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The top 25 highlights of the year in Irish women’s sport

From Aussie Rules to athletics, sailing to soccer and everything in between, 2023 has been a spectacular year for Ireland’s sportswomen

25. Jennifer Dunne wins an All-Ireland and an AFLW medal, five months apart

While her Brisbane Lions team-mate Orla O’Dwyer became only the second Irish player, after Ailish Considine, to win the AFL Women’s Premiership with the team’s victory over North Melbourne in the Grand Final, Dunne wrote her own slice of history – she became the first to win an All-Ireland and AFLW title in the one season, having been part of the Dublin side that beat Kerry in the football final back in August. MH

24. Fionnuala McCormack qualifies for a record fifth Olympics

When she ran 2:26.19 at the Valencia Marathon this month McCormack achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first Irish woman to qualify for five Olympic Games. The 39-year-old from Wicklow, who had her third child earlier this year, finished over half a minute inside the qualifying time, booking her place in Paris next summer. MH

23. Eve McMahon wins world under-21 title

A multiple gold medallist at youth level in sailing, Howth’s Eve McMahon dipped her toe into senior waters in 2023. But she bridged the leap between the two levels in style in Morocco in October when she won the under-21 world title in her ILCA 6 class – and even recovered from capsizing in the final race of the event. MH

22. Sophie O’Sullivan wins European under-23 gold

Daughter of Sonia, the 22-year-old Melbourne-born, Washington-trained, middle-distance runner wrote her own name into Irish athletics history with her 2023 achievements. In October she was part of the University of Washington team that won the Pac-12 Conference cross-country title but her headline success was July’s European U23 1,500m gold medal, O’Sullivan leading an Irish one-two ahead of Sarah Healy. NJ

21. Lara Gillespie takes double European under-23 gold in track cycling

Cyclist Gillespie followed up her second national road race crown in June with two under-23 European Championship titles on the track in July. Last month the Wicklow native picked up the most encouraging result of her career, winning the elimination race in the final round of the UCI Track Champions League in London. NJ

20. Sarah Lavin becomes Ireland’s fastest woman

What a year for the Limerick native, who finished it with the tag of Ireland’s fastest woman over both the 100m flat and hurdles. She broke Derval O’Rourke’s 13-year-old Irish 100m hurdles record at the World Championships in Budapest and then eclipsed the 100m mark of 11.28 which had stood to Phil Healy since 2018. Speedster. MH

19. Róisín Ní Ríain takes gold at the Paralympic world championships

In the year before Paris 2024 the Limerick swimmer confirmed her status as a strong medal hope, winning two at this year’s Para Swimming World Championships. Ní Riain, who competed at age 16 in the Tokyo Paralympics, took home gold in the S13 100m backstroke and bronze in the 100m butterfly from the championships in Manchester. NJ

18. Thammy Nguyen wins European bronze

The winner of Ireland’s first European Weightlifting Championships senior medal, in April Vietnam-born north Dubliner Nguyen took home bronze in the 49kg division from this year’s event in Armenia. On examining the medal, Nguyen’s four-year-old daughter, Lilly, pronounced: “Mammy, you got number three! You’re not the winner!” Nguyen hopes to join her brother, Ireland’s top-ranked badminton player Nhat Nguyen, at the Paris Olympics. NJ

17. Athlone Town win the FAI Cup

When the FAI Cup final went to penalties after a 2-2 draw, Athlone Town would have fancied their chances against Shelbourne. They had, after all, beaten Galway United and Peamount in the same manner en route to the final. And Ciarán Kilduff’s side did it again, avenging last year’s defeat in the final by the same opposition, winning the shoot-out 4-3 to earn the club’s first ever success in the competition. MH

16. Amy O’Connor’s magic All-Ireland final

Waterford had provided the shock of the camogie championship when they beat Tipperary to reach their first All-Ireland final in 78 years but they were no match for Cork at Croke Park. Captain Amy O’Connor produced a sensational performance, scoring a hat-trick of goals in less than two minutes early in the second half, finishing with a tally of 3-7. MH

15. Kellie Harrington and Aoife O’Rourke take European Gold

Kellie Harrington and Aoife O’Rourke are no strangers to returning from major boxing tournaments with gold medals in their luggage but their success at the European Games in Poland during the summer came with the added prize of qualification for the Paris Olympics. Harrington triumphed in the 60kg division, while O’Rourke marked her 26th birthday by winning the 75kg final. Michaela Walsh also booked her spot by winning bronze. MH

