Top 5 most controversial moments in Irish sporting history

Irish sporting history is full of many important moments, some great, some tragic, and some very controversial. Here are the top five.

Sport and controversy go hand in hand as sporting history is often full of many important and sometimes controversial moments.

Irish sporting history is full of many of these moments. They have divided opinion, caused outrage, and have been debated in the corners of many a pub throughout the country.          

This article will list what we believe to be the top five most controversial moments in Irish sporting history.

5. Offaly vs Clare famous sit-down protest – a controversial protest

In 1998, Offaly and Clare had played each other three times in the All Ireland Hurling Championship semi-finals.

The first match ended in a draw. The second ended with Clare leading, but the referee had finished the game prematurely, by five minutes in fact.

This caused outrage among Offaly fans, who led a sit-down protest resulting in the third replay a week later. Offaly won this match before winning the championship.

4. The Brian O’ Driscoll spear tackle incident – a vicious tackle on an Irish legend

This was one of the most controversial moments in Irish sporting history.
Credit: Flickr / wynnert


Brian O’Driscoll is widely regarded as an Irish rugby legend, and rightfully so, so you can imagine the condemnation and outrage of Irish people when they witnessed the vicious spear tackle done to him by Tana Umaga during a Lions Tour match.

To rub salt in the wound, this tackle occurred when O’Driscoll was experiencing what could arguably be described as the peak of his career as he captained the Lions team. The incident remains a bad memory for Irish rugby fans.

3. Michelle Smith’s Olympic controversy – still controversial to this day

In 1996, Olympic swimmer Michelle Smith left Ireland and the sporting world in awe as she won three gold and one bronze medal in the Atlanta ’96 Olympics.

However, what first seemed like an incredible achievement soon became shrouded in controversy. As her astonishing performance seemed to come out of nowhere, many other nations became suspicious, and Michelle Smith had to undergo drug testing.

It turned out that the sample she provided was found to have been tampered with, with traces of whiskey added to it. This sample tampering led to the end of Smith’s career, as she was handed a four-year ban.

While she still holds her medals, the controversy has always remained.

2. Thierry Henry’s handball incident – cheated out of a potential World Cup

The Thierry Henry handball incident during the 2009 World Cup qualifier has to be undoubtedly one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking moments in Irish soccer history.

In the second leg of their World Cup qualifying match against France, Ireland had overturned a 1-0 defeat in Dublin and forced the game into extra time.

While Ireland seemed to have all the momentum, their hopes of going to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were utterly dashed when somehow, unbeknownst to the referee, Thierry Henry cheated by handling the ball and scored the winning goal.

There were protests in Ireland, but it was all in vain as the chance to go to another World Cup was no more. Thierry Henry remains a villain in Ireland today.

1. Saipan – a controversy that divided the nation

Roy Keane at Saipan.

In first place on our list of the top five most controversial moments in Irish sporting history is another Irish soccer incident which occurred during preparation for the 2002 World Cup.

At a training camp on the island of Saipan, Irish captain Roy Keane had a major bust-up with the manager at the time, Mick McCarthy. This resulted in him leaving the squad and not participating in the tournament.

In turn, the question of whose side you were on went on to divide the nation completely. Ardent supporters were forming for both sides, many of which remain bitter to this day about the issue.


So, that concludes our article on what we believe to be the top five most controversial moments in Irish sporting history. Are there any other controversial moments in Irish sporting history that you think deserved a place on our list?

Other notable mentions

Michael Conlan's 'loss' was one of the most controversial moments in Irish sporting history.
Credit: Flickr/ IBA Boxing

Ireland v England at Lansdowne Road (1995): What was supposed to be a friendly match was anything but. With Ireland leading 1-0 after a goal by David Kelly in the 22nd minute, the game was abandoned after things descended into chaos as a riot broke out led by English ultras.

Waterford Crystal Olympic scandal: In the 2004 Olympics, showjumper Cian O’Connor won a gold medal only to be stripped of it afterwards after his horse Waterford Crystal failed a drugs test.  


Michael Conlan’s “loss” at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics: It seemed obvious to everyone but the judges that Irish boxer Michael Conlan had easily won his quarter-final fight at the 2016 Olympics. However, to everyone in Ireland’s dismay, he didn’t win the fight.

The fight widely triggered an outcry of condemnation. Sure enough, later on, the fight was found to have been fixed by the officials involved. Unfortunately, it was too late for Conlan’s Olympic dreams, but he finally felt vindicated by the report’s findings.


FAQs about the most controversial moments in Irish sporting history

Why did Roy Keane go home from Saipan?

After falling out with his manager Mick McCarthy in a public quarrel during a training camp for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Roy Keane had to go home.

Which Irish players did Roy Keane fall out with?


In particular, Roy Keane seemed highly critical of Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton, and Gary Kelly. This is from the newspaper interviews he gave at the time.

What does Roy Keane think of Eric Cantona?

So, when asked about his opinion of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane said, “He was a brilliant player and scored big goals for Manchester United.”