2021 was a hell of a year for Irish sport.
There were a huge number of brilliant achievements across a wide range of sports, meaning it was incredible difficult to narrow this selection down.
After a long process of deliberation, here are our top 20 Irish sporting moments of 2021.
1. Kellie Harrington wins gold
The announcer in the Kokugikan Arena declaring "The winner on points by unanimous decision" drew an immediate exclamation from Hugh Cahill. "She's done it! She's done it!" he whooped on commentary for RTÉ.
Kellie Harrington had just beaten Brazil's Beatrix Ferreria to claim Ireland's second gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics. It was a moment which brought joy to her native Portland Row, and the rest of Ireland. In the biggest moment of her career, Harrington had produced the best performance of her life. She had defeated the 2019 world champion, someone who had gone the previous two years unbeaten.
Over the previous three fights at the Games, Harrington had endeared herself to the country. For those who had followed her journey to that point, admiration for Harrington was reaffirmed but she also brought in those who only switch every four years. That was achieved through a mixture of world class skill and a personality which charmed all.
'And the winner, by unanimous decision....'
How. Sweet. It. Is.#olympics #tokyo2020 #RTESport #boxing
📺 Watch live - https://t.co/IpdMKF55tD
📱 Updates – https://t.co/huAtW8EXqg pic.twitter.com/XQBvLsw479
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 8, 2021
2. Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy win gold
At the Sea Forest waterway in late July, Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy were hot favourites to win Olympic gold in the lightweight double sculls.
The pair possess that rarest of characteristics in Irish teams: They're comfortable being the favourites. 'Hiding in the long grass' and 'Coming in under the radar' are not idioms associated with the Cork rowers.
In the semi-final, they set a world best time, creating even more expectation. And in the final, five years after O'Donovan won silver with his brother Gary in the same event, they overpowered Germany to claim Ireland's first ever Olympic rowing gold medal.
The welcome and love for @TeamIreland rowing gold medallists Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan as they return to the Olympic village pic.twitter.com/UaXU2ivwLl
— Gary Lemke (@GaryLemke) July 29, 2021
3. Rachael Blackmore wins the Aintree Grand National
The months of March and April 2021 are ones Rachael Blackmore, and horse racing, will never forget. In the space of four weeks, she became the first woman to be crowned top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival and also the first woman to ride the winner of the Aintree Grand National.
"I don’t feel male or female right now, I don’t even feel human, this is just unbelievable!" Rachael Blackmore told Matt Chapman after winning the world's most famous horse race aboard Minella Times.
"I don't feel male or female right now. I don't feel human. This is just unbelievable.
Rachael Blackmore reacts to winning the Aintree Grand National.
What an icon she is. #GrandNational | #VMTVRacing pic.twitter.com/tAoWFc1KgK
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) April 10, 2021
She finished off the year by being crowned RTÉ Sports Person of the Year and BBC World Sport Star of the Year.
4. Meath win their first All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship
Nine months after winning the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship, earning them promotion to the top tier, the Meath ladies footballers reached the senior final. They did so with what those on the outside considered upset victories over Armagh in the quarters and Cork in the semis. Those on the inside thought otherwise.
In the final, Meath were again the underdogs - with good reason. They faced a Dublin team aiming to win their fifth consecutive All-Ireland title, but the reigning champions were confronted with a challenge unlike others they’d seen in previous years.
In a pulsating game, Meath led by five points at the break, and by two at the final whistle. Emma Duggan’s goal proved crucial as Meath won their first ever senior final at their first attempt.
#MTHvDUB 7 nóim
An Mhí 1-02
Áth Cliath 0-01
EMMA DUGGAN........ 🤩
WHAT A GOAL FOR @meathladiesMLGF #ProperFan
BEO/LIVE AR @TG4TV pic.twitter.com/7LWhePYzjx
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) September 5, 2021
4. Leona Maguire stars at The Solheim Cup
There is a storied history of Irish players coming up trumps at the Ryder Cup. Unfortunately, that had not been the case in the Solheim Cup.
Leona Maguire becoming the first Irish woman to play in the event was a big enough achievement in itself, but not many could have predicted just much of an impact she would have on the event.
The Cavan native was without doubt the star of the three days of action in Toledo, taking 4.5 points from her five matches as Europe claimed only a second ever victory on American soil.
It announced Maguire to the world as a potential star, something she will be looking to build on going forward. We have a feeling that this certainly won’t be her only star turn in this particular event.
5. Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal win double Paralympic gold
Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal have become quite the formidable duo in recent years. Having won honours at the highest level since 2014, they took things to the next level in 2021.
They would win three medals at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, with gold coming in the road race and time trial, as well as a silver in the individual pursuit.
