Most read stories on 2021: I thought there’d be more Covid . . .

Which stories did Irish Times readers choose to read the most online this year?

If I’m honest, I thought there’d be more Covid. Not that you’d particularly miss it, but the excel sheet with the most read articles on for 2021 feels surprisingly light on The Very Big Thing that’s been marching its way consistently through journalism in The Irish Times, and everywhere else, for the best part of two years.

In 2020, coronavirus was unsurprisingly the topic of all of the top 10 most-read articles on the site, according to last year's run-through. Of the top 20 this year, it's the subject of just four pieces. Last year, that number was 18.

Reading the two lists tells a story. Last year, the appetite for information as the Government pieced together its various plans meant Covid news updates featured heavily on the roster of stories that readers chose to click en masse.

Those same stories now evoke memories we'd like to soon forget – of national restriction "levels", endless morbid statistics, various road maps, travel rules, and the shutting of facilities. Some may conjure the odd shiver up the spine, knowing what we know now (number 3, in 2020: Covid-19: State moves to Level 5 for six weeks with hopes of 'meaningful' Christmas celebrations.)


This year, readers’ appetites shifted as restrictions were gradually lifted, and a wider diversity of categories reigned once more in the top 20; life and style, business, news, food and drink, books all feature.

Something approaching “normal” reading – though never quite that – seems to have taken place, judging by the data. At the very top of the list sat a story that would have likely placed on any “normal” year. It’s a piece pulled from another of the news world’s divisive, evidently endless wells of material – the Royals.

Specifically, the most read story on in 2021 was Patrick Freyne's take on the Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, during which Markle painted a miserable picture of her experience as part of "the Firm", replete with emotional neglect, isolation and accusations of racism. The interview, Freyne writes, accumulated to "make the monarchy look like an archaic and endemically racist institution that has no place in the modern world. Well duh." Read it here: Harry and Meghan: The union of two great houses, the Windsors and the Celebrities, is complete.

The top story wasn't about Covid. But it very nearly was. In second place, and by only a fine margin, was the Irish Times Vaccine Tracker.  Assembled by Niamh Towey, the tracker was initially published on February 17th then regularly updated and republished, acting as an ongoing resource for readers to keep abreast of updates on the progress of Ireland's Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

The third-ranked story in terms of pageviews for the year was Rosita Boland's piece detailing some of the experiences of women who housed single pregnant girls in 1970s and 1980s Ireland, providing an alternative to the mother and baby homes. The headline is derived from a chilling quote from one woman, who recalled a meeting between one of the girls living in her house and the girl's social worker: "I can still remember what the social worker said to the girl. She said, 'Was it really worth it? Was two seconds of pleasure worth it for all this?'" The full piece can be read here.

Fourth place for the year marked an example of a larger trend among readers, apparent in the most-read lists: general health and fitness. Nearly as many articles in the top 20 for 2021 are about general health as they are Covid (four and five respectively). 'Morning run or evening walk? Here's the science on the best time of day to exercise' was the most-read health piece in the list, in at four, but the following articles also crop up: How just a single beer or glass of wine can affect your heart (6th place); Exercise helps us to lose weight, but what's the optimal amount? (11); What scientists are learning about oestrogen and exercise (17).

Michael Harding's column of January 13th – Michael Harding: The beloved woke up and I pretended I was doing yoga exercises – rounds off the top five most-read articles. The full top 20 is listed at the very bottom of this piece, and below is a breakdown of some of the most popular articles on the website by category.

There was no real getting away from Covid at the peak of this particular list. The top story in the News section was the Covid tracker – also the top Covid story by topic – and second was Rosita's piece about families housing pregnant girls. In number three in this section, How did a remote Mayo town become Ireland's most Covid-infected place?, Peter Murtagh and Simon Carswell investigate the drivers behind a post-Christmas surge of Covid cases in Belmullet that achieved national and international notoriety. It's hard to pinpoint, but locally, three factors were blamed: emigrants to the UK returning home; the Christmas celebrations; and the All-Ireland football final.

In fourth place, an appetite for the newly-discovered Delta variant meant readers sought the most basic information – in this case, advice from GPs about the most common symptoms associated with the strain; sore throat, cough and nasal congestion. Next – and it wouldn't be a most-read discussion without one – was a weather story incorporating two of the most clickable terms in online journalism: "Siberian winds" and "snow".

The "nauseating" praise by some politicians north of the Border following the death of former Irish rugby international and convicted child sex abuser Davy Tweed in late October formed the basis of the most read story in the Sport section in 2021. Penned by Johnny Watterson, the piece – Davy Tweed: Secondrow. Four caps. Paedophile. Wife beater. Bigot. – was published relatively recently, on November 19th, yet wound up top of the list by a significant margin.

