Irish Sporting Lives. By Terry Clavin

Irish Sporting Lives (Royal Irish Academy, 2022) brings to life sixty figures who in their individual ways illustrate the drama and diversity of Irish sporting history.

This collection of biographical essays draws from the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) and spans 200 years from the early nineteenth century. It is edited by DIB researchers Terry Clavin and Turlough O’Riordan, with an introductory essay by former Tullamore GAA clubman and Offaly Gaelic football coach, Ireland’s foremost sports historian, Professor Paul Rouse. 

The biographies in Irish Sporting Lives encompass serial winners and glorious losers, heroes and villains, role models and rogues, enduring legends and forgotten or overlooked greats. Trailblazing women feature prominently, and their stories highlight the adversity they had to overcome in pursuing their sporting dreams. Aside from household names such as George Best, Jack Kyle, Christy Ring, Lady Heath, Alex Higgins and Jack Charlton, the volume will also inform readers about less well-known but equally fascinating figures. These include Vere Goold, the only Wimbledon tennis finalist ever convicted of murder; Dave Gallaher, New Zealand’s most revered rugby captain; and Martin Sheridan, the winner of nine Olympic medals for the USA.

First and foremost, subjects eligible for inclusion in this volume must be dead. As a result, some of Ireland’s most famous sports names such as Roy Keane, Katie Taylor, Brian O’Driscoll and Sonia O’Sullivan do not feature here. That aside, persons eligible for inclusion also must be born in Ireland with careers in Ireland (like Christy Ring), born in Ireland with careers outside Ireland (like George Best) or born outside Ireland with careers in Ireland (like Jack Charlton).

Our selection aims at capturing the different eras and range of sporting experience contained within the DIB. The earliest life dates from the early nineteenth century, with most being concentrated from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. There are relatively few from the late twentieth century onwards because most sports stars from this era are still alive. The main sports—Gaelic games, soccer, rugby, athletics, horse racing and boxing— are well represented, but so too are minority sports such as croquet, cricket, tennis and hockey. Thirty per cent of our subjects are women, which provides a positive gender balance bearing in mind how women were discouraged from participating in most sporting activities until relatively recently.

Our featured sportswomen and sportsmen were not necessarily chosen for being the best or the most successful at their sport, though there are plenty of those, including Jack Dempsey, who is considered one of the greatest ‘pound-for-pound’ boxers of all time; Kay Mills, who won fifteen all-Ireland medals in camogie; and Vincent O’Brien, who was voted the greatest trainer in both flat and National Hunt racing. In selecting entries, we aimed primarily to provide readers with material that is informative and engaging, hence the inclusion of colourful characters such as the Belfast boxing promoter ‘Ma’ Copley, the hard-drinking rugby legend Moss Keane and the flamboyant pioneer of women’s athletics and aviation Lady Heath. Other make the cut for having intrinsically interesting careers, for instance Mike McTigue, who became world light middleweight champion amid the chaos and carnage of the Irish civil war, and Shay Elliott, whose tragic career sheds light on the murkier aspects of professional cycling. There are also a handful of infamous figures, such as the champion woman motorcyclist turned diehard Nazi supporter, Fay Taylour.

Birr born Fay Taylour

Those who achieved sporting firsts feature prominently. Beatrice Hill-Lowe was the first Irish woman to win an Olympic medal, Pat O’Callaghan was the first athlete representing an independent Ireland to win an Olympic gold medal and Jack Kyle inspired the Irish rugby team to its first Grand Slam. Sporting innovators like William McCracken, who drove an important development in soccer’s evolution, are also given their due, as are those who show the courage and fortitude exhibited by Teresa Mullen in winning a gold medal at the Paralympics while enduring cancer. Finally, the editors have sought to draw attention to unjustly forgotten or neglected figures such as Beauchamp Day, who was arguably Ireland’s greatest runner, and Anne O’Brien, who was one of the best women soccer players in the world.

Irish Sporting Lives was published by the Royal Irish Academy in November 2022  and can be purchased from all good bookshops, and online through the Royal Irish Academy website: Irish Sporting Lives | Royal Irish Academy ( – priced at €19.95 rrp.

Ireland’s foremost work of biographical reference, the DIB contains over 11,000 biographies spanning the entire sweep of Irish history. All of these lives are freely available at our website

The most recent batch published two months ago included some interesting sporting lives that do not feature in Irish Sporting Lives: namely, rugby and soccer international Mick O’Flanagan, Kilkenny hurling guru Fr Tommy Maher, Tipperary hurler Jimmy Doyle, champion jockey Pat Eddery, and the man who brought about the removal of the GAA’s ban on foreign games Tom Woulfe. These and other recently published DIB entries can be viewed here: New entries | Dictionary of Irish Biography (

Our thanks to Terry Clavin for this blog and congratulations to RIA, the editors and contributors. The book is available from Offaly History shop and online from Offaly History. We have asked Terry Clavin to speak to the Society in 2023.