The island of Ireland has produced some of the worlds best sports stars in different sports. From road racing to football, Ireland is known for being a great sporting nation.
Below you will find some of the most known Irish sporting heroes from our tiny island. Which ones do you not know? Comment below.
- Dame Mary Peters
- Sir Tony McCoy
- George Best
- Carl Frampton
- Harry Gregg
- Martin O’Neill
- Alex Higgins
- Rory McIlroy
- Jonathan Rea
- Joey Dunlop
Republic of Ireland
- Conor McGregor
- Roy Keane
- Brian O’Driscoll
- Robbie Keane
- Katie Taylor
- Pádraig Harrington
- Finn Bálor (Fergal Devitt)
- Paul O’Connell
- John O’Shea
- Barry McGuigan
Lady Mary Peters
Lady Mary Peters is a former athlete best known for winning Olympic gold in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Since then she has done a lot of work in the community including setting up the Mary Peters Trust in 1975 to support young sportsmen and women both able-bodied and disabled from across Northern Ireland.
Some notable names who benefited from the trust include Graeme McDowell; Rory McIlroy, Jonathan Rea, Darren Clarke, David Humphreys, Bethany Firth, Ryan Burnett, Carl Frampton, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Kelly Gallagher and Michael McKillop.
Mary Peters was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to athletics in the 1973 New Year Honours. She was then promoted to CBE in 1990 and again to DBE in 2000.
In 2015 she was named Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) also for services to sport and the community in Northern Ireland. She was then made Dame of the Order of Saint John and finally Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter (LG) in February 2019.
Sir Tony McCoy
Sir Tony McCoy is a former horse racing jockey from County Antrim, Northern Ireland. McCoy rode an astounding record of 4,358 winners and was Champion Jockey a record 20 consecutive times.
Tony or ‘AP’ McCoy as he’s known in the world of racing, won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2010 ahead of the likes of darts player Phil Taylor and athletics champion Jessica Ennis.
Tony McCoy stands at 1.78M tall which is far taller than most jockeys. In order to be a suitable weight for horse racing, AP had to keep his weight down to 63.5KG when his natural weight based on his height would be about 75KG.
He has also tasted success in publishing with five volumes of his autobiography. Tony McCoy became Sir Tony McCoy after being knighted in the 2016 New Years Honours for his services to racing.
George Best needs no introduction. The iconic footballer was born and raised on the Cregagh estate in East Belfast. He grew up supporting local club Glentoran, however, was rejected by them for being ‘too small’ and ‘too light’.
Best kept working hard and was subsequently given a trial by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop who famously told Sir Matt Busby “I think I’ve found you a genius”. George was famously quoted saying ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
He is universally regarded as one of the greatest footballers to ever live. He did suffer from alcoholism which subsequently took his life however he is fondly remembered by people in his hometown of Belfast and around the world. As a tribute, Belfast City Airport was officially named after George Best on 22nd May 2006.
Carl Frampton is a professional boxer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Growing up in Tiger’s Bay in the north of the city, Carl joined his local boxing club to help keep himself out of trouble.
He boxed for Ireland as an amateur and won the Irish senior flyweight title in 2005. As a professional, he became a world champion at two weight classes and was named fighter of the year by The Ring magazine, the Boxing Writers Association of America, and ESPN.
He proudly holds a professional record of 26 wins and just 2 losses. Carl is a fighter that is respected and supported by both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. In 2015 fellow fighter and former manager Barry McGuigan said “Carl is doing what I did. He’s a beacon for peace and reconciliation and represents the future of Northern Ireland.”
Harry Gregg OBE is a former footballer hailing from Magherafelt, Northern Ireland. He played as a goalkeeper for the world-renowned football team Manchester United and is also a survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster which killed 23 people.
He won 25 caps for the Northern Ireland national football team and was voted best goalkeeper of the 1958 World Cup where Northern Ireland reached the quarterfinals. Gregg was awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honours for services to football.
Harry made an emotional account of the disaster on a TV programme entitled ‘Munich Air Disaster: I Was There’ on the National Geographic Channel. It features a reunion with Serbian woman Vera Lukić, whom Gregg saved from the wreckage, as well as Vera’s daughter Vesna, at the time a baby.
