Ireland is a nation of sports fans and athletes on both an amateur and professional level, from team sports such as hurling, football and rugby to athletics, sailing, horse-riding and cycling. Some of Ireland’s renowned sports stars include world boxing champion and Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor, golf star Rory McIlroy, Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll, Olympic gold medallist and boxer Michael Carruth, Tour de France champion Stephen Roche and accomplished runner Sonia O’Sullivan.
Traditional Irish Sport
Hurling, Gaelic football and camogie are the traditional sports of Ireland and are among the most popular in the country. The games are managed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which was established in 1884 to promote and develop national sports. Hurling, camogie and Gaelic football are played at an amateur level, meaning players are not paid.
In all three sports there is highly competitive rivalry between counties, with annual All-Ireland hurling, camogie and football championships, culminating in the finals held in Croke Park, Dublin every September. The finals are the highlight of Ireland’s sporting year; almost 1.5 million people watched the 2012 All-Ireland football final on television.
Hurling is a stick-and-ball sport and is believed to be the world’s oldest field game. Camogie is almost identical to hurling and is played by females. Teams of 15 players play with a long wooden stick made from ash called a camán, and a leather ball, called a sliotar. To score, players put the ball over a crossbar for one point, or into a goal for three points.
Gaelic football is similar to Australian Rules football in that players can kick the ball, bounce it, carry it for a number of steps and hand-pass it to one another. The football used in this sport is round, smaller than a soccer ball, and made from leather. Each team fields 15 players and as in hurling, to score players put the ball over a crossbar for one point, or into a goal for three points.
Soccer is very popular in Ireland at all ages from underage to senior level and is organised on a national level by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). 19 senior teams compete in the national football league called The League of Ireland and in a knockout league called the FAI Cup, and many Irish players also play for British clubs. The Irish international team, which plays as the Republic of Ireland, has qualified for the World Cup three times (1990, 1994, 2002) and the European Championships twice (1988, 2012). Some of Ireland’s most renowned football players include Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, Liam Brady and Johnny Giles.
Rugby is popular in Ireland, with competitions organised on a regional basis in the four provinces - Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. Each of the four provinces also has a professional rugby team which competes in the domestic league and the European championship (the Heineken Cup).
At international level, the sport is managed by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). Ireland competes in the annual Six Nations international championship every year and in the World Cup Competition every four years. Most recently they reached the Quarter Final stage at the 2011 World Cup. In 2009, the Irish rugby team won the RBS 6 Nations Championship, the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam. Irish rugby greats include Brian O’Driscoll and International Rugby Hall of Fame inductees Keith Wood, Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson.
Equestrian sports – show jumping and horse racing – are popular in Ireland and have a large following. Annual horseracing festivals take place throughout the country, the most popular of which is the Galway Races, held for seven days in July. Horse breeding is also an important industry in Ireland, and the Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the finest in the world. In 2011, Irish-foaled horses were sold to 35 countries with the total value at public auction of €156.5 million.
Over 400 golf courses offer excellent facilities throughout the country. The Ryder cup was held in Ireland in 2006, with top Irish golfers Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley contributing to the European team’s victory over the United States. Harrington later went on to become a three times ‘Major’ winner, winning the British open in July 2007 and in 2008, and the US PGA in 2008. Another Irish Golfer, Shane Lowry, won the Portugal Masters in October 2012.
2010 and 2011 were remarkable years for golfers from Northern Ireland: Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke won three major tournaments — the US Masters 2010, the US Open 2011 and the British Open 2011.
Ireland also hosted the September 2011 biennial professional women golfers’ Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle Golf Resort, County Meath.
Olympic and Paralympic Games
At the London 2012 Olympics Games, Ireland won five medals, finishing 41st on the medal table. Among the medals in the Irish Olympic team were four medals for boxing, including a gold medal for Katie Taylor, and a bronze medal for show-jumper Cian O’Connor. The Irish Paralympic Team returned home from London with a record total of 16 medals, 8 of them gold. Sprinter Jason Smyth and middle distance runner Michael McKillop retained their world titles and Paralympic gold medals, winning gold in both of their respective events.
Ireland has a history of successfully hosting prestigious sporting events and hosted the Special Olympics in June 2003. This was the largest sporting event ever to take place in Ireland with over 7,000 athletes from 160 countries coming to Ireland to participate in this unique sporting event.