David Hannigan casts a withering eye on the deteriorating behaviour of Rudi Giuliani in the second-most-read story in Sport, after the former New York mayor told a "lecher's tale" on Steve Bannon's podcast, involving golf phenom Michelle Wie. As Hannigan put it, the story goes that Giuliani "spent a round of pro-am golf, not marvelling at her shooting the best score of the charity event but looking up her skirt every time she went to make a putt." Of the former mayor, Hannigan writes: "Famously dubbed America's mayor in the wake of the September 11th attacks on New York, Giuliani has morphed in recent years into America's demented granduncle, peddling conspiracy theories, dealing outrageous lies, and generally making a complete buffoon of himself in the cause of Trump and Trumpism."

The next three stories on the most-read lists for sport begin with Ian O'Riordan's piece about an RTÉ faux pas during its Sportsperson of the Year awards in January. Sam Bennett had 'insult added to imagery' when the national broadcaster used a picture of French cyclist Rémi Cavagna instead of the Irishman on their main display. Next up after that was a piece about the €1.6 million earnings left behind by CJ Stander following the backrower's shock retirement from Ireland's international rugby set up.

In fifth place, we find another Dave Hannigan piece, this time about US sprinting sensation Sha'Carri Richardson and how she came to be in the company of two men with reputations sullied by steroid scandals – Denis Mitchell (coach), and Justin Gatlin (training partner).

It was a varied top 20 in sport, and some memorable stand-out moments for Irish athletes feature on the long list including, of course, Ireland's victory over the All Blacks (number 13, number 19), and Kellie Harrington's gold medal win at the Olympics (17).

As it was with the top 20 across the site, Patrick Freyne's piece on the Royals tops the Culture table, too. It's worth noting the Royals tangentially feature again further down the Culture list, at 13, with Rosita Boland's brilliantly frank review of Meghan Markle's children's book ("It's awful," declares the headline). In second place in Culture is an interview with Bill Gates about the billionaire's efforts to take on the climate crisis – though there are a few bones to pick with his fellow campaigners (Bill Gates: 'I'm not trying to take anything away from Greta Thunberg, but...')

A conversation between Jennifer O'Connell and Luke O'Neill – professor of biochemistry at Trinity and one of a handful of Covid talking heads with which people will likely be familiar – during the Irish Times Winter Nights online festival, forms the basis of a write-off by Sylvia Thompson, which was the third most read story in the Culture section this year. The headline, irresistible as it must have been last winter, speaks for the story's popularity: Luke O'Neill: 'We will be back in beer gardens with friends in June'.

The fourth-most-read in this section, another by Rosita Boland, recaps the story of a paternity suit – the first blood test for parentage to be rolled out in an Irish court – and the ensuing aftermath for a family in Longford in the 1930s, and after. The fascinating story, based on the book Boy 11963 by John Cameron, can be read here: 'The landmark paternity suit that ruined an entire family'. Finishing the top five in Culture for the year is an interview with Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud. It was a good year for the celebrity interview among the ranks of the Culture stories: William Shatner (number 7); Barry Gibb (10); John Clarke (16); Ewan McGregor (17); Imelda May (18); and Christopher Walken (19) all featured.

Brexit, personal finance and a dash of Covid. They all feature among the top 20 Business articles for the year, but the top story by some distance (and number 16 overall), concerned a set of sweeping changes in January as to how alcohol could be sold in Ireland. As part of a Government effort to reduce consumption, alcohol sales were disallowed from vouchers schemes and popular multi buy deals were scrapped (New rules on sale of alcohol to be introduced on Monday).

In at number two was a Q&A by Dominic Coyle, who addressed a person hoping to move their daughter into a vacant apartment they owned, once belonging to the writer's mother in law: 'How does Revenue view adults living rent-free in parents' property?' As it happens, personal finance comprised core component of this year's Business top 20 list: Will Revenue allow me lend my daughter the full price of her new home? (7); At almost €13,000, how generous is the Irish State pension? (8); Cash-in-hand makes more sense than paying off mortgage (13); Can I share my inheritance with brother left out of the will? (14); Inheritance plan will end up costing everyone money (16); Will any bank give my son and his wife a mortgage? (17); and Q&A: Making sense of the new way of qualifying for a State pension (20).

Both the third and fourth most-read articles concerned Brexit and how supply chain issues and regulations might impact Irish people (Irish Amazon customers to bypass Brexit barriers as it plans Dublin distribution centre; Brexit red tape: 'If nothing changes, Ireland will be closed'). The Seen & Heard column from January 31st ranks at number five, with a headline again heralding a potential impact on people's personal finances: Banks prepare to impose negative rates on personal customers.

The most-read table for the Opinion section is peppered with the names of regular columnists one familiar with the section's output would easily predict: Fintan O'Toole, Jennifer O'Connell and Una Mullally are there, as are Kathy Sheridan, Newton Emerson and Breda O'Brien. But the name recurring the most among the formatted rows is that of economist David McWilliams, who penned 25 per cent of this year's top 20 Opinion articles, including numbers one and two: 'Stay away from the property market. It holds no value'; and 'No one seems to have noticed there's a monetary revolution under way'.