Unknown to Gregg, Vera was also pregnant at the time of the disaster, so Gregg also rescued another life, that of Vera’s son Zoran Lukić, whom Gregg was shown meeting in the documentary One Life: Munich Air Disaster. Harry Gregg is a true pioneer of Irish sport and sums up the spirit of the people here.
Martin O’Neill is a professional football manager and former player born in Kilrea, Northern Ireland. O’Neill played for Northern Irish sides Rosario and Lisburn Distillery in his early days.
He scored against Barcelona for Lisburn Distillery in the European Cup Winners Cup in a 3-1 home defeat in 1971. He was spotted by a scout for Nottingham Forest and signed for them in October 1971, leaving Distillery for a fee of £15,000, quitting his studies in law at Queen’s University Belfast.
He went on to play a vital role in the golden years at Forest. He scored on his league debut in a victory over Birmingham side West Bromwich Albion. Martin won the European Cup (Champions League) two years in a row with Nottingham Forest in the 1978/79 and 1979/80 seasons.
Following this, he won the Nottingham Lifetime Achievement award for services to football. Martin also had a glittering international career with Northern Ireland, captaining the side at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and reaching the second group stage where they defeated Spain in Valencia.
He also was the Republic of Ireland manager for a period of time and most recently he was the manager of Nottingham Forest. His most successful stint as a manager came at Aston Villa and only parted with the club due to disagreeing with the board about the best means of moving the club forward.
Alex Higgins was a Snooker player from Belfast, County Antrim. He is widely regarded as the most iconic figure in the game of snooker. Known as ‘The People’s Champion’, he won the UK Championship in 1983 and the Masters in 1978 and 1981.
This made him one of eleven players to complete snooker’s Triple Crown. He also won the World Cup three times with the All-Ireland team. Alex, similarly to George Best, struggled to cope with the limelight and abused cigarettes and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
It soon caught up with him however and he died of multiple causes in his Belfast home in 2010. Asides from his struggles, Alex Higgins was a genius, also labelled ‘The Hurricane’ due to his fast play. He is still fondly remembered today, Steve Davis described Higgins as “one true genius that snooker has produced.”
Rory McIlroy is a professional golfer from Holywood, County Down. He was number one golfer in the world for 95 weeks and also has four major championships. McIlroy had a successful amateur career and in 2007 as a 17-year-old he topped the World Amateur Golf Ranking for one week.
In the same year, he turned professional and won over 6 national titles and became the first player to win over €10 million in career earnings on the European Tour.
He has represented Europe, Great Britain and Ireland, both in his time as an amateur and a professional. Rory has won RTE Sportsperson of the Year twice, once in 2011 and again in 2014. McIlroy has also been recognised by the establishment for his contribution to sport, receiving an MBE in 2012.
Jonathan Rea is a professional motorcycle racer from Ballynure, County Antrim. He currently competes in the Superbike World Championship and has been crowned champion of the competition 5 times, in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
He also holds the record number of race wins in the Superbike World Championship. Rea was honoured with an MBE in the New Year honours list of 2017 .
He was born into motorcycling, his father Johnny competed at the Isle of Man TT and won the junior TT race. In 2017 Rea was nominated for the Sports Personality of the Year Award and finished in 2nd Place ahead of the likes of Anthony Joshua, Harry Kane and Lewis Hamilton.
Joey Dunlop was a motorcyclist from Ballymoney, County Antrim. He was voted in 2016 as the 5th greatest motorcycling icon ever.
He invested a lot of his time in charity work, helping orphans in the Balkans, Romania, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina by driving a van loaded with supplies to the orphanages there.
Dunlop died in Estonia in 2000 while racing. He lost control of his bike due to wet conditions. After his death, the Joey Dunlop Foundation was established. Joey Dunlop was part of what people called the ‘Racing Dynasty.’
William Dunlop was the elder brother of Michael; both were sons of the late Robert Dunlop, and nephews of Joey. He was awarded the MBE in 1986 for his services to sport and 10 years later he was awarded the OBE for his humanitarian work for children.
