How sport helped put Ireland on the world stage

Peter Byrne reflects on many of the great moments of Irish sport he covered for The Irish Times, now collected in a book

Seated in the body of a conference hall during the annual congress of the International Association of Sports Journalists in Milan many moons ago, I was among old and valued friends. The seating arrangements on such occasions are normally set out in alphabetical order, ordaining that the representatives of Iran, Iraq, Ireland and Israel are accommodated cheek by jowl: and that, as you might suspect, can lead to some unkind if predictable humour.

“I wouldn’t want to be sitting in the row behind or in front of you lot,” was the usual remark in an era when security was at the top of the agenda for anybody charged with the responsibility of organising an international gathering. “A lot of fire power in your row,” said one wag, “but if we’re talking sport, I’d want to be with the big hitters – Ireland.”

That got me thinking about our rating in international sport and how much of the world views us as a small country which frequently punches above its weight in major championship competition.

In a sense, that is the logical product of our great love affair with sport, national and international, which in good times and bad has been a major part of the Irish psyche, Now, it seems, its value in projecting the image of a nation, defiant and resourceful in a challenging climate of austerity, is more important than ever.


John Flanagan, Matt McGrath and Paddy Ryan left Ireland in turn, to benefit from the substantial support structures in place for American teams. In total, they won five hammer titles in the colours of their adopted country between 1900 and 1920 to build one of the great dynasties in the early stagings of the Olympic Games. All three of them were quick to acknowledge their Irish roots in the celebrations which followed and the effect was to enhance the perception of their fellow countrymen as tall, powerful athletes who served as role models for millions of people around the world.

And when the declaration of a new political order in Dublin enabled the Irish tricolour to be flown on the presentation podium following the first of Pat O’Callaghan’s two victories in Amsterdam in 1928, the Irish population at large finally got an opportunity to celebrate our remarkable sporting heritage.

That was a classic example of the importance of sport in defining attitudes worldwide and it was not lost on the political leaders of the day following the formation of the Irish Free State and the official declaration of its arrival in December 1921. In an era when much of the international news on this side of the Atlantic was routed through the major news agencies in London, the authorities here quickly realised that they could no longer depend on the goodwill of the British establishment to serve the best interests of the new administration in Dublin.

So it was that international football assumed an added dimension here after Dublin had split from the Belfast-based Irish Football Association in 1921 and the Football Association of the Irish Free State had played its first full international game in Italy in 1926. For many Europeans, the spectacle of the tricolour fluttering in the wind and the sound of Amhrán na bhFiann on far-flung fields, provided the first evidence of a new political order here.

Years later, Eamon de Valera cited the influence of international football games in announcing the changed and changing face of the country in those critical formative years and his sentiments would, in time, be echoed over and over again as Irish men and women distinguished themselves on major international assignments abroad.

From the relative comfort of the press box, I’ve been privileged to witness many of the achievements which, in their time, held the country captive. And on those occasions when I wasn’t fortunate enough to be present, I couldn’t wait to read the accounts of history in the making.

Long years after Ron Delany had confounded the collective wisdom of the world’s sporting press at Melbourne in 1956,which of us could fail to be impressed by the exploits of John Treacy, Eamonn Coghlan and not least, Sonia O’Sullivan in the broad domain of international athletics?

The discipline of boxing provided me with an entry to sports writing and because of that I have always felt a special affinity with this, one of the most demanding of all sports. In line with a pedigree which rates among the best in the roped square boxers like Barry McGuigan, Steve Collins and Wayne McCullough in the professional game and Michael Carruth, Harry Perry and Katie Taylor among a host of gifted amateurs, boxing did much to keep the tricolour flying in the second half of the twentieth century.

For many people, team sport is where it’s at and recounting the achievements of men like Jack Carey, Liam Brady and John Giles in football and the imperishable genius of Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson and Brian O’Driscoll with a rugby ball in their hands, was a mission undertaken with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy.

For those who complain with some justification that the less popular sports do not receive adequate coverage in the national press, the memories of Stephen Roche’s golden year in cycling in 1987 still evoke national pride as do the exploits of Arkle, the remarkable horse who was responsible for a redraft of the parameters of National Hunt racing in the 1960s.The passage of time has, in some ways, merely added to the fascination of those successes.

North Dublin was part of another marvellous sporting story in 2007 when players of the quality of Eoin Morgan, John Mooney and the O’Brien brothers, Kevin and Niall, shared in Ireland’s World Cup safari. Even for those with only a limited interest in cricket, Ireland’s win over Pakistan and the drama which followed still makes for an absorbing read.

Set among the pantheon of outstanding international performers are the men and women who continue to attract more attention than all others on GAA fields throughout the length and breadth of the country. For the hundreds of thousands who make Gaelic football and hurling the most popular spectator sports, Croke Park in September is a location which will always hold an appeal bordering on magical.

From Christy Ring and Nick Rackard to modern personalities of the calibre of Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning, the players who battled for hurling's biggest prize on the first Sunday in September are well documented on the pages of From the Press Box. And Gaelic football enthusiasts can once more rejoice in the deeds of men such as Mick O'Connell, Kevin Heffernan, Mick Higgins and many of those who followed in their footsteps in more modern times.

Reliving the grandeur of those giddy, sunlit days was for me, a source of deep satisfaction. My earnest wish is that it will be no less enjoyable for you.

From The Press Box – 70 Years of Great Moments In Irish Sport by Peter Byrne is ublished by Liberties Press, priced €17.