Jennifer O'Connell's Saturday column following the January 6th capitol riots (Forget the voice of reason, Ivanka has only been the voice of Ivanka), was the third most read opinion piece in 2021. 'Robert Watt may seek to rein in Tony Holohan' headlines the fourth most-read piece, written by lawyer, biographer and columnist Charles Lysaght in April. The article explored the appointment of Robert Watt as secretary general of the Department of Health as a move to "clip the wings of the chief medical officer".

Another popular piece dealing with Covid regulations and written by restaurateur Angela Ruttledge came in at fifth most read in Opinion. At the time it was written, January 2021, Ireland was again struggling with the prospect of reopening as people mixed and new variants cropped up – a time when Ruttledge questioned the vast freedoms she always valued: "Now I can't help wonder if so much freedom is always a good thing and I feel repressed by this small open economy with her estranged big brother and an open border. By a nation made of two states. Suffocated by so much liberty, the very things I've always been proud of, holding us back." Read it here.

It was a busy year for newsrooms, and reading the most read stories from our World news coverage reminds you just how busy it was. Of course, Covid is up there, and the tail end of Trump's presidency made an impact on readers, with the Capitol riots of January 6th putting an early stamp on the cache of stories readers decided to spend their time on. Elsewhere appears Brexit chaos, the Royals and one viral sensation ("You have no authority here Jackie Weaver!" – I'd nearly forgotten.) But it would be US politics - namely one aspect of the dramatic and fraught conclusion of the Trump administration - that would be the topic of the most read World story of the year: Bitter final chapter in the Mike Pence-Donald Trump relationship – a piece minutely detailing the last act in a fractured political alliance.

The second most read was a story from Palestine, where conflict with Israeli forces would later in the year result in a sustained, deadly flare-up in fighting. In February, Europe Correspondent Naomi O'Leary reported on the plight of the village of Khirbet Humsah, which was repeatedly targeted by Israeli forces throughout the winter. The latest development was that aid destined for the small community (funded by Ireland among others), including tents, solar panels and herd shelters, had been destroyed by Israeli forces: Israel destroys Irish aid to Palestinian village community.

In third place, Brexit rears its head on the list for the first time, in the form of a piece investigating the shortage of truck drivers as unbearable conditions, tax changes and Covid saw many leave Britain for good: 'I will never go back': Eastern European truckers not returning to UK after Brexit. That was followed in the rankings by a pair of Covid stories – the first about the Texas doctor who was fired and charged with theft after administering a dose of vaccine to his wife minutes before the dose became unusable due to expiration. The fifth most-read world story concerned the early spread of the variant then known as B1525 - also named Eta: Covid-19: New variant with potentially worrying mutations found in UK.

We've encountered the top three most-read Life and Style stories in our discussion about the overall most read. They were, in order: the morning run versus the evening walk; Michael Harding's yoga poses; and how your heart can be affected by even a single beer or glass of wine. The fourth most read in this section, and also number seven overall, was Jen Hogan's interview with Taoiseach Micheál Martin for the Parenting in My Shoes series, during which he discusses the tragic deaths of two of his children at young ages: Micheál Martin: 'You will always say you have the kids you lost.'

This year, the fifth most-read in Life and Style was a rare interview with Rachel Uchitel, whose affair with golfer Tiger Woods was dramatically revealed in 2009, after which a non-disclosure kept her effectively silenced for years – Tiger Woods's lover: 'I'm not a prostitute. I'm a very smart girl, and that's why I negotiated $8m.'


1. Harry and Meghan: The union of two great houses, the Windsors and the Celebrities, is complete

2. Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker: What's available in the Republic of Ireland and what else is coming?

3. 'The social worker said: Were two seconds of pleasure worth it for all this?'

4. Morning run or evening walk? Here's the science on the best time of day to exercise

5. Michael Harding: The beloved woke up and I pretended I was doing yoga exercises

6. How just a single beer or glass of wine can affect your heart

7. Micheál Martin: 'You will always say you have the kids you lost'

8. Tiger Woods's lover: 'I'm not a prostitute. I'm a very smart girl, and that's why I negotiated $8m'

9. How did a remote Mayo town become Ireland's most Covid-infected place?

10. 'I got a burning smell in my nose': Third-wave Covid-19 patients share their experiences

11. Exercise helps us to lose weight, but what's the optimal amount?

12. 'He brought me into the surgery, told me to take my clothes off. I knew something was wrong'

13. Bill Gates: 'I'm not trying to take anything away from Greta Thunberg, but...'

14. I'm a Mexican-Irish chef. We grew up eating avocados. But I'll never touch them again

15. Most common Delta variant symptoms are sore throat, cough and nasal congestion, GPs say

16. New rules on sale of alcohol to be introduced on Monday

17. What scientists are learning about oestrogen and exercise

18. Luke O'Neill: 'We will be back in beer gardens with friends in June'

19. Leinster player and Doyle heiress move into €5.47m Ballsbridge home

20. The landmark paternity suit that ruined an entire family

Dean Ruxton

Dean Ruxton

Dean Ruxton is an Audience Editor at The Irish Times. He also writes the Lost Leads archive series