Conor McGregor is a professional mixed martial artist from Dublin, County Dublin. He currently fights under the Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion and was the first person to become UFC World Champion in two weight divisions at the same time.
He won the featherweight world title against Jose Aldo in December 2015. Jose was undefeated in 13 years and widely regarded as one of the best fighters the UFC had ever seen, Conor took just 13 seconds to knock him out. McGregor then went on to win the UFC Lightweight belt against Eddie Alvarez in November 2016.
On 30th November 2016 McGregor obtained a professional boxing license from the California State Boxing Commission. Mayweather confirmed that he would come out of retirement to fight him and on 14th June 2017 this was confirmed that the bout would take place on 26th August 2017. Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather won the fight in the 10th round via TKO despite winning the first round on all three judge’s scorecards.
Other ventures for McGregor outside of fighting include his brand of Irish Whiskey that he released in September 2017 called Proper No. 12 after the area in Dublin where he is from.
Conor McGregor is arguably one of the most iconic sports-people in the world right now.
Roy Keane is a former professional footballer and manager from Cork, County Cork. The controversial star began his senior career at Cobh Ramblers before signing for Nottingham Forest in 1990.
He scored 22 goals in 114 appearances for Forest which caught the eye of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who signed him for a fee of £3.75 million. He made 326 appearances for Manchester United until he left unexpectedly in 2005.
He finished his professional football career playing for Celtic. Shortly after his retirement as a player he was appointed manager of Sunderland and took them from 23rd in the Championship to win the division title and gain promotion to the Premier League.
Roy Keane is regarded as one of the best natural leaders the Premier League has ever seen, captaining Manchester United to 7 Premier League trophies, 4 FA Cups and 1 UEFA Champions League.
Brian O’Driscoll is a former professional rugby union player from Dublin, County Dublin. He played outside centre for Leinster and Ireland, captaining Ireland from 2003 until 2012 as well as captaining the British and Irish Lions for their 2005 tour of New Zealand.
He is regarded by critics as one of the best rugby players of all time. As a child, Brian played Gaelic football before switching to rugby. In 1998 he played for the Ireland U-19 side which won the Under 19 Rugby World Championship. He made 186 appearances for Provincial side Leinster, scoring 311 points.
O’Driscolls career honours include winning the Six Nations Championship twice; the Grand Slam and winning the Triple Crown 4 times. Individual honours include 6 Nations All-time top try scorer, 6 Nations Player of the Year, 6 Nations Top Try Scorer (2009), Heineken Cup Top Try Scorer (2008/09) and many more.
In 2005 O’Driscoll’s biography was released which was entitled ‘A Year in the Centre’ and ten years later he released an autobiography called ‘The Test: My Autobiography.’
O’Driscoll will go down as one of the greatest rugby players of all time.
Robbie Keane is a former professional footballer from Dublin, County Dublin. He began his professional career at Wolverhampton Wanderers where he scored 24 times in 75 appearances.
He had his most successful spell as a footballer at Tottenham Hotspur where he scored 80 goals. To this day Robbie Keane is the 14th highest Premier League goalscorer of all time.
Keane also enjoyed a glittering international career for the Republic of Ireland, scoring 68 times in 146 appearances with a goal in his final appearance to take him level with Lionel Messi in the top international goalscorers of all-time list.
Katie Taylor is a professional boxer from Bray, County Wicklow. She is the lightweight undisputed World Champion having won the WBA, IBF WBO and WBC titles in the division. She made history by becoming one of only seven boxers (male or female) in history two hold all 4 belts at the same time.
In her amateur boxing career, Katie won five consecutive gold medals at the Women’s World Championships, 6 times at the European Championships and 5 times at the European Union Championships.
What many people do not know about Katie Taylor is that she was once an international footballer for the Republic of Ireland, making 11 appearances and scoring two goals.
She also received an Honorary degree from Dublin City University in 2013.
Pádraig Harrington is a professional golfer from Dublin, County Dublin. He grew up in Rathfarnham, which is on the southside of Dublin’s and the shared birthplace of two other professional golfers, Paul McGinley and Peter Lawrie.
