Ireland’s role in world sport has in recent years been disproportionate to the size of the population. In team sports, The Republic of Ireland football team qualified for the World Cup Finals in 1990 and 1994. In individual sports many Irish sportsmen and women enjoy international stature. They include Darren Clarke in golf, Pat Eddery and Michael Kinane in horseracing, John Ledingham in equestrian sports, Steve Collins and Michael Carruth in boxing, Niall O’Toole in rowing, Ken O’Doherty in snooker, Michelle Smith in swimming and Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan in athletics. Stephen Roche and Seán Kelly have excelled in cycling.
The most widely played sports, however, are not international sports. The sports with the greatest following are Gaelic football and hurling, and these are played almost exclusively in Ireland.Many sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis and the performance of sportsmen and women from both parts of the island are followed with great interest throughout the country.
- Gaelic Games
Hurling, Gaelic football and camogie are amateur sports, administered by An Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the Gaelic Athletic Association or GAA, which was established in 1884 to promote and develop national sports. Gaelic football is a high scoring and exceptionally exciting field game, similar to rugby or soccer except that the ball is round and can be played with the hands. There are fifteen players on each team and scores can be either points, with the ball going between the posts and over the bar, or goals with the ball going under the bar. One goal is equivalent to three points. Hurling can be played on the same field as Gaelic Football and the rules are almost the same. The main difference is that hurling is played with stick and ball. It is recognised as one of the world’s fastest sports. The major Gaelic competitions are the All-Ireland championships which are contested annually by teams representing each of the 32 counties. All-Ireland finals are played at Croke Park in Dublin, the country’s largest sports stadium, and attract attendances of approximately 70,000 people.
- Association Football
Association football, also known as soccer, is popular at all levels from schoolboy to senior. The major domestic competitions are the National League of Ireland, played in two divisions, a premier division of 12 teams and a first division of 10 teams, and the Football Association of Ireland Cup, a knock-out competition.
The senior domestic competitions, however, do not reflect the real strength of football. Like other small European countries Ireland does not offer adequate opportunities to its best footballers in domestic competition. Consequently many travel abroad to play, mostly to Britain. Under the management of Jack Charlton, the Irish international team has enjoyed great success and popularity.
Football in Northern Ireland is administered by the Northern Ireland Football Association, which fields its own international team and which has also enjoyed considerable success in international competitions.
- Rugby Football
Ireland is one of a limited number of countries where rugby is a popular amateur sport. There is an extensive system of competitions at schoolboy, junior and senior levels organised on a regional basis in the four provinces - Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster - and also covering the whole country. The principal competitions are the All-Ireland League, the Provincial Cups and the Inter-Provincials.
Rugby attracts its biggest attendances to international matches. The Irish Rugby Football Union, the governing body for the sport, fields a team in the annual international championship contested by Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and France. It also plays in the World Cup Competition. Series of test matches are played on an occasional basis against Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
The long tradition of track and field athletics is reflected in the many medals won in the early Olympic competitions and the number of world records set by Irish athletes. Olympic champions include Dr. Pat O’Callaghan, Bob Tisdall and Ronnie Delany.There has been a significant increase in the numbers taking part in athletics in recent years, particularly running. Marathon races such as the annual Dublin City Marathon can attract thousands of participants. Some notable achievements have been recorded by the present generation of athletes: John Treacy has twice been world cross-country champion and won the
silver medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon, Eamonn Coughlan was world champion at 5,000 metres, Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Meara have won world indoor titles at 1,500 metres and 3,000 metres. Catherina McKiernan is the European cross country champion and has won 4 silver medals in the World Cross Country Championships. Sonia O’Sullivan won the European 3,000 metres championship in 1994 and the World 5,000 metres in 1995.
- Equestrian Sports
All forms of equestrian sport are popular. Horse-racing attracts large attendances at the many racetracks and there is a large business in off-course betting. Classic flat races are run at the Curragh; events such as the Irish Derby are among the most prestigious in Europe and the Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the finest in the world. Hurdle racing and steeplechasing are also popular and Irish-bred horses are very much sought after by owners and trainers abroad. The main shows are the Dublin Horse Show, one of the premier events on the international circuit, the Millstreet International Horse Show, and Punchestown International Horse Trials. Eddie Macken, John Ledingham and Jessica Chesney are among the leading international showjumpers.
Ireland’s open green spaces offer abundant opportunities for leisure riding. Riding stables are found in every county, many of them provide instruction and some offer residential holidays. Pony-trekking centres have been opened in many tourist centres in recent years.
More than 250 golf courses offer facilities throughout the country. Major competitions are organised on a provincial and national basis and all-Ireland teams compete in international amateur golfing competitions.
The major Irish tournament on the international professional circuit is the Murphy’s Irish Open, one of the leading events on the tour. Irish golfers competing on the international circuit include Des Smyth, Ronan Rafferty, David Feherty, Philip Walton, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley. The Dunhill World Cup was won by Irish teams in 1988 and 1990.
Olympic medals have been won by Fred Tiedt (silver), Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell (bronze), Michael Carruth (gold) and Wayne McCullough (silver). World Professional Champions include Steve Collins, John Caldwell, Barry McGuigan, Dave McCauley and Eamon Loughran.
- Other Sports
Ireland has over 3,000 miles of coastline and sailing is a long-established sport. The Royal Cork Yacht Club, founded in 1720, is the world’s oldest sailing club.A wide range of marine leisure activities are engaged in. These include fishing, sailing, waterskiing, surfing, canoeing, windsurfing, diving and cruising.Other popular sports include greyhound racing, swimming, tennis, shooting and fishing.