15 of the most successful Irish athletes of all time

Updated On: September 28, 2022

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In this article you’ll find out everything you need to know about the most successful Irish athletes. Sport has the power to bring people together and to strengthen communities. It can inspire us to strive for our goals and to be relentless and disciplined in every aspect of life. As children we idolise sport stars and athletes at the top of their game and hope to reach their levels of skill and success. Even more important than sport itself however are the people who play it.

There is something special about watching an athlete from your home town represent your nation. We are writing this article today to explore how famous Irish athletes have excelled in their fields, and by doing so, have changed the way Ireland is perceived around the world. For a relatively small island we have accomplished many great things in the world of sport.

The Best Irish Athletes and Sports stars

In this article we will discuss some of our top Irish athletes and sport stars who have excelled at what they do. In no particular order, the following athletes, sportsmen and sportswomen will feature on our list.

Most successful Irish athletes of all time

  • George Best
  • Roy Keane
  • Rory McIlroy
  • Conor McGregor
  • Katie Taylor
  • Brian O’Driscoll
  • Barry McGuigan
  • Jason Smyth
  • Sonia O’Sullivan
  • Cora Staunton
  • Paul and Gary O’Donovan
  • Jonathan Sexton
  • Stephen Cluxton
  • Henry Shefflin
  • Shane Lowry

Keep reading to see why these Irish athletes made the list.

Irish athlete #1. George Best – Belfast’s Fifth Beatle

Starting off with the legend himself, George Best is considered one of the best footballers (or soccer player depending on where you’re from) of all time. Born in Belfast Northern Ireland in 1946, he grew up playing football and at the age of 15 years old he was spotted by a football scout.

Only two years after being scouted, George Best made his debut for United at 17 years old. He also went on to play for Northern Ireland and the Irish football association described him as “the greatest player to ever out in the green shirt for Northern Ireland.”

At the young age of 59, Best passed away in hospital and on the 22nd of May 2006, which would have been George’s 60th birthday; Belfast City Airport was renamed the George Best Belfast City Airport as a tribute to him in the city he grow up in. As one of the most successful Irish athletes ever, this was a fitting tribute to remember his legacy.

Best’s achievements include:

  • 1968 Ballon d’Or
  • 1968 Football of the year
  • 1967/68 Top Scorer (28 goals in the First Division)
  • 1967/68 European Champion Clubs Cup Winner
  • 1963 English FA Cup Winner
  • 1965/67 English Super Cup Winner

Irish athlete #2. Roy Keane – Corks finest

Born on the 10th August 1971 in Cork, Keane grew up around a family of footballers but he originally trained as a boxer. When he did start playing soccer at Rockmount F.C. he developed into a very promising player. It may be hard to believe now looking back at Keane’s success, but he actually struggled to get trials in his early days. For many years he was turned down by English clubs, however in 1989 he was signed for semi professional team Cobh Ramblers before going on to sign for Nottingham Forest.

Did you know?

Keane is considered one of the most iconic red devils spending 12 years with Manchester United, but his career could have been very different. He had negotiated a move to Blackburn Rovers but a paperwork error resulted in a delay in the contract being signed, and during this time Sir Alex Ferguson offered the Irish lad a place on the team for a whopping £3.75 million – a British transfer record at the time. It’s hard to believe that this figure wouldn’t be considered high for an average player these days but such is the world of modern sport.

Keane has become a legend in the eyes of many Manchester United fans and was part of the iconic team that won the champions league in 98/99. He has also won 7 premier league titles and 4 FA cup trophies, as well as numerous player of the year awards for his contributions to the team.

Just six months after joining Celtic, the team he had supported as a child, Keane announced his retirement on medical grounds. Sir Alex Ferguson praised his contribution to football saying that he had earned a place on the lineout of the best players of all time.

Keane has gone on to have a successful career in the world of football as both a coach for Sunderland and the Irish national team, as well as a media pundit on ITV and Sky Sports. His style of play was dominant, consistent and competitive. His outspoken nature and physicality on the pitch caused some notoriety and a few controversies, but players and coaches always commended his skill, hard work and energy.

The Irish athlete’s story of success is an inspiration to many young people who are not picked first in sports. His refusal to give up on his dreams as a teenager, even when scouts openly rejected him highlights the importance of perseverance. The old adage ‘if at first you do not succeed, try again’ is exemplified in Keane’s work ethic throughout his career.

