due to their performance qualify regularly for the European Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament won by Ulster in 1999, Munster in 2006 and 2008, and Leinster in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Team sports that possess high popularity around Europe like basketball, volleyball or handball are rather inconspicuous in Ireland, whilst the Irish lineage is found on some eminent American sports stars like former NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neil or NFL quarterback Tom Brady. However, Pat Burke was the only Irish-native to have played in the NBA, suiting up for the Orlando Magic (2002-03) and Phoenix Suns (2005-2007).

Changing directions now, from Ireland’s 28 Olympic medals more than half were conquered in boxing, a sport whose popularity is resurging in the country due to a constant stream of international medals conquered at the amateur level and culminating at the London Olympics in 2012 (more on that on the next section). As for the professional ranks, it stands out former WBO middleweight and WBO super-middleweight champion Steve Collins, who piled up victories during the 90’s.

A Champagne-soaked Darren Clarke (L), Paul McGinley (C) and Padraig Harrington (R) celebrate under the Irish flag after Europe’s Ryder Cup win in 2006.

Set to return to the Olympic calendar in 2016, Golf is not only of major importance on a touristic level, with over 400 golf clubs dotted throughout the island, but also as a competitive sport because Ireland produced several top golfers since the turn of the century. Look no further than Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, who achieved significant success internationally and were all part of the European team that secured the 2006 Ryder Cup held at the Irish club of Kildare. However, the best golf talent unearthed in the Island over the last few years is Rory McIlroy, who represents Northern Ireland.

Not as followed but equally relevant for historical reasons is cycling, with Ireland producing two of the leading racers of the 1980’s. Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in 1987, and later that year added the World Championship title to cap an incredible triple crown, while Sean Kelly picked up almost two hundred professional triumphs from 1977 to 1994, including the 1988 Vuelta a España, the green jersey of the Tour de France in four separate occasions and a stunning nine monument classics (3 Giro Di Lombardia, 2 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Milan-San Remo and 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège).

Cycling legend Sean Kelly represented Ireland in multiple occasions

After Boxing’s sixteen medals, Athletics has contributed with the largest share of Olympic credentials, with six, even if only one after 1984, courtesy of Cork-native distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan, second in the 5000 meters at the 2000 Sidney Olympics. O’Sullivan was also the event’s 1995 World Champion, the highlight of a decade when she was at the top of the pack internationally, whereas Derval O’Rourke was a leading 60m and 100m hurdles sprinter at the European level from 2006 to 2011.

Swimmer Michelle Smith was a triple gold medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (200m and 400m individual medley, 400m freestyle), to which she still added a bronze medal on the 200m butterfly, and such a haul earmarked her as the most successful Irish Olympian to date, but the results have been tainted with unproven allegations of doping.

Of the five sports that brought back Olympic medals to the Island, we still have to mention sailing, which contributed with silver in 1980, and equestrian sports, conventionally an Irish stronghold. Events such as show jumping, dressage and endurance races are strongly attended, and the excellence is certainly facilitated by a great tradition in breeding and training horses. Some of Ireland’s tracks are also used for greyhound races, since the country also exports racing dogs. Finally, the Irish have also gained notoriety in snooker, even if the biggest names were born and represented Northern Ireland, including the “Hurricane” Alex Higgins.

In terms of winter sports, they are utterly residual in Ireland but the country has managed to send a representation composed of a handful of athletes to every Winter Olympiad since 1992, except for Lillehammer 1994.

Star Athletes

Jonathan Sexton (Rugby)

Johnny Sexton converting a penalty for Ireland during a 2011 World Cup match

The career of Jonathan “Johnny” Sexton has been defined by his ability to rise up when called upon to deliver in key situations for both his country and provincial team. After joining Leinster in 2006, Sexton had to wait patiently for the opportunity to leave his mark and it would come on the biggest of stages: the 2009 semi-final of the Heineken Cup against rivals Munster. Summoned early to replace the incapacitated starter, the fresh-faced fly-half coolly steered his team to the final, and was truly inspired on the decisive encounter, adding 15 of Leinster 19 points – including an outrageous drop goal from the halfway line – to secure his team’s first European title. Two years later, he was once again the man on the spotlight, lighting the field with 28 points to complete a stunning comeback for Leinster and collect a second Heineken Cup, with 2012 fetching a third triumph in four seasons. The composure of Sexton powered the new-found European dominance of Leinster and he was already entrusted as one of the finest fly-backs in the game.

The 30-year-old reign on Ireland’s squad took a bit more to consolidate, since Sexton and veteran Ronan O’Gara, one of the most capped rugby players of all-time, alternated the hold on the Nº10 shirt from 2009 to 2012. Nevertheless, ultimately the position became his and under the Dublin-native’s guidance and masterful play from the back line the Irish collected the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations Championship.

By then, Sexton was already enjoying a lucrative two-year stint for French giants Racing Métro 92, but he has since returned home to pursuit a fourth European Champions Cup and a third Celtic League/Pro 12 victory. With 540 points (including 9 tries) amassed in 61 appearances for his country, Sexton’s passing, defensive expertise and proficiency on spot-kicks have made him almost irreplaceable for Ireland and Leinster.

