The great debate: Who is Ireland’s greatest sportsperson?

Have Katie Taylor’s recent exploits given her the edge?

Katie Taylor’s record has always been impressive. She had a near perfect career in amateur boxing, winning 18 gold medals, including five consecutive Women’s World Championships and an Olympic Gold medal. In 2016, she made the jump to professional boxing where she remains undefeated. Most recently, Taylor conquered the formidable Delfine Persoon in the incomparable Madison Square Garden, unifying all of the female lightweight championships. And she could have been forgiven for stopping there. Bray’s finest had seemingly accomplished everything she could have possibly dreamed of. However, on November 2, Taylor went one step further. She made the decision to step up in weight to face Christina Linardtou, in a bid to become a two-weight world champion. Walking out to a sold out Manchester Arena, supported by a legion of fans bellowing Wonderwall, there was a pervasive feeling that a victory for Taylor on this particular occasion would mean more than belts. This time, immortality would be her prize. 

Effortlessly out-boxing Linardtou, Taylor’s incredible skill set was on show to her largest audience yet. Fans rejoiced as Ireland’s own overcame moments of adversity to assert her dominance once more. A two-weight world champion, Taylor endeared herself to the public by way of a typically eloquent and characteristically modest post-fight interview, proving that not only is she one of the greatest female boxers of all time, but she is also one of the most inspiring people Ireland has ever produced. A trailblazer in her field, ruthlessly driven, unfazed by fame, Taylor epitomises success by way of hard work and has deservedly thrown her name into the proverbial ring to be Ireland’s greatest ever sportsperson, but how does she fare against her competition? 

Roy Keane 

One name that is more than deserving of a mention is former Manchester United and Ireland captain Roy Keane. At the peak of his powers, Keane was one of the greatest centre midfielders in the world. A proverbial winner and model captain, Keane is arguably Ireland’s finest ever football player. With a CV that boasts seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three Community Shields, a Champions League, and membership of the Premier League “team of the Century”, Keane is in a league of his own in terms of silverware. However, despite his unquestionable brilliance on the pitch, Keane’s relationship with the Irish set up is wrought with controversy, following the infamous 2002 Saipan incident, wherein an argument with manager Mick McCarthy led to the then-captain flying home before the World Cup had even started. While Keane’s stance was one based on the betterment of the team, in that it centred around dissatisfaction regarding training conditions and a lack of preparation in terms of equipment, losing a player of Keane’s stature on the eve of a World Cup is something that many fans cannot forgive. That, coupled with his turgid spell as Ireland’s assistant manager, and his generally abrasive personality, make Keane a divisive figure. As such, while he may well be Ireland’s greatest sportsperson in terms of achievement, he is certainly not in terms of popularity. 

“While he may be Ireland’s greatest sportsperson in terms of achievement, he is certainly not in terms of popularity”

Sonia O’Sullivan 

A track and field athlete, O’Sullivan was one of the first prominent female athletes Ireland produced. Much like Taylor, amongst her more renowned triumphs is an Olympic medal. O’Sullivan boasts a silver medal from the 2002 Olympic Games, as well as a 5000 metre gold at the 1995 World Championships, and a victory at the 1991 Universiade. When you analyse O’Sullivan’s lineage here success comes as no surprise. Her father was a professional goalkeeper for Cobh Ramblers, and she is married to Australian running back Nic Bideau. An incredibly important figure in Irish society, O’Sullivan carried the Olympic flame when it arrived in Dublin in 2012, and was also made chef de mission for Team Ireland at the 2012 Olympic Games. Certainly one of Ireland’s most influential athletes in terms of the spotlight she shone on women’s sport, O’Sullivan is well deserving of her place in the conversation for Ireland’s greatest of all time. 

Brian O’Driscoll 

Although Jonathan Sexton and Keith Wood, Ireland’s only recipients of the Rugby World Player of the Year Award, could also legitimately claim a place on the list, O’Driscoll’s leadership and overall influence gives him the edge. Imbued with natural vision that changed the way Ireland played rugby, he joined the Irish team in 1999 before he joined a club. He assumed the captaincy in 2003 and led Ireland to much success.As well as a Six Nations Championship and three Triple Crowns, he captained the team that won the 2009 Grand Slam, Ireland’s first since 1948. He also spent 15 years at Leinster where he won three Heineken Cups and four league titles. O’Driscoll also went on three tours with the British and Irish Lions, scoring one try and winning one series. He was named captain of the touring team in the 2005 series before an illegal tackle dislocated his shoulder ruling him unable to play. He finished his career as the fourth most capped player in history, Ireland’s highest try scorer and holds the record for most tries in the Six Nations. O’Driscoll’s unquestionable brilliance was omnipresent throughout his career and he is regarded worldwide as one of, if not the, greatest rugby player of all time. 

Eamonn Coghlan 

A former track and field athlete, 3-time Olympian and 5000 metre world champion, Coghlan’s success certainly shone a light on the Emerald Isle. He also boasts an impressive impact on public life, serving as a Senator from 2011 to 2016. His sporting flame did not die out after retirement, as he became the first person over 40 to run a sub four minute mile. A consummate pro and an important figure in Irish history, Coghlan is deserving of a more than honorable mention. 

Conor McGregor 

McGregor is without a doubt the most, ironically, “notorious” figure to come out of Ireland in recent times. The first-ever simultaneous two-weight world champion in the UFC, the highest earner of all time in said organisation, the fastest knockout in UFC title fight history and 10 rounds with the greatest boxer of all time, are all accolades boasted by McGregor. A Crumlin native who forged a career path which did not previously exist in Ireland, and who is almost solely responsible for the proliferation of an entire sport, it is a legitimate shame to see the path he has taken in recent times. An incredibly divisive figure on account of his brash personality and perceived arrogance, if it wasn’t for his incessant altercations with the law, McGregor’s achievements could be deserving of a place alongside Taylor at Ireland’s top sporting table. 

“A Crumlin native who is almost solely responsible for the proliferation of an entire sport”

Although only a few competitors have been named, Taylor is undoubtedly the finest athlete Ireland has ever produced. This is due not only to her achievements, but the barriers she had to overcome to achieve them. Forging a career in a then underdeveloped female sport, Taylor has been a trailblazer for women’s boxing for years previous to her recent two-weight triumph. While her history is still being written, when the time comes for her to hang up her gloves, she is the figure that aspiring female boxers will attempt to emulate. A bona fide superstar, it will take a long time before the likes of Katie Taylor are ever seen again. 

Jonathon Boylan

Jonathon Boylan is a Deputy Sports editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.