In recognition of her monumental achievement, as the first female winner of the Aintree Grand National, the Irish jockey picked up the BBC's World Sports Star award last weekend – following in the footsteps of such iconic previous winners as Pelé, Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt.
For a week this summer, it seemed like every press photographer, colour writer and bunting salesperson in Ireland had set up camp outside Kellie Harrington's family home on Portland Row. As the boxer progressed through the rounds in Tokyo, the whole country took her to its heart. When she defeated Brazilian Beatriz Ferreira 5-0 in the Olympic final, the scenes of celebration that erupted in Dublin's north inner city were reminiscent of Italia '90. But the part-time hospital cleaner, whose motto is "Hakuna Matata", took it all in her stride.
Michael D Higgins
After a decade in the Áras, Michael D's most controversial call in 2021 was his decision not to attend a church service in Armagh to mark Northern Ireland's centenary. Unionists were outraged, but polls showed strong public support for his stance. That same month, at an audience in the Vatican, Pope Francis described the President as "a wise man of today".
A butcher's daughter who grew up in Hungary, this University of Pennsylvania professor has been hailed as one of the heroes of the fight against Covid-19. Throughout her long career she and a colleague, Dr Drew Weissman, toiled in obscurity carrying out painstaking research on messenger RNA, or mRNA. The technology they developed paved the way for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which were rolled out successfully around the world this year.
His Republic of Ireland side's competitive record in 2021 was: lost three, drew two and won two (the latter victories against Luxembourg and the mighty Azerbaijan). Yet the homegrown manager remains popular with the fans – mostly for playing positive football and blooding young players. He has since been rewarded with a new contract by the FAI. His recent predecessors may be scratching their heads at that one.
Lil Nas X
When artist born Montero Lamar Hill first hit big in 2019, with Old Town Road, his mediocre country rap shtick marked him out as a likely one-hit wonder. During Pride month that year, however, he came out. And in the ultra-macho world of hip-hop, where male LGBT representation remains close to zero, this year's explicit Montero (Call Me By Your Name) video was a brave and outrageous artistic statement, including a sequence in which the 22-year-old performs a lap dance for the devil.
The hip-hop community mostly embraced the video – and its creator. (“This man is going places,” one Twitter user joked. “Not heaven, but he’s going places.”) “There’s going to be so many gay rappers,” Nas told GQ. “There’s going to be more trans people in the industry and whatnot. Ten years from now, everything I’m doing won’t even seem like it was that shocking.”
In April, the Minister for Justice became the first serving Cabinet member in the State's history to take maternity leave. On her return, she announced a landmark scheme to regularise the status of Ireland's estimated 17,000 long-term undocumented immigrants. Both developments were broadly welcomed as long overdue.
The January 6th Capitol riots in Washington DC may have been one of the darkest hours in recent US history. But for this young CNN reporter, his authoritative on-the-spot reporting that day made him an overnight celebrity in his home country. The Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, native has since been promoted to correspondent status at the news network and he will co-host CNN's live New Year's Eve telecast from an Irish pub in NYC.
Expectations for her third novel were sky high, and Beautiful World, Where Are You won't have disappointed Rooney's worldwide fanbase. Of course, when she refused a request to have the book translated into Hebrew, Israel's foreign ministry accused her of impeding peace in the Middle East. But you can't please everybody, can you?
Before 2021, Paul Rudd's most notable claim to fame was probably the fact that, after a quarter century in Hollywood, he appears not to have aged a day. The popular 52-year-old usually plays "everyman" characters, best known for his supporting roles in lowbrow comedies like Anchorman, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But he has never been considered a conventional leading man. Which made his selection as People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive a welcome surprise.
In the same year he celebrated his 90th birthday, the man who played Star Trek's Captain Kirk also paid a fleeting visit to the final frontier, as a guest aboard Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin spacecraft. On his return, he said "I was moved to tears by what I saw, and I come back . . . overwhelmed by sadness and empathy for this beautiful thing we call Earth." So that's a thumbs up . . . I think.
In 2021, the Free Britney movement finally went mainstream. In November, a Los Angeles judge ruled that the conservatorship that had kept the singer's life and finances under the control of her father Jamie for nearly 14 years should be terminated immediately. Afterwards, Britney told reporters she was grateful for "being able to have the keys to my car . . . to be independent and feel like a woman".
Two years ago, Ethiopia's president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving a longstanding territorial dispute with his authoritarian neighbour, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. Rather than representing the birth of a new era of peace, however, it is now known that Ahmed and Afwerki were already planning a joint assault on their mutual enemies in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. A disastrous and destructive war followed, in which the Nobel peace laureate now serves as a battlefield commander.