Katie Taylor (Boxing)

August, 9th, 2012. The Excel Arena in London is brimming as the sea of fans draped in green bellows while a national hero strides towards the boxing rink. Some 450km Northwest, in Bray, on the east coast of Ireland, a crowd can’t control the nerves in front of giant TV screens set around town, expectant to see one of their own deliver Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in 16 years. A few minutes later, Katie Taylor’s right arm is elevated as the decision is announced and the whole of Ireland explodes. The most outstanding Irish athlete of a generation has added the inaugural women’s lightweight (-60 kg) Olympic title to a plethora of European and World honours, and on her way became one of the faces of the 2012 Olympics as her aura of invincibility was elevated by her raucous, record-setting countrymen.

Katie Taylor and the Irish Flag on the victory lap in London

Born in 1986, Katie Taylor balanced her dreams of staring in both boxing and football for so long that she managed to represent the senior national football team in 11 occasions before hanging the boots in 2009. However, no matter how talented a footballer she was, it was improbable that she could go as far as her boxing career has taken her. In fact, since taking off by becoming an Amateur Boxing European Champion in 2005 and losing in the quarter-finals of the World Championships on the same year, this sport has never been the same. One year later, New Delhi saw Taylor turn into a World Champion for the first time and step into the World Rankings’ lead, and both labels haven’t been relinquished almost a decade later. The 29-year-old’s résumé is composed of a staggering 18 gold medals, 12 conquered in European competitions, 5 World titles in a row, and that Olympic award she will try to replicate at Rio de Janeiro this summer. Instrumental in getting women’s boxing into the Olympic calendar, this is a run of domination few can claim to equal in any sport and inevitably makes the girl from Brady the ultimate flag bearer of Ireland’s sport.

Daniel Martin (Cycling)

Born in Birmingham, England, but representing Ireland since age 20, Dan Martin has carried – alongside his cousin Nicholas Roche – the expectations of a country that followed passionately the sport of cycling in the 80’s. The nephew of Stephen Roche first turned some heads in 2008 by winning the Irish Road Race Championship, but would have to wait for his place at the sun. The first successes amongst the best would arrive in 2010, namely on the general classification of the Tour of Poland, yet 2011 was Martin’s true breakthrough season, highlighted with a triumph on the 8th stage of the Vuelta a España and a 2nd position on the Giro di Lombardia. The Irish rider was quickly establishing a repertoire on hilly, punchy finishes and bumpy one-day classics, and 2012 confirmed his potential both as a future monument winner, with a top-five position at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and as top-ten Grand Tour hopeful by virtue of a debut at the Tour de France.

The 2013 Volta a Catalunya triumph preceded the biggest victory of his career, conquered at the Liège, and he was fighting at the Tour de France before an untimely illness cracked his flying chances a few days after winning a stage. This up-and-down path knew more chapters in 2014, with a crushing fall on the roads of Belfast on the initial time-trial of the Giro d’Italia coming right after a devastating mishap on the last meters of the Liège. Rising from the tarmac, Martin gutted out a 7th overall position at the Vuelta a few months later and his luck completely spun on the Giro di Lombardia, ending the year on a high with a famous triumph.

Dan Martin, at the time racing for Garmin-Sharp, crosses the line at the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Last year, after no wins and several near-misses on high-profile occasions (including two runner-up finishes at the Tour), the 29-year-old said adieu to his only professional organization, leaving Slipstream/Garmin to join Etixx-QuickStep, where his aggressive, risk taking racing style may thrive even more. At the peak of his physical abilities, Martin should look at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as a chance to increase his profile among the Irish public, and the route certainly seems suited to incarnate the role of an outsider for gold.

Other Athletes: Robbie Keane (Football), Mark English (Athletics), Ken Doherty (Snooker), Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan (Boxing), Fionnuala Britton (Athletics), Robert Hefferman (Athletics), Annalise Murphy (Sailing), Caroline Ryan (Cycling), Nicolas Roche (Cycling), Aileen Reid (Triathlon), Henri Shefflin (Hurling), Sanita Pušpure (Rowing)

Venues

The heart of Ireland’s sport and the country’s largest venue is the emblematic Croke Park in Dublin. Up to 82,300 people (73,500 seated) can watch the biggest events on the calendar, including the All-Ireland Senior Football and All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Finals, days when the stadium throbs with excitement. Also doubling as the headquarters of the GAA, Croke was first opened in 1884 and experienced the latest renovation in the 90’s, reaching the current capacity, which makes it the third largest stadium in Europe after Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Wembley Stadium, in London. It is, thus, in a place of its own as a venue that isn’t usually used for football, even if in the last decade the rugby and football national teams played there while the Aviva Stadium was being erected. Croke is also sporadically used for concerts, especially since 2007, when floodlights were installed, with local boys U2 (you may have heard of them…) having performed there on four different occasions.