14. Mona McSharry is fifth in the world

The Sligo swimmer just missed out on a historic first long-course championship medal, finishing fifth in the 100m breaststroke at July’s World Championships in Japan. In the semi-final of that event, McSharry broke her own Irish record, ensuring her place in the final and the Paris Olympics. She did take home medals, a silver and a bronze, at the World Aquatics World Cup in October. NJ

13. Peamount United win the league against all odds

After losing six of their best players to Shamrock Rovers ahead of the league season, Peamount’s hopes of a successful campaign looked slim. But they dug deep into their reserves of youthful talent and combined it with the experience of the likes of captain Karen Duggan to produce an outstanding title-winning campaign. Player of the year Sadhbh Doyle’s winners against rivals Shelbourne and Rovers were immense steps along the way. MH

12. Ireland Sevens team punch their ticket to Paris

In the last World Series event of the year in Toulouse, Ireland beat Fiji to secure the final automatic spot at the Olympics. Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Lucy Mulhall ranked highly on the global tries and points scored list but Eve Higgins was the highest Irish woman, fifth overall, in the World Series impact player rankings. NJ

11. Hannah Tyrrell is unplayable in the All-Ireland final

She already had a sporting CV like few others from her soccer and international rugby playing days, but the honour Tyrrell craved the most was a senior All-Ireland football medal with Dublin. Come August, it was mission accomplished, thanks largely to her own Player of the Match performance against Kerry, during which she scored eight first-half points from nine attempts. Decent. MH

10. Siobhán McCrohan wins world championship gold

After a seven-year absence, McCrohan returned to international rowing in an emphatic manner, securing her first rowing World Championship medal – gold, no less – in the lightweight single sculls. The Co Galway native had finished just off the podium in June’s European Championships but more than made up for that near miss with her gold medal-winning performance in September. NJ

9. Female Gaelic games players take a stand for equality

There were strong echoes of the stance taken by the Irish soccer squad in 2017 when 24 intercounty Gaelic footballers and camogie players held a press conference in Dublin back in June, vowing to play only “under protest” in response to being treated like “second-class citizens” by their governing bodies. That protest was eventually suspended when those bodies agreed to “deliver a standardised charter for female inter-county players”. We’ll see what 2024 brings. MH

8. Katie-George Dunlevy wins another world title, this time with a new partner

The para-cyclist added to her slew of career medals at August’s World Championships in Glasgow. Dunlevy and regular partner Eve McCrystal secured a bronze medal on the track. Dunlevy also added a pair of gold medals with Linda Kelly in both the time trial and road race. Dunlevy and Kelly were the overall winners of the UCI Para-cycling World Cup. NJ

7. Leona Maguire wins on the LPGA Tour and stars at the Solheim

Maybe she has spoiled us into thinking it was only a middling year. She won her second LPGA Tour title. She had seven top-10s. She pushed her career earnings in America alone to over $4 million. And in Spain in September she was the second-highest scorer on Team Europe at the Solheim Cup, which included a Sunday demolition job on US hotshot rookie Rose Zhang. If that’s middling year, she’ll do some damage in a good one. MC

6. Rachael Blackmore wins on Honeysuckle at Cheltenham

It was Honeysuckle’s last race, regardless of the result. It had been a terrible year, with Henry DeBromhead’s young son Jack dying in a riding accident. It was the first day of the festival, with all the emotion priced in anyway. Yet Rachael Blackmore was the coolest head on the course, steering Honeysuckle to a fourth Cheltenham Festival win. Not a dry eye in the house. MC

5. Ciara Mageean finishes fourth at the World Championships

A year like no other for the Portaferry athlete. She finished fourth in the world in August, running a new Irish record in the 1,500m. Not content with one national record, she added three more, in the 800m, the mile and then the 1,500m again.

It started off in May, Mageean running at the British Milers Club meet in Manchester. There, she knocked 0.15 seconds off the Irish 800m record which had previously been set by Louise Shanahan the year before.

Sonia O’Sullivan has held the Irish record for the mile since 1994. That fell in July, Mageean shaving a full three seconds off the near 20-year-old marker. The run came at a Diamond League meeting in Monaco, Mageean finishing second behind Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon who broke the world record in that race.

A month later, Mageean finished fourth in the 1,500m at the World Championships. It was a bittersweet run for the Irish woman. Another Irish record now belonged to her but she missed out on a medal by 0.6 of second.