They've done it again! Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal win the WB Time Trial Gold!pic.twitter.com/LndbP14Dmb
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) August 31, 2021
It was a remarkable achievement for the pair, who would also go on to be named Team of the Year at the recent RTÉ Sports Awards, no mean feat when you consider the opposition that they faced on that occasion.
6. Ellen Keane wins gold at the Paralympics
A few weeks before the Tokyo Paralympics, Ireland’s Kellie Harrington claimed a brilliant Olympic gold medal. We proclaimed on Twitter that Harrington had overtaken Keane as Ireland’s greatest sporting surname (influenced in no way by this similarly surnamed Balls writer).
One Irish swimmer clearly took that personally. "Challenged accepted," said Ellen Keane.
— Ellen Keane PLY💜 (@keane_ellen) August 26, 2021
At the Paralympics, 13 years on from her first appearance at the Games in Beijing, and five years after winning bronze in Rio, Keane claimed a thrilling gold medal in the SB8 100m breaststroke. After taking the turn behind New Zealand's Sophie Pascoe, the 26-year-old Dubliner powered through the second half of the race to touch the wall in first.
The frenzied emotional reaction on the poolside in Tokyo, coupled with the jubilant celebrations broadcast from her family home in Clontarf, made this a true highlight of the Irish sporting year.
7. Katie Taylor ends the year as undisputed world champion
While 2021 did not quite have the same big names fights for Katie Taylor as the couple of years that had gone before, the Bray women continued to be a pillar of excellence.
Three bouts, three convincing wins, and the cementing of her place as the biggest name in women's boxing. Certainly not a bad 12 months.
Taylor's victory over Firuza Sharipova earlier this month ensured she would finish 2021 as undisputed champion of the world in the lightweight division, the only Irish fighter ever to hold such an accolade.
With that weight division conquered, Katie has now set her sights on a massive showdown with unified featherweight champion Amanda Serrano in April.
8. Ireland beat All Blacks
You can have all the debates about the significance of beating New Zealand in what is ‘only’ an autumn test, but there is no doubt that any time Ireland beat the All Blacks there is a cause for celebration.
The 2021 iteration of this event was somewhat of an odd one. Whereas in years gone by this clash has often been labelled as the meeting of two sides vying for the ‘best in the world’ title, few would have put Ireland in such a conversation this year. Their form has been far too patchy under Andy Farrell and there had been some serious questions asked about the direction in which the team was going.
Such doubts are now seemingly put behind them after what was a stunning performance at the Aviva Stadium.
It featured some incredible rugby from Ireland, the type of which has rarely been seen from this side. Playing with an expansive, entertaining, and winning style against the most feared side in the sport is nothing to be sniffed at.
It really did give a glimpse as to what they could become, even if it was ‘only’ an autumn international.
9. Mayo end Dublin's dominance
Consider this: 62 minutes into their All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo had scored just seven points and trailed Dublin by five. It appeared that despite an unimpressive performance, Dublin were heading into their seventh consecutive All-Ireland final.
Rob Hennelly stepped up to take a long-range free but the Mayo goalkeeper’s effort seemed to be tailing harmlessly wide. That was until Diarmuid O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin combined to start the Mayo comeback.
O’Connor raced from the left-hand side of the Dublin goal to the right, and volleyed it towards McLoughlin who steadied himself to kick a super point.
In the 37 minutes of action which followed - taking into account injury time and extra-time - Mayo outscored their opponents nine points to two, and ended Dublin’s run of 45 championship games unbeaten.
Incredible hard work and determination from Diarmuid O'Connor to set up Kevin McLoughlin for another point for @MayoGAA v @DubGAAOfficial in the All Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi Final ! #GAANOW pic.twitter.com/fwruE84WeY
— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 14, 2021
10. Ireland beat Finland
The tide has turned in recent years when it comes to the Republic of Ireland women’s team. Once treated as a footballing afterthought in this country, they are now rightly being given the backing they deserve from both the FAI and the general public.
The result of that has been some brilliant occasions in Tallaght Stadium over the last few years as people turn up in their droves to see Vera Pauw’s side. Unfortunately, that has yet to turn into real tournament success.
The recent European Championships qualifying campaign began with so much hope but ultimately ended in a disappointing fashion. It was hoped that could be changed for the World Cup campaign.
The win over Finland in the group opener gave us real hope about what is to come.
Finland 1-2 Republic of Ireland - Denise O'Sullivan has Ireland back in front, getting her head on the end of a Heather Payne cross
📱 Live updates - https://t.co/E4vfdFQ0Yk
📺 Watch - https://t.co/1CdVcPa1jr
📻 Listen - https://t.co/k385JrUVqr#FINIRL @FIFAWWC #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/WNrYkZzFyd
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) October 26, 2021
An impressive 2-1 win away in a nation ranked above Ireland in the FIFA world rankings suggested that this team was ready to take the next step. Here’s hoping that will be the case in 2022.