Croke Park brimful on an All-Ireland Championship Final day

Also located in Dublin, the modern Aviva Stadium holds 51,700 spectators since being opened in May 2010 on the grounds of the demolished Lansdowne Road. The former home of the Irish Rugby Football Union opened in 1872 and could welcome 48,000 (36,000 when all seated for football), but the advance of time deemed necessary the construction of a new arena to receive the rugby and football national teams. Therefore, the Aviva Stadium, adorned with a beautiful undulating roof, was assembled and has already received several high-profile events, including Six Nations Championship fixtures’, European and World Cup qualifiers’, the final of the 2011 UEFA Europa League, and the most important rugby matches of Leinster.

Aerial view of the stunning Aviva Stadium

The relatively modest capacity of the Aviva Stadium in comparison with Croke Park has been the subject of some criticism, and the truth is that the new infrastructure pales behind another venue used for Gaelic games, the Semple Stadium, which can accept 53,000 fans, half of them properly seated. The home of Tipperary GAA, a hurling powerhouse, is located in the city of Thurles, part of the province of Munster. Also boasting capacities above 40,000, even if significantly bloated by standing sections, are the Gaelic Grounds (49,500) in Limerick, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh (45,000) in Cork (currently closed for a redevelopment), and the Fitzgerald Stadium (43,180) in Killarney, incidentally all located in Munster and “dual” Gaelic football/hurling venues. The McHale Park, situated in Castlebar, on the province of Connacht, is the second GAA venue by seating capacity, with 38,000 seats.

Scrolling down the list ordered by capacity, the GAA teams dominate as the main tenant of the largest stadiums, with the next football/rugby arena being Limerick’s Thomond Park, where Munster Rugby usually lines up in front of close to 26,000. Meanwhile, their foes of Leinster mainly use the multi-purpose RDS Stadium in Dublin, where sell-out crowds can reach around 20,000 people. Football’s Irish Cup Final was contested there in 2007 and 2008, while the Aviva Stadium was under construction, but originally the venue was built to host show-jumping events, dating back to the XIX century, when the Dublin Horse Show competition was first organized. Today, the stadium’s demountable north and south stands are removed for equestrian occasions.

Munster’s Thomond Park prepares for a rugby match

In terms of racing grounds, the most traditional are the Fairyhouse Racecourse, a premier horse racing venue situated in Ratoath, Country Meat, on the province of Leinster, and Galway Sportsgrounds (capacity 7,500), which doubles as a greyhound racing track and stadium for Connacht Rugby’s matches.

Moving inside, Ireland lacks a state-of-the art national indoor arena, with the 3Arena, a 14,500-capacity amphitheatre located in the Dublin Docklands, functioning as the closest approximation. However, it is not a sports venue but a Music Hall erected on the site of the former Point Theatre, a versatile building that functioned from 1988 to 2007, a period when ice skating, boxing and wrestling events were part of the calendar alongside a multitude of cultural appointments.

The project of the so-called National Indoor Arena – in reality more of an indoor sports campus – based in Blanchardstown, a suburb of Dublin, is in the works, with the final configuration expected to include athletics and gymnastics training centres and multi-purpose sports facilities capable of receiving national and international competitions.

Dublin’s unique National Boxing Stadium on fight night

Nowadays, from the capital’s menu of sports venues deserve nomination the National Boxing Stadium (capacity: 2000) – the only purpose-built boxing stadium in the world – which dates back to 1939, and the National Basketball Arena (capacity: 2500), also known as Tallaght Arena, which is chiefly used by Ireland’s national basketball team. Else, the National Aquatic Centre is the main indoor aquatics facility in Ireland, housing a 50m swimming pool which hosted the swimming events of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, the 2003 European Short Course Swimming Championships, and a number of international water polo events.

Yearly Events

As referred early, the most awaited sports events in Ireland are the All-Ireland Senior Football/Hurling Championships, tournaments that are contested throughout the summer and culminate in the finals being held in late summer/early autumn. The hurling decider takes place in the first (or second) Sunday of September at Croke Park, while the correspondent gaelic football encounter is played later in the month, on the third or fourth Sunday. Additionally, the women’s finals (taking into account that camogie is the female variant of hurling) take place on the ensuing Sunday to the men’s correspondent event and are also held at Croke Park.

Football’s main division, the feeble “League of Ireland” is classified as a summer league, with the seasons beginning in March and rapping up in November, while the Pro 12 competition, the rugby league that includes the four professional teams in Ireland (Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht) is disputed between September and May, with an interregnum in February and March for the Six Nations Championship. Ireland’s annual pair (or trio) of home matches for this competition is held at the Aviva Stadium.

For a summary of Ireland’s main sporting events yearly scheduling, look below:

Six Nations Championship, Rugby
Dublin, February and March

Fairyhouse Easter Festival, Horse Racing
Ratoath (County Meath), March

The Irish Grand National is a popular Steeplechase horse racing event held every Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse

Irish Open International, Martial Arts
Dublin, March

Irish Open, Golf
Location varies every year, May

Dublin Horse Show, Show Jumping
Dublin, July

The Galway Races, Horse Racing
Galway, July

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, Hurling
Dublin, September

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, Gaelic Football
Dublin, September

Dublin Marathon, Athletics
Dublin, October

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