Irish athlete: Roy Keane’s best goals for Manchester United

Irish athlete #3. Rory McIlroy – Northern Irish Golfer

County Down native Rory McIlroy is a former world #1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and has spent over 100 weeks at the top spot during his career so far. McIlroy is a four time major champion, having won the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open and the 2014 PGA Championship – only one of three golfers to win 4 majors under the age of 25, accompanied in the exclusive club by Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

Rory was introduced to golf at an exceptionally young age by his father who was a skilled player himself. As a toddler he showed an interest in mimicking his father holding the club, and as the years progressed his enthusiasm would only grow. His mother would work extra shifts and his father held down several jobs to support their sons golf development. At age seven McIlroy was the youngest member of Hollywood Golf Club (That’s the Hollywood near Belfast, not the city of stars in LA)

McIlroy has gone on to become a brand ambassador for Nike and has showed no signs of slowing down. His success is not by chance though, from getting his first lesson from Mark Bannon at the age of 7 to winning his fourth major title, McIlroy like everyone else on this list has put in thousands of hours perfecting his craft. The glamour of winning prestigious titles often over shines the mundane reality of constant training and a strict lifestyle that many athletes must commit to.

Irish athlete #4. Conor McGregor – The Notorious

Conor Anthony McGregor was born on the 14th July 1988 in Dublin, Ireland. He is a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and boxer. He is one of the biggest and most recognisable Irish sport stars at the moment due to his success in mixed martial arts and his larger than life personality.

McGregor joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2013, known as “The Notorious.” He then went on to unify the featherweight division with his title win in 2015 and the year after that he became a two-division champion by winning the lightweight title.

In 2017, Conor McGregor made a huge move to boxing and had his first fight with Floyd Mayweather. Conor famously lost the fight but he still got a huge pay-out of 100 million pounds, so you could say it all worked out well.

McGregor has now delved into the world of entrepreneurship, selling his own proper 12 whisky and opening a bar and restaurant, the Black Forge Inn in Dublin.

McGregor is one of the most famous Irish athletes on this list, due to his skill in MMA as well as a few controversies in the news. While he has his fair share of critics, none of them can refute his success.

Irish athlete #5. Katie Taylor – Olympic Boxer from Bray

By all definitions Katie Taylor meets the definition of an Irish hero. One of the best boxers in the world, Katie has remained hardworking, proud of her roots and willing to give back to the people of Ireland.

Katie Taylor is one of the best female boxers in the world at the moment. Born and raised in Bray, Ireland; Katie started off boxing at the young age of 11 and was coached by her dad, Peter Taylor.

At the age of 15 years old, she fought her first official boxing match in Ireland and won. She has then gone on to fight in the Olympics in 2012, where she came home with Gold, a moment of pride for the country of Ireland. Its one of the most memorable Olympic moments for Irish people who felt an overwhelming sense of pride when the Irish athlete won her fight. Katie turned professional in 2016 and has gone on to win numerous fights since. She is currently the unified lightweight female world champion.

Katie Taylor has become an amazing role model for young girls and boys wanting to get into boxing and represents Ireland well. Humble, skilled and determined, she is undoubtedly one of our greatest athletes.

Here are some of Taylors most iconic achievements:

  • 2012 London Olympics – Gold Medal 60kg
  • ’06, ’08, ’10, ’12, ’14 World Championships – 5 Gold Medals 60kg
  • 07′, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’13 European Union Championships – 6 Gold Medals 60kg
  • ’05, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’11, ’14 European Championship – 6 Gold Medals 60kg
  • ’08, ’10 AIBA Boxer of the Year

Irish athlete #6. Brian O’Driscoll – Rugby Legend

Born in 1979 in Dublin, Brian O’Driscoll is a former professional rugby player who captained and played for Leinster, Ireland and the Irish & British Lions over a period of fifteen years.

Some of Brian’s achievements include:

  • Six Nations Grand Slam (awarded when the championship winning team has won all of their games)
  • 2 Six Nations Championships
  • 46 tries and 133 caps for Ireland
  • 2001, ’02, ’09 IRB World Player of the Year
  • 2006, ’07, ’09 RBS Six Nations Player of the tournament
  • 2008 Dubliner of the Year Award via the Dubliner magazine

O’Driscoll has many more achievements to his name, including being a Six Nations record try scorer, the fourth most capped player in rugby union history and World Rugby Player of the Decade 2000-2009 by the magazine World Rugby.

Brian O’Driscoll married Irish Actress Amy Huberman in 2010 and they have 3 children together, he retired from rugby in 2014, leaving behind an impressive legacy.

Famous Irish athletes: In BOD we Trust

Irish athlete #7. Barry McGuigan – The Clones Cyclone

Born in Clones Co. Monaghan in 1961, Barry McGuigan or the ‘Clones Cyclone’ would go on to win the gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games at the age of 17. McGuigan won British, European and World titles during his career, and in 1985 he became the featherweight champion of the world defeating Eusebio Pedroza.

