Ireland’s Contributions to the World of Sports

Because his gold medal in the hammer throw at the 1928 L.A. Olympics marked the first time Ireland's tricolour flag or national anthem appeared at the medal podium, Pat O'Callaghan tops my list of Irish athletes. (www.tipperarystar.ie)

None can say I don’t get into the spirit of a holiday. Awesome Halloween costumes and Passover seders, eager participation in Christmas tree or Easter egg decorating, throw-downs on New Year’s Eve or BBQs on July 4 – I put the “festive” in “festivities.”

So wanting to do something to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day that doesn’t involve an obscene amount of alcohol entering and/or exiting my body (possibly through the same hole), here’s my list of the ten best athletes to come out of Ireland.

10) John Treacy (6/4/1957, Villierstown, County Waterford): Treacy won the silver medal in the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles – the only Irishman ever to medal in that event. Other accomplishments include golds in the long race at both the 1978 and 1979 World Cross-Country Championships, a silver in the team long race at the 1979 WCCC, and a win at the 1992 Los Angeles Marathon. He now serves as the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, showing how much athletics must have meant to his Irish identity.

9) Sonia O’Sullivan (11/28/1969, Cobh, County Cork): O’Sullivan was a dominant long-distance runner from 1991 to 2002, earning 16 medals in major international competitions. She set national records in both the 5000m and 10,000m races at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, winning the silver medal and finishing sixth, respectively. She followed up the Sydney Games with victories both in the Grand Prix 5000m and the Dublin Marathon.

8) John Pius Boland (9/16/1870, Dublin): Boland won two gold medals at the first-ever modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. After easily winning the singles tennis tournament, Boland teamed up with German singles-opponent Friedrich Traun to win a second gold in the doubles tournament. Though Boland technically won gold for the United Kingdom, he was a prominent member of the Irish Nationalist party, and he convinced the flag-raisers at his doubles medal ceremony to raise Ireland’s green harp flag instead of the UK’s Union Flag. He died on St. Patrick’s day in London in 1958.

7) Dan O’Keeffe (6/2/1907, Fermoy, County Cork): Any list of great Irish athletes must include Gaelic football, an uber-popular Irish amateur sport that’s basically a fusion of soccer and handball. O’Keeffe was a goalkeeper for County Kerry from 1931-1948, leading them to 13 Munster titles (think a conference title in the NCAA tournament) and seven All-Ireland championships. Not only the greatest goalkeeper in Gaelic football history, O’Keeffe may have permanently changed the team’s mentality: in the 43 years before O’Keeffe, Kerry had only won nine championships. With and after O’Keeffe, they won 27.

6) Pádraig Harrington (8/31/1971, Ballyroan, Dublin): Few professional golfers have come out of Ireland, but Harrington is easily the most successful of them. Harrington won his first major championship in the 2007 Open Championship (a.k.a. “British Open”), besting Sergio Garcia in a four-hole playoff. He defended his title in 2008 and added a PGA Championship victory, becoming one of just a handful of golfers to win three times in a stretch of six consecutive majors.

5) Christy Ring (10/12/1920, Cloyne, County Cork): Hurling is Ireland’s other super-popular sport. It’s pretty similar to field hockey, and perhaps nobody played it better than Ring, who led his team to eight All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championships, including five between 1941 and 1946. He also helped Cork to three National Hurling League championships, pairing one with an All-Ireland SHC in 1953 (the middle year in a three-peat). This guy meant so much to Cork that reportedly 60,000 people lined the streets for his funeral, the Gaelic Athletic Association named a Cup after him, and a statue of him greets arrivals as they exit the Cork Airport. This guy was to Cork what Ted Williams was to Boston or Vince Lombardi to Wisconsin.

4) Michelle Smith (12/16/1969, Rathcoole, County Dublin): Smith’s four swimming medals – including three gold – at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta make her the most successful Olympian in Irish history. I can’t rank her higher due to the steroid allegations that have always surrounded her, culminating in a four-year ban for tampering with a urine sample in 1998. Smith appealed, but trace amounts of the steroid androstenedione from three samples in 1997 and 1998 doomed her. Smith never lost her medals, but she never raced again, and the suspicions have never gone away.

2-Tie) Mike Sheehy and Pat Spillane (7/28/1954 and 12/1/1955, Tralee and Templence, County Kerry): I’d need a far superior Gaelic football analyst to pick between these two superstars, but they played together for County Kerry, leading their team to eight All-Ireland championships in 12 years – one of the most dominant stretches in GAA history. The right corner-forward and half-forward also combined for 16 All Star selections. I don’t fully understand what these positions do, but I get the feeling these two were insanely good at it.

1) Pat O’Callaghan (9/15/1905, Kanturk, County Cork): O’Callaghan wasn’t the most successful Olympian to come out of post-independence Ireland, but he was the first gold medalist, making him perhaps the most revered. During the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam competition, O’Callaghan psyched out Swedish powerhouse Oissian Skoeld in the hammer throw by using Skoeld’s hammer for his second throw, chucking it 168’7″ – four feet farther than Skoeld ever could.

O’Callaghan repeated as gold medalist in the hammer throw four years later in Los Angeles, though before the finals he needed a hacksaw and file to remove the spikes from his shoes so he could throw on the new cinder surface. O’Callaghan’s second gold came soon after countryman Bob Tisdall had won the 400m hurdles.

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