11. Tyrone win the All-Ireland
Mayo often thrive off being an unfancied side. They have turned up on many the big occasion and upset the apple cart in some manner. In fact, their All-Ireland semi-final victory against Dublin this year was a prime example of that.
Unfortunately for them, that made them favourites for the final and ripe for an ambush from the sport’s true underdog.
No county loves being told they can’t do something more than Tyrone. It is a narrative they feed off, one that has often helped them to their most famous victories. They entered the games against both Kerry and Mayo in this year’s All-Ireland series as outsiders, having also been the subject of a huge amount of public criticism for the covid outbreak in their camp.
In all, it was a perfect storm for Tyrone to capture their first Sam Maguire since 2008. Absolutely nobody should have been surprised to see them climb the steps of the Hogan Stand, claiming what was a well deserved All-Ireland title after a couple of brilliant performances at GAA headquarters.
12. Kyle Hayes's wonder solo goal
Limerick players walked down the Páirc Uí Chaoimh tunnel at half-time in the Munster final trailing by 10 points. Considering how unbeatable they looked in the latter stages of the championship, it is an extraordinary situation to recall now.
But, just 18 minutes into the second half, they had shattered Tipperary's advantage, and led by two points. It was then that Kyle Hayes took possession of the sliotar just inside his own 60, and set off on a remarkable solo run which saw him slice through the Tipperary defence and hit a clinical strike past Barry Hogan.
"I don't think I've ever seen a goal like that," said Michael Duignan on commentary for RTÉ.
"That is Kyle Hayes. That is what he can do. I don't think there's any other hurler I've seen that could do that.”
An extraordinary Limerick comeback in this second half and it's summed up here by this Kyle Hayes effort.
Watch now on @rte2 or highlights on #sundaygame from 9.30pm pic.twitter.com/GNClAbpAlB
— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) July 18, 2021
13. Nicole Turner wins silver at the Paralympics
Five years after she finished fifth in the S6 50m breaststroke at the Paralympic Games in Rio, Nicole Turner won silver in same race in Tokyo. It was reward for the sacrifices which had been made, both by her and those in her life.
"Looking back on Rio, being so close to that bronze medal, the aim was to get on the podium in Tokyo," the overjoyed 19-year-old told RTÉ after her race.
"I never in a million years thought it would be silver. I always thought it would be a fight for bronze."
An overjoyed Nicole Turner was shaking with excitement as she spoke to @Darrenfrehill about her brilliant silver medal swim https://t.co/WnFPRxuuVq #rtesport #paralympics #paraswimming pic.twitter.com/t1l0aTCVo5
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 30, 2021
14. Women's four make Irish Olympic history
In the final kilometre of the women's four final at the Olympic Games, the Irish team could hear those to their left and right urging teammates to halt Ireland's surge for a medal. They could not stop it.
Trailing in fifth at the halfway point, the boat of Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty followed the strategy: If they were slipping back, they'd simply let rip.
It worked too as they overhauled Great Britain in the last 500m to claim the bronze behind Australia and the Netherlands, and become the first Irish women to win an Olympic rowing medal.
Emily Hegarty, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe and Fiona Murtagh speak to RTE Sport after claiming the bronze medal in Tokyo. #olympics #tokyo2020 #RTESport
📺 Watch live - https://t.co/lLKXNhKPkF
📱 Updates: https://t.co/4J3vff3Qa7 pic.twitter.com/nX2gljYYob
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) July 28, 2021
15. Jason Smyth wins gold at the Paralympic Games
A man that is widely regarded as the Usain Bolt of the Paralympics world, it’s fair to say Jason Smyth had a target on his back heading into Tokyo 2020. Three consecutive T13 100m gold medals to his name will do that to you. Could he grab a fourth? At 34, the Derry man was there to prove that he still had the legs, and that they could propel him on to be the fastest man in the world in his category once again. Before the race began, it was even a milestone for Smyth to make the final in 2021.
Overcoming a number of injuries on the path to Japan, as well as the ongoing pandemic, made him question if he was ever going to be a Paralympian again. Smyth’s toughest year before the games culminated in arguably his toughest race. A strong first half led to Skander Djamil Athmani bringing on a late surge and looking like he had pipped Smyth in real time. It wasn’t to be for the Algerian. In a photofinish, Smyth his sixth Paralympic gold medal.
🥇 Jason Smyth has won his sixth gold medal after a dramatic photo finish in the T13 100m final #rtesport #paralympics #paraathletics
📱 Live updates - https://t.co/yvJaZMisVD…
📺Watch live - https://t.co/3fIvL3Jwwv pic.twitter.com/loDXV7N6Ka
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 29, 2021
16. Ireland v Portugal
Times were tough for the first few months of Stephen Kenny’s reign as Ireland manager. Defeat to Luxembourg in the Aviva in March was arguably the low point of the Irish sporting year, and he was under serious pressure from the fans and media alike to turn things around in the second half of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
It’s a major credit to Kenny and his youthful squad that they did just that. While the process may have started with a strong showing on Portuguese soil, it was the visit of Cristiano Ronaldo and co to Dublin that really stood. There are two reasons for that.