McGuigan competed in 35 fights during his career winning 32 in total. His boxing career united people during a time of great political, religious and sectarian divide in Ireland. Born and raised Catholic throughout the troubles, Barry married his childhood sweetheart Sandra who was of Protestant faith. His father Pat often sang Danny Boy before fights, its a song of importance for many people across Ireland and transcends religious orientation.

Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997) starring fellow Irishman Daniel Day-Lewis was inspired by the Irish athlete’s own life and career. McGuigan even helped to train Day-Lewis and choreograph authentic boxing scenes. The movie was critically acclaimed and was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Since retirement Barry has worked as a successful boxing commentator and columnist. In 2009 McGuigan launched the McGuigan Boxing Academy, aiming to encourage young people to continue their pursuit of sport and education.

McGuigan’s story highlights how sport and entertainment in general can bring people together -if only for a moment- in difficult times. He used his status and strength to promote peace and unity during the Troubles which is something we can all respect.

Famous Irish Athlete: Barry’s father Pat performing ‘O Danny Boy’ before a fight

Irish athlete #8. Jason Smyth – Fastest Paralympian on the Planet

One of the most skilled Irish Paralympians in Irish history and a Northern Ireland sprint runner, Smyth has been described as ‘The fastest Paralympian alive’, with 6 gold Paralympic medals under his belt. Jason has never been defeated in a major Para-Athletic event since his debut in 2005 at the European Championship in Finland; there’s not many athletes that can claim to be undefeated for nearly 2 decades.

Holding a world record for the fastest time in the T13 100m and 200m sprints, Smyth’s consistency is unparalleled. Jason competes in the T13 category for visually impaired athletes.

Jason is an inspiration to his hometown of Eglington in co. Derry as well as everyone on the island of Ireland and around the world; he never let his visual impairment hold him back and has gone on to become one of the best athletes in Ireland.

Irish athlete Jason is the fastest man in the T13 class

Irish athlete #9. Sonia O’Sullivan – world record breaker

Sonia O’Sullivan has won 16 major athletic championship medals including World and European 5,000m gold, European 10,000m gold, two World Cross Country gold, and 5,000m silver at the Sydney Olympics, in 2000.

Another Cobh native, O’Sullivan was born in 1969. In 1994 she would famously set a world record for running 2000 metres.

At the 2012 Olympic Games, O’Sullivan was made chef de mission for Team Ireland. It was her job to look after the wellbeing of competing athletes, and considering she had been in their shoes in the past, she was a perfect contender.

She is currently a contributor for the Irish Times and has provided a rich insight into her experience and the wider world of athletics. Sonia also frequently commentates for RTÉ during major athletic events. O’Sullivan has been a driving force inspiring younger generations to stay active in Irish athletics and sports in general.

Having broken many Irish athletic world records, Sonia O’Sullivan will always be considered a master in her field and one of many inspirational Irish female athletes. Her contribution to Irish athletics cannot be understated, her success alone grew the popularity of the sport, from fundraising and participation at the grass roots stage.

Irish athlete #10. Cora Staunton – Sporting Legend

Mayo native Cora Staunton is one of the greatest players in ladies football, making her debut for the senior level Mayo county football team.

Staunton has been awarded 11 Ladies Gaelic football All Stars Awards, has won 4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies’ Football Championships for her county of Mayo, and 6 All-Ireland Ladies Club Football Championship for her local club Carnacon.

Cora has also excelled at soccer winning an FAI women’s Cup title in 2006, and a WFAI Intermediate Cup with Ballyglass Ladies. She has also won the Connacht Women’s League with Castlebar Ladies in 2013 for the Rugny Union.

Cora was the first international player to be signed to the Australian rules football league, when she joined the Giants in 2017 and she is one of the highest goal scorers in the game.

The Irish athlete came from a large family and was the second youngest of 8. Cora was only 16 when her mother passed away. We can only respect Cora’s dedication to sport in the following years and her hard work has gone on to inspire many Irish people growing up. Cora’s mother has been a driving force of support throughout her career.

Amazing Irish athletes: A look at Cora Staunton in action, with some commentary in Irish!

Irish athlete #11. The O’Donovan Brothers

Paul and Gary O’Donovan make up the rowing duo that took the world by storm. Rowing runs in the family as their father Teddy was also a rower and coached the brothers up until 2013. Another connection of the brothers is Emily Hegarty, their third cousin who won a Bronze medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The brothers won silver in the lightweight double sculls at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the first rowing medal won by Ireland in the Olympics. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Paul O’Donovan paired up with Fintan McCarthy to win the gold medal in the lightweight double sculls.

Gary had lost his place due to an injury in 2019, but cheered on as one of the team reserves. The brothers have also won gold and silver at World and European championships. They became a viral sensation after the various funny interviews they gave, but they highlighted the importance of enjoying what you do.

While total dedication is required by any athlete to be among the best of the best, you have to love the process and the sport itself to truly appreciate your victory, as these Irish Olympic athletes have proven.