“To stand here, being a bit disappointed with fourth in the World – in previous years I would have taken off your hand for that,” admitted Mageean after the race. “I came here knowing I had the ability to come away with a medal – and to just narrowly miss out on that. I still have to hold my head high; I gave absolutely everything out on that track. I’ve worked really hard on this, finally feel I’m where I belong – in the top of women’s 1,500m. And I’ve shown I’m someone to be feared out there now.”

If she wasn’t feared then, another lowering of that Irish record certainly helped. At another Diamond League meet, this time in Brussels in September, Mageean took herself into the 3:55 territory for the first time when finishing second behind her rival, Britain’s Laura Muir.

Two national records set inside a month, Mageean signed off on a stellar 12 months that saw her named Irish athlete of the year alongside Rhasidat Adeleke. The middle-distance runner was also awarded the 2023 track athlete of the year gong.

Any time an athlete puts in such a run of form less than 12 months out from an Olympics, excitement starts to build. “I’m proud of how I performed, and it’s not a bad place to be, going into an Olympic year.” Not bad at all. NJ

4. Rhasidat Adeleke wins the NCAAs and finishes fourth in Budapest

The early part of Rhasidat Adeleke’s year was dizzying. It seemed like every time she took to the track for the University of Texas she broke an Irish record. It was proving as hard to keep up with her progress as it was for her rivals to keep her in their sights.

We were already alerted to her talent when she excelled at junior level – gold at the European under-18 Championships, silver at the World under-20 Championships, a 100m and 200m sprint double at the European Youth Olympics and another at the European under-20 Championships. So, serious promise.

Still, her 2023 was spectacular. If we were to list all the new national marks she set, we’d be here for a month, the Dubliner repeatedly rewriting the Irish records over both 200m and 400m. Indoors and, later, outdoors.

In January, as just one example, she lowered her own indoor 200m record in New Mexico with the fastest time by a European woman since 2003. And then there was the first sub-50 second 400m by an Irish woman. And, for good measure, she won an NCAA outdoor title with Texas, another first by an Irish sprinter, male or female.

Come July, Adeleke opted to turn professional, signing a contract with Nike, a measure of how highly regarded she is in her sporting world, and how thrilling is her potential. In her first professional race, a 200m in Hungary, she finished second only to Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson, the second fastest woman in history at that distance.

But she was taking it all in her stride. “I just stay the same as I’ve always been,” she told Ian O’Riordan after turning pro. “I don’t let any of the new experiences or pressure get to me, I just want to be the same person I’ve been throughout the years.”

She might be the same person, but as an athlete she’s making giant strides. That she was disappointed with her fourth-place finish in the World Championships 400m final says everything about her ambition. And lest we forget, she only turned 21 in August, a week after that race.

The only difficulty she’d had all year is coming to terms with the profile she has achieved. “It’s just weird now,” she told Ian, “like being in the airport on the way here and so many people were asking for pictures and I was like, oh my God, I feel like I’m famous or something.” She will, you’d suspect, have to get used to that fame. MH

3. A year like no other for the Ireland team

Safe to say, we won’t forget this Republic of Ireland team’s 2023 any time soon. From that historic first appearance at the World Cup to the drama surrounding Vera Pauw’s departure from her role as manager, it was a year that had a little bit of everything.

And it concluded with a near enough flawless Nations League campaign that, while not featuring anything remotely like the quality of opposition faced in Australia, was still encouraging enough to suggest that this team can build on what it has achieved so far.

With 14 matches played between February and December, it was also the busiest year our national team has ever had, and along the way the players’ profile was raised to a level never before reached.

Captain Katie McCabe is, probably, now one of our most recognisable sporting faces. “She has some left foot, that one,” was among the sporting nation’s most oft-uttered refrains through the year. Which says something about how far this team has come from the relative anonymity they endured not so long ago.

There’s no buttering the parsnips, though – the World Cup campaign proved to be a big disappointment, even if Ireland only lost by single-goal margins to the higher-ranked Australia and Canada. The falling-out proved to be rancorous, a number of players insisting that they had much more to offer if only Pauw had removed the shackles.

Ultimately, that led to the FAI deciding not to renew her contract. Which, in turn, led to social media igniting and heaping opprobrium on the players for not being grateful enough to the woman who had taken them to their first World Cup. The same people probably wouldn’t have known McCabe from a lamp-post a month before, but that’s the price that was paid when an interest was finally taken in this team’s story.

