By PJ Cunningham
It’s seldom that someone from a small rural town can claim an international sporting moment almost as his or her own.
It happened for me last July when a talented young man, who lives across the fields in Clara, Co Offaly from where I was born, became arguably the most famous Irishman in the world when he won the Open golf championship in Royal Portrush.
It was a seminal moment for sport and all things Irish that the affable son of an All Ireland football hero of the past could claim and then re-christen the world-renowned Claret Jug – the Clara Jug on the playing of the 148th occasion of the championship.
Shane Lowry, of course, isn’t the first Irishman to win what we call the British Open, though aficionados drop the British bit of the title.
This century, Padraig Harrington (2007 and 2008) at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale, nestled the vessel twice in his embrace, while Rory McIlroy (Royal Liverpool, 2014) and Darren Clarke (Royal St George’s, 2011) have also claimed the coveted cup as their own this decade.
Lowry (32) won the Open on Irish soil – thus becoming the only Irish man, north or south, ever to attain such a feat.
But he won more than that on Sunday 21 July when he walked down the 18th fairway to complete a six-shot victory on 15 under par – he conquered the world.
Clara people the world over, and indeed anyone who knows Lowry, rejoiced because such a victory could not have happened to a nicer bloke.
Shane has always been a friendly and happy-go-lucky person – his victory transformed him from being Ireland favourite sportsman to one of the most popular in the world.
Yes, there were other great occasions to cherish as an Irish person this past 12 months – but nothing compared to the exhilaration of seeing a man from your own backyard being feted as champion golfer to the four corners of the earth.
And it was undoubtedly my top sporting moment of the year… and I was glad to see it was also the case for RTE viewers, who voted him their sportsperson of the year.
2 – Dublin’s five-in-a- row
It was historic and it took two games for that history to be made and now that Jim Gavin has ridden off into the sunset, the chances are it will not be extended, never mind be done again.
Dublin’s outstanding achievement deserves recognition for actually doing something the great Kerry sides of the seventies and eighties under Mick O’Dwyer failed to deliver.
With Dessie Farrell now at the helm, there is every chance that they could continue this phenomenal winning streak, though in all probability it is more likely that someone will come out of the pack and knock them off their throne.
3 – The Irish Women’s Hockey team
The Irish Women’s Hockey team would find it hard to be recognised outside of their own families and communities, but they lifted us up as a nation by building on their amazing exploits of reaching the World Cup final last year to qualify in the most dramatic of fashion for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next year.
You may remember Canada came to Donnybrook on a foul weather weekend in November, drew 0-0 on the Saturday night and were 3-1 up in the penalty shoot-out on the Sunday evening, and looking home if not dried following a second 0-0 draw after extra-time.
Then something sensational happened as we, the broader viewing television public, were introduced to penalties hockey-style, where a player dribbles in and must despatch the puck within eight seconds.
What drama as manoeuvred away from the cusp of defeat to emerge victorious in the most pulsating manner.
Ireland were down 3-1 in that shoot-out when goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran pulled off two unbelievable saves. Then Beth Barr and Chloe Watson clawed us back to parity by scoring, thus sending the encounter to sudden death.
Roisin Upton squeezed the ball home from the tightest of angles as Canada failed to convert their chance.
The visitors then referred Ireland goal to the video umpire hoping for a foul or an out of time call. Neither happened and the female green army went wild with delirium as the first Irish women’s hockey team to qualify for the Olympics.
4 – Wexford provincial success
It’s seldom that you find it right to put a victory in a provincial final ahead of one in the All Ireland decider, but then this was no ordinary team and this was no ordinary triumph.
Wexford are the hurling county every other team’s supporters love for their ability to keep coming back despite defeat after defeat.
This time around, it was victory and glory, and even more importantly, it was gained at the expense of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny side.
Starved of a title for a decade and a half, the bromance of the players and Davie (Fitzgerald) elevated this game to be classed an encounter for the ages, as Wexford won by 1-23 to 0-23.
5 – Tipperary’s Liam McCarthy triumph
Tipperary have that Man Unitd factor – you either love or hate them – but they know how to bring a swagger to an occasion like no other hurling county.
Their 14-point victory (3-25 to 0-20) over Kilkenny, though, was tainted by the fact that they played against 14-men for over a half of the game when Richie Hogan got controversially sent off.
Still the magic of skipper Seamie Callanan and the overall stickwork of the winners was a joy to behold, even if the game had more than a sense of exhibition about it long before the long whistle.
A magic return for Liam Sheedy, who showed he had the Midas touch, and is staying on to see if he can deliver back-to-back Liam McCarthy cups for the Premier boys.