The Best Irish Athletes: One of the first interviews of the O’Donovan brother that went viral

Irish athlete #12. Johnaton Sexton

Johnny Sexton was born in Dublin in 1985 and has family ties in Kerry and Clare. Sexton plays as a fly-half for Leinster and Ireland, captaining both teams. It’s no wonder considering his impressive list of stats including 108 caps for Ireland, 155 conversions and over 1000 points scored in his professional career.

In 2013 the Irish athlete joined Racing 92, a French rugby club, for two years. Ronan O’Gara, fellow Irish rugby legend would join Johnny, returning to Leinster rugby in 2015, in 2018 his captaincy was announced.

Sexton also played for the British & Irish Lions in their 2013 Australia tour and 2017 New Zealand tour. The Lions is comprised of the best national players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and tours rotate every 4 years between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Sexton was awarded World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018, the second Irish player to receive the award.

Irish athlete #13. Stephen Cluxton – The safest pair of hands in football

Stephen Cluxton is an Irish Gaelic footballer and goalkeeper for the Dublin senior county men’s team. Since 2001, Cluxton has established his place as Dublin’s first choice goalkeeper.

Steven has won eight All Ireland medals beginning in 2011 and 2013, and then for 6 consecutive championships from 2015 to 2020.

Cluxton is the only player in the history of the game to captain a team to seven championship titles. He has also won 6 All Stars. The GAA Gaelic Players’ Association All Star Awards are awarded annually to the best 15 players from the inter-county Gaelic teams to make the team of the year. There is also a player of the year award. Cluxton is considered one of the best Gaelic Football goalkeepers of all time.

Cluxten also went on to appear in International rules, appearing in the victorious 2004 team and winning Irish player of the tournament. He also captained the 2011 International Rules Series in Australia which Ireland would go on to win. The International Rules Series is a competition between Australia and Ireland held every two years.

Cluxton and GAA players in general are high profile athletes who perform on a professional level but are actually amateurs. Players in GAA don’t get paid and all have full time jobs. It highlights the dedication, devotion and passion of representing ones home county. Pride itself is enough to motivate the players to train and sacrifice so much to make it to Croker.

Dublin football in safe hands with Irish athlete Stephen Cluxton

Irish athlete #14. Henry Shefflin – The King of Hurling

Known for his playing style, competitive spirit and leadership, Shefflin dominated any pitch he was on and is considered one of the greatest hurling players of all time.

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August 7th, 2022, Dublin Ireland; Croke Park stadium where GAA games are played

One of the most decorated hurlers in the game, Shefflin has won 10-all Ireland Championship titles, which is more than any other player in history. He has also won 13 Leinster Championship titles, 6 National Hurling League titles and 6 Walsh Cups.

Amazingly only 3 teams in hurling history have won more All-Ireland titles than Shefflin; Kilkenny (which he played for), Cork and Tipperary. Shefflin has won more All-Ireland titles in 16 years than the other teams have won since the Hurling Championship began in 1887.

Shefflin is one of the only people to have one an All-Ireland Club Championship title as both a player and a manager and is currently coaching the Galway Senior Men’s hurling team.

If you would like to learn more about Hurling, Gaelic or any other GAA sport why not check out our article on Irish traditions.

The best Irish Athletes: Henry Shefflin Highlights

Irish athlete #15. Ruby Walsh – Cheltenham’s finest Jockey

The third most prolific winner in British and Irish jump racing history, Ruby Walsh comes from a family of skilled jockeys. Turning professional at just 19 years old, Ruby went on to achieve an incredible 2756 wins (1980 in Ireland and 776 in Britain) during his career.

After 24 years of success Ruby retired in 2019, with a record 59 Cheltenham Festival wins to his name. The Kildare man was also the leading jockey 11 times in a 14 year span at the festival. Twice Walsh has broke the record for the most wins over the four day festival. In 2009 and 2016 he rode a record breaking 7 winners during Cheltenham.

After winning the Punchestown Gold cup in 2019, Walsh went out on top announcing his retirement.

Irish athlete Ruby Walsh on his 5 favourite moments from Cheltenham

Final Thoughts

We hope you have enjoyed this article about the best sports stars and athletes from the island of Ireland. Do you agree with our list of the greatest Irish athletes? Is there anyone that deserves a place on this list? We’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below!

Some of the athletes on this list have made it onto our blog about Famous Irish People who made History in their lifetime. Who do you think features on the list?

We have mentioned many beautiful towns and counties around Ireland that our sports stars and Irish athletes hail from, if you would like to read more about these locations and other related articles why not check out the following blogs we think you might like:

Belfast Travel Guide | The meaning of Ireland’s 32 county names explained | Dublin Travel Blog Guide | Things to do in Galway

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