A record crowd of 35,944 turned up in September for the team’s Aviva Stadium debut, although Tallaght remains their more usual home, the regular ‘sold out’ notices there, mixed with a rash of empty seats, remaining a mystery. Work to be done, then, but there were a heap more ups in 2023 than downs, the next stage of the journey due to start with the FAI’s choice of Pauw’s permanent successor, Eileen Gleeson having done a fine job as the interim manager.

He or she will find a squad in rude health, bolstered by the addition of gifted, exciting young talent like the Peamount trio of Erin McLaughlin (20), Ellen Dolan (17) and Freya Healy (16). If the year just gone was packed with good memories, the aim now is to build on it and create some more. MH

2. Katie Taylor’s rematch win over Chantelle Cameron

Maybe this was the year we found out Katie Taylor was human. Or maybe she was superhuman all along and just took a fun new route to reminding everyone of the fact. Either way, here we are at the end of yet another year trying to find yet more words to wrap around the national treasure from Bray.

Her first defeat as a professional came in May against Chantelle Cameron. She hadn’t lost in 22 fights, not since Mira Potkonen beat her at the Olympics in Rio. That was seven years and a lifetime ago.

She had spent the intervening time changing the landscape of women’s pro boxing just as profoundly as she’d done with the amateur game. She was five weeks out from her 37th birthday when Cameron beat her. If she’d decided then that she’d done enough, then everyone – absolutely everyone – would have tipped their hat and welcomed the decision.

But she was never going to do that. When we asked her during some of the interminable press rounds ahead of the rematch whether it had ever crossed her mind, she half-pretended to take offence at the very idea. She was never going out like that. Not after one defeat. Especially not after one defeat on her only pro fight in Dublin.

And so she came back. She brought Cameron to the 3Arena again and, not for the first time in her remarkable career, she showcased her ability to adapt to circumstance and to rewrite her own story. She fought a different fight to the first time; Cameron, probably naively, came back to fight the same one. The result looked pretty nailed on from a good way out.

If you want the nuts and bolts of it all, here they are. She’s an undisputed two-weight world champion. She is, again, the best pound-for-pound female fighter on the planet. She is, again, the golden ticket for everybody else in the sport. Any road to riches goes through her. There’s talk of Croke Park again. We’ll see.

There will come a time when none of this will be the case. When even Katie Taylor finds Father Time to be undefeated. There are plenty of us, frankly, who hope that time is not far off in the distance, who wish nothing else for her now but to get out of the game and enjoy a long and healthy retirement.

We know that Katie Taylor will call her own way out though. She’s never done anything else. MC

1. Katie McCabe’s year

Nothing surprises you about Katie McCabe any more. Not the goals, not the assists, not the outrageous dragbacks and pirouettes that leave the best defenders in the best league in the world twisted into pretzels.

And maybe it’s that, above all else, that is the most remarkable thing. The very fact that there is an Irish footballer who is consistently performing at a world-class level in the most popular sport on the planet and we mostly just shrug our shoulders now because, sure that’s Katie McCabe. Like, what did you expect?

In 2023 she became the first Irish woman to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or. She made the Champions League team of the season, the only player outside of the two finalists Barcelona and Wolfsburg to be picked on it. She won the Goal of the Season award in the WSL. She was voted Arsenal’s player of the year. They think so much of her that they turned down an offer from Chelsea in the summer that would have made her the fifth most expensive player in the history of the women’s game.

With Ireland, she captained her country to their first World Cup. She scored Ireland’s first ever World Cup goal. She handled the tournament fall-out – during which she was attacked from all angles as Vera Pauw’s contract wasn’t renewed – with unruffled poise and calm (give or take one fairly restrained emoji). She subsequently led her side through an unbeaten Nations League campaign.

Across the year, Ireland racked up 23 goals in total. McCabe scored six and had six assists, including a mesmeric night against Albania where she plundered a hat-trick and laid on the other two for Kyra Carusa. She saved her best goal of the year for her last Ireland game, a sumptuous curler with her weaker right foot against Northern Ireland in Windsor Park.

All of these are dots on the page, though. Join them up and the fuller picture you get is of a sporting figure who simply hasn’t existed in Ireland until now. We have had brilliant Irish female soccer players before but none that ever captured the imagination of the country like this. Think of the number of bodies you have to clamber over to get to her level, the sheer breadth of international talent she has left trailing her wake. It feels like we don’t appreciate it half enough.

The women’s professional game is still so young that there was, of course, huge scope for somebody to come along and be the first genuine Irish superstar. But nobody went and did it before Katie McCabe. She’s 28 now, bang in her prime and improving with every season. Watching her do it is one of the great joys of being an Irish sports fan. MC