Who is Ireland’s Greatest Athlete?

Ireland has produced some legendary sporting icons through the years and, as it is St Patrick’s Day, we have taken the opportunity to ponder just who is Ireland’s greatest-ever athlete.

Below, we have chosen some of the country’s most notable names across sport and, in no particular order, state why they are legends in their field and rightly deserve to be in the conversation. If you feel we have left someone out, then let us know through our social media channels.#

George Best

We will start with a footballing legend that needs no introduction. George Best is widely regarded as one of, if not the, best players of all time. The boy from Belfast made the move to Manchester United at the age of 15, after being rejected by Glentoran for being “too small and light”, and would go on to cement his place in Old Trafford folklore.

Best was the star of Man United’s 1968 European Cup winning team, scoring in the final against Benfica in from of a 92,000-strong crowd at Wembley. The Northern Irishman came joint-fifth (tied with Johan Cruyff) in the FIFA Player of the Century vote.

Brian O’Driscoll

Ask any Irish rugby fan who their greatest player is and you will likely hear only one name – Brian O’Driscoll. Born in Dublin in 1979, O’Driscoll is Irish sporting royalty having captained his country to win the Six Nations in 2009 and their first Grand Slam in 61 years.

The outside centre is only the third player to have been selected as part of four different British & Irish Lions tours and played an important role in winning three European Cups with Leinster. O’Driscoll was also voted as Rugby World Magazine’s Player of the Decade in 2010.

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor has broken down barriers and helped to put women’s boxing on the map not just in Ireland, but around the world. The Olympic gold medallist only turned professional in November 2016 after a hugely successful amateur career, in which she won five World Championships and six European Championships.

Taylor soon won her first world title in her seventh professional fight against Anahi Ester Sanchez on 28 October 2017, capturing the WBA Female Lightweight Title, and then went on to become a two-weight world champion defeating Christina Linardatou for the WBO Female Junior-Welterweight Title. At the time of writing, Taylor remains undefeated with a 22-0 professional record and is the undisputed female lightweight champion, holding all the WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, and The Ring Magazine belts.

Barry McGuigan

Staying with boxing, a man whose name simply must be mentioned is Barry McGuigan. ‘Clones Cyclone’ holds a mightily impressive 32-3 professional record, during which he captured the WBA and lineal featherweight titles.

McGuigan was also voted as the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 1985, off the back of winning the world title against Eusebio Pedroza, and is the only man from the Republic of Ireland to have won the coveted accolade. He was also inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005.

Sonia O’Sullivan

During the 90s and early 00s, Sonia O’Sullivan was competing – and winning – against the best the world had to offer in track and field. The Cork native’s crowning glory came at the 1995 World Championship, winning gold in the 5,000 metres, as well as winning a silver medal in the same event at the 2000 Olympic Games.

O’Sullivan also won European Championships at 3,000m (1994), 5,000m (1998), and 10,000m (1998), as well as two golds at the World Cross-Country Championships in 1998 at 8km and 4km distances.

Jason Smyth

Once described as the fastest Paralympian alive, Jason Smyth has won six Paralympic gold medals in the T13 disability sports classification – registered as legally blind. The Derry man competes in 100m and 200m sprints and has won gold at four Paralympic Games, most recently at the 2020 Tokyo Games (held in 2021 due to Covid).

Smyth is also an eight-time world champion and six-time European champion, more than cementing his legacy as one of the Emerald Isle’s greatest-ever athletes. He has his sights on adding more gold to his collection at the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games, so he is far from done yet!

Joe Canning

Fans of Gaelic sport will be highly familiar with the name Joe Canning, who is regarded as arguably the greatest hurler of all time. The Galway legend won four All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championships with his club, Portumna, and one All-Ireland title with his county.

Canning retired from inter-county hurling in 2021 but continues to play for his club, for whom he has been at since 2004. He was voted the All Stars Hurler of the Year in 2017 and was also voted as part of the best Galway team of the past 50 years (1962-2012).

Which of these deserves the title of Ireland’s greatest athlete? Or perhaps we have left someone out that is even more deserving than any of the names mentioned above? Let us know!

By Aaron Gratton

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