Harrington attended the same local secondary school as McGinley (though not in the same year), giving their school, Coláiste Éanna, the right to claim two Ryder Cup golfers as their own. Having spent over 300 weeks in the top 10 of the world rankings he is widely regarded as one of the best golfers to play the game.
He reached a career-high ranking of 3rd in July 2008. Harrington has 6 PGA Tour wins and 15 European tour wins. His major wins include the Masters Tournament in 2002 and 2008; The PGA Championship (2008), the US Open and the Open Championship in 2007 and 2008. 2007 was his home open, the Irish Open, won by an Irishman for the first time in 25 years.
Pádraig has also had the honour of being selected as captain of the European team for the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Finn Bálor (Fergal Devitt)
Finn Bálor (Fergal Devitt) is a professional wrestler from Bray, County Wicklow. He is currently signed to world-renowned professional wrestling company WWE. He wrestled in Japan for most of his professional career before joining WWE NXT in 2014. In 2016 he became the first WWE Universal Champion and is widely regarded as one of the main wrestlers on the roster. He has had several more championship pursuits since 2016 and is currently the Intercontinental champion.
Growing up Devitt played both association football and Gaelic football before deciding to become a professional wrestler.
Finn Bálor (Devitt’s current ring-name) became the first wrestler in WWE history to win a world title in their pay-per-view debut as well as becoming the quickest wrestler in WWE history to win a world title at 27 days following his main roster debut.
Paul O’Connell is a former professional rugby union player from Limerick, County Limerick. During a playing career that spanned over 15 years, Paul O’Connell captained Munster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions. His leadership qualities shone throughout his career and even into retirement when he was asked by Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke to give a speech to the European team.
O’Connell released his autobiography in 2016 which was voted Irish Sports Book of the Year.
Honours and achievements include the European Rugby Champions Cup (x3), the Pro14 (x3), the Six Nations Championship (x3) and the British and Irish Lions series winner.
O’Connell resigned from his role as an advisor with the Munster Academy to become an assistant coach with the Ireland U-20 squad. He also joined BBC Sport as a pundit and commentator ahead of the 2017 Six Nations coverage and also continued this work at the 2018 Six Nations Championship.
John O’Shea is a former professional footballer from Waterford, County Waterford. O’Shea joined Manchester United when he was just 17 years old and went on to make 256 appearances for the club playing as a defender and a defensive midfielder, scoring 10 goals.
O’Shea was a regular starter for Manchester United and was an integral part of the team who won the UEFA Champions League in the 2007/08 season. Other footballing honours include the Premier League (x5); The FA Cup, The League Cup (x2), The FIFA Club World Cup, FAI Senior Player of the Year, UEFA European U-16 Championship.
After leaving Manchester United in 2011, he played 5 more seasons in the Premier League at Sunderland.
O’Shea scored against Germany in the Euro 2016 Qualifying campaign which helped the Republic of Ireland to qualify for Euro 2016.
Barry McGuigan is a former professional boxer from Clones, County Monaghan. As an amateur, McGuigan represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games in 1978, winning gold in the Bantamweight division. He also competed at the 1980 Olympics.
McGuigan’s professional career began in May of 1981 when he beat Selvin Bell by TKO in the second round in Dublin. In his professional career, he won 32 fights, 28 of those came by way of knock-out.
McGuigan followed in the footsteps of Joey Dunlop and George Best in that he remained apolitical and anti-sectarian during the height of The Troubles which meant both sides supported him. It is claimed that both sides would say ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan’ and people forgot about The Troubles for a while.
McGuigan currently works as a boxing pundit for Sky Sports and has also delved into acting, appearing in the film Malicious Intent (2000). He has also had two biographies written about him and has appeared on the third series of ITV’s Hells Kitchen in 2007. He was then crowned the winner by a public vote.
The island of Ireland has produced some of Europe’s finest sporting heroes. To find out more about the island’s sporting heritage, visit ConnollyCove: your one-stop-shop for Irish heritage and travel.