Firstly, it seemed to be the first occasion that the fruits of Kenny and his squad’s labours finally produced a good performance followed by an excellent result, drawing with one of the world’s strongest squads and matching them stride for stride. Portugal’s superstars were shackled, with Bruno Fernandes anonymous, Ronaldo choked out by Shane Duffy, and Pepe seeing red for a frustrated swipe at Ireland’s own CR7 (Callum Robinson) in the dying moments.
But what the night even more memorable was that it happened in front of the first full house for an Irish game in Lansdowne Road in two full years. The Aviva was rocking, and the atmosphere sealed the deal on a remarkable night for Ireland, when they were unlucky not to take three points.
Stephen Kenny will be hoping that there are many more such nights to come in the years ahead, although the challenge will now be to produce such performances on a consistent basis.
17. Aidan Walsh wins Ireland's first Olympic boxing medal since London
After the disaster that was the 2016 Olympics, there was relief in late July when Aidan Walsh secured Ireland's first Olympic boxing medal in nine years.
The 24-year-old from Belfast defeated Merven Clair of Mauritius by split decision to claim at least a bronze. Such was his elation, Walsh leapt into the air and injured his ankle on landing. It would prevent him from fighting Great Britain's Pat McCormack in the semi-final.
'He's fighting Ireland's Aidan Walsh!' - @aidanwalsh997 is looking forward to his semi-final bout against Britain's Pat McCormack on Sunday after securing bronze#boxing #olympics #tokyo2020 #RTESport
📺 Watch live - https://t.co/lLKXNhKPkF
📱 Report - https://t.co/alWqad7ePY pic.twitter.com/Jru9Ez64xV
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) July 30, 2021
18. Loughmore-Castleiney do the Tipp double
St Eunans, Kilmacud Crokes, Naas, and Loughmore-Castleiney all did senior football and hurling doubles in their counties this year. There was a major difference between Loughmore’s achievement and the rest: while others had the odd player in both panels, for the Tipperary side, they were virtually the same team. For 19 consecutive weeks this autumn and winter, Loughmore players alternated between throwing helmets and hurleys in their gears bags and not.
In dramatic fashion, thanks to a late John McGrath goal, they defeated Clonmel Commercials in the football final. A week earlier, they had drawn with Thurles Sarsfields in the hurling decider. In the replay, it was again John McGrath who hit the decisive score, this time from a tight angled free on the sideline as Loughmore won by a point to emulate the achievement of their 2013 team.
19. St Pats win the FAI Cup
The 2021 FAI Cup final trucked along for the guts of an hour and 45 minutes without much incident, apart from rampant cramp and pyrotechnic shows from both sets of supporters.
That was until Billy King played a square ball into the feet of Chris Forrester just inside the Pat’s half. From there, Forrester’s first touch left Bohs captain Keith Buckley stranded as the break commenced. Being harried by Promise Omochere and with lactic acid building, Forrester had the wherewithal to check back onto his right foot and bury the ball past James Talbot.
With one of the best goals the Aviva Stadium had ever seen, the FAI Cup final had burst into life.
Typically, in the second half of extra-time, Bohs struck back immediately thanks to a bullet header from former-Saint Rory Feely. Thereafter, Bohs were thwarted by both Pat’s Liverpool-loanee Vitezslav Jaros and cult hero Jak Hickman, with the latter somehow hacking the ball off the line to ensure that the Saints survived.
Onto the ‘lottery’ of penalties, which kicked-off with five perfect penalties from both sides. Then was the turn of Pat’s starman Forrester, who saw his tame spot kick saved from Talbot to give Bohs the advantage.
However, that advantage didn’t last.
Both Tyreke Wilson and Keith Ward missed the target for Bohemians, leaving Robbie Benson with the chance to win it for the Saints. The Athlone native found the net with what turned out to be his last kick for the Saints, bringing the FAI Cup back to Inchicore for just the fourth time.
20. Ireland U23 men win gold at European Cross Country Championships
Despite a lowkey build-up, December's European Cross Country Championship in Dublin were a roaring success. The hosts doing well generally makes for a more enjoyable competition. That was certainly the case with Ireland picking up three medals, and it could have been more.
The U20 men took team silver before the U23 men went one better. Though Darragh McElhinney was beaten to individual gold by Great Britain's Charlie Hicks, Keelan Kilrehill finishing sixth and Michael Power in 13th was enough for Ireland to top the podium.
Sound on! 📡
Nothing better than home success in a major championships! 😍#FingalDublin2021
— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) December 12, 2021