Girls who run the world


Dónal Woods takes a look at the achievements of Irish women in sport


There is hardly an Irish person who does not know the name Sonia O’Sullivan, and rightly so. For almost the entirety of the ‘90s, Sonia O’Sullivan was one of the stars in the hugely competitive field of 5000m athletics. Her career was marked with numerous successes, including an Olympic silver medal in 2000, making her the first Irish female athlete to win an Olympic medal in track and field.

She added to her Olympic silver by winning gold in the 1995 World Athletics Championships and then going on to win two World Cross Country competitions and several European championships. Following her retirement, O’Sullivan has remained in the public eye as a trusted analyst because of her expertise and experience when performing on the world stage.

Ireland’s first Olympic gold medallist in years, Katie Taylor, became an Irish superstar after winning the lightweight division of Olympic boxing. Taylor had been a big hit in the boxing community before the Olympics, winning four successive world titles before coming to the Olympics.

On the day of the final, everyone in Ireland was glued to the television, including thousands from her native Bray, to see her make history, not just for Ireland, but women everywhere as the first woman to win an Olympic gold in boxing.

Obviously, the most recent success for Irish women came from the current rugby team, after they had a fantastic season winning their first ever Grand Slam. Fiona Coughlan led her team to four consecutive victories, including a 25-0 drubbing of an England side who had won seven consecutive Championships, including six Grand Slams in that time.

These performances had set Ireland up with a shot at the Slam in Milan on St. Patrick’s Day this year. A hard-fought game against an improving Italian side, in very bad conditions, was ultimately won thanks to a resolute defence and the kicking of Niamh Briggs.

In the world of professional ladies’ football, Ireland boasts one of best-known ‘keepers in the business; Emma Byrne. Byrne has been a permanent fixture in the team of the incredibly successful Arsenal Ladies’ FC, with whom she has won 26 major trophies since her arrival in early 2000.

Byrne has represented her country at every level and is Ireland’s most-capped goalkeeper, with a hugely impressive 97 caps to her name. A number of other Irish players have been integral to Arsenal’s success throughout the years, including Ciara Grant, who is not to be confused with the current UCD star and Ireland international of the same name.

But not all the women to have flown the flag for Ireland have been so recent. Maeve Kyle received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Sports Council thanks to her three Olympic appearances, competing in numerous track competitions from 100m to 800m, including appearances in the semi-finals of both 400m and 800m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In 1966, she won bronze in the European Indoor Athletic Championships in the 400m. In addition to her successful running career, she was a world-class hockey player, being capped for Ireland 58 times and being named in the World All Star team in both 1953 and 1959.In 2008 she received an OBE for her work both inside and outside of athletics.

Future star and former UCD student, Annalise Murphy, has already made a name for herself by coming fourth in the Olympic Laser Radial sailing competition, in which she came painfully close to a gold medal after winning four out of four races during the opening of the regatta.

Unfortunately, she was overtaken at the finish of the final race and finished fourth overall. Still, her achievement was nothing to scoff at as it was her personal best at a world-class regatta, and will only spur her on to greatness in the future.

Last year also saw the Paralympics take place in London. Ireland did remarkably well in these games as well, boasting 16 medals. Bethany Firth won gold for Ireland in the 100 meters backstroke, and female paralympians brought home 3 silver and 3 bronze, giving Ireland its best result since 1988, coming 19th overall.

Irish Women have also excelled in golf, with twins Leona and Lisa Maguire showing real promise. Lisa is ranked 35th in the world while her sister is ranked 6th. In 2012 Leona was the first Irish golfer to win the Irish Girls’ Open Stroke Play Championship, beating an international field by eight shots. She was also a part of the winning 2012 Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup team, beating the USA.

Then we have Derval O’Rourke, the 2006 winner of the 60m hurdle IAAF World Indoor Championships and the first Irish woman to ever win a World Indoor Championship in Athletics and she has broken the Irish national record twice in her field. Unfortunately, in 2011, she was unable to compete in her semi-final race during the World Championship of Athletics because of an injury.

There are many more sporting Irish women who deserve praise, and this is by no means a definitive list: golfer Stephanie Meadow won her first British Women’s Open Amateur title this year, Audrey O’Flynn is a rising star in hockey and Sycerika McMahon broke nine Irish swimming records at the European Short Course Championships in France.

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing top female athletes, and the next generation look ready and eager to take up the mantle.  As the demand for better funding grows, so too do the opportunities for female athletes in Ireland. If the past is anything to go by, we have a bright future ahead of us.