The famously combustible actor made headlines worldwide in October, when he accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a movie set in New Mexico. In the aftermath of that tragic accident, in which live ammunition had found its way into a prop gun without the actor's knowledge, there was a good deal of public sympathy for him. (Only Donald Trump, whom Baldwin had skewered savagely on Saturday Night Live, demurred, suggesting "Maybe he loaded [the gun] himself.") But when Baldwin then gave a TV interview to ABC's George Stephanopoulos, in which he insisted he didn't feel any guilt over the incident, a fair amount of that goodwill dried up.
At the end of his first year in office, the 79-year-old commander-in-chief's poll numbers remain poor. Rising inflation, Covid-19 woes and a collapse by the US-backed Afghan army so abject that even the Taliban admitted to being taken aback, have all contributed to an annus horribilis for the former VP. A swift course correction, and reversal of fortune, will probably be necessary if the Democrats are to avoid disaster in next year's midterm elections.
Dumped as chairperson of the far-right Irish Freedom Party in March, locked out of the Dublin Bay South byelection count for refusing to wear a mask in July, terminated by UCD in September and finally banned by Facebook in December for spreading Covid-19 misinformation – this has not been a vintage year for the academic-turned-conspiracy theorist.
A fellow comedy giant, Jerry Seinfeld, once praised Dave Chappelle's uncanny ability to weigh in on any sensitive or incendiary topic he chooses, speak frankly (and hilariously), and walk away unscathed. He called it "dodging laser beams". On Chappelle's 2021 Netflix special The Closer, however, that gift deserted him. Or more accurately, he chose a subject matter so toxic in today's discourse – the trans issue – that there was zero chance of the internet ever seeing the funny side of his jokes. It probably didn't help that the set in question was unusually mean spirited. A social media death sentence was duly handed down, but Netflix resisted pressure to pull the special.
Andrew and Chris Cuomo
When Covid hit New York in early 2020, the state's governor Andrew Cuomo was so admired for his handling of the crisis that a legion of new fans dubbed themselves "Cuomosexuals". A year later, it's fair to say that term has fallen out of common usage. First Cuomo was alleged to have covered up the number of Covid deaths in the state's nursing homes. Then in November, he was forced to resign after allegations were made that he sexually harassed members of his staff. That same month, his younger brother Chris was fired from his CNN show over allegations that he had assisted in his brother's defence without the network's knowledge.
The Minister for Health has legitimate grounds to gripe at his inclusion in this list. After all, his department oversaw the successful rollout of not one, or two, but three rounds of vaccine shots this year. Yet it's still hard to see past his cavalcade of gaffes: from January, when he requested an analysis of how often he was mentioned in tweets posted on the Department of Health's Twitter feed, compared to his predecessor; to November, when he stated that Christmas pantos could go ahead, but there should be a reduction in children's attendance at gatherings. Oh no, he didn't? Oh yes, he did.
When Bill Gates and his wife Melinda announced their decision to divorce after 27 years, the Microsoft founder admitted that his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein had been a factor in their break-up. Due to Covid, he has since stated this was a year he spent mostly online, enduring long periods without face-to-face social interaction. Bad timing there Bill, considering half the internet these days believes he's trying to implant microchips in their arms. In short, one suspects 2021 is not a year to which the tech billionaire will be bidding a fond farewell.
In May, the veteran columnist departed the Sunday Independent after it was revealed he had used the Twitter alias Barbara J Pym to praise himself and criticise fellow journalists. At the time, Harris claimed he was only one of several contributors to the Barbara J Pym "entity". He has since admitted in a court statement that he alone was behind the account.
Not since Rudy Giuliani scheduled a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia has social media united in such unbridled glee as when rapper Nicki Minaj weighed in on the subject of Covid-19 vaccines. "My cousin in Trinidad won't get the vaccine," she tweeted. "Cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding." Only the party poopers in Trinidad and Tobago's health ministry failed to see the funny side, calling a press conference the next day to debunk Minaj's claim.
"Is everything okay?" one journalist finally asked him in November. From Wallpapergate, to Christmas Partygate, to an incoherent speech in which he rambled at length about "Peppa Pig World" – 2021 has been one continuous blooper reel for Boris Johnson. Of course, this has been the case before for the UK's bumbling prime minister. On this occasion, however, not many still saw the funny side.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Once a global human rights icon, Aung Sang Suu Kyi found herself thoroughly outmanoeuvred by Myanmar's military top brass in 2021. And not for the first time. Up until her release from house arrest in 2010, "The Lady" had spent most of the previous 21 years as one of the world's most revered prisoners of conscience. However, after becoming her country's effective civilian leader following democratic elections in 2015, she acquiesced to the military's continued brutal persecution of the country's Rohingya ethnic minority. Worldwide condemnation followed, hence the rather muted international outcry when she was once again imprisoned on trumped up charges following a military coup in February.