Éire Óg Oxford put Darragh Ennis on path to TV quiz stardom
By John Harrington
If you’re a fan of quizzes, then you’ll definitely know who Darragh ‘The Menace’ Ennis is.
He’s one of the stars of the hugely popular TV shows, ‘The Chase’ and ‘Beat the Chasers’ which are staples of Virgin Media One.
Ennis first appeared on the ‘The Chase’ as a contestant in 2017 and performed so well he was brought on board last year as one of ‘The Chasers’, who are the show’s resident quiz-experts who compete against the contestants.
What you might not know about the Dublin native is that he’s also the Registrar for his local GAA club in Oxford, England, the long-established Éire Óg Oxford.
The tradition of GAA clubs outside of Ireland has always been that they don’t just provide a sporting outlet, they also promote social and employment opportunities, and that’s certainly been Ennis’ experience.
In fact, were it not for his involvement with Éire Óg Oxford, he most likely wouldn’t now be one of the most recognisable faces of entertainment TV.
“It's actually how I got into quizzes, it's how I ended up becoming a Chaser,” Ennis told GAA.ie
“John Conway, who has been in the club for 50 years or more, he's lived here most of his life, and he had a team in the local pub quiz league that was made up of members of the club and people he knows and they were short a player and he asked me to come along and that's how I got into quizzing in England.
“And that's the reason why I saw an advertisement for being a contestant on shows. So pretty much directly why the reason I've got this job is because of the GAA club.”
Ennis is a native of Rathcoole in Dublin where the local GAA clubs are St. Mary’s (football) and Commercials (hurling).
By his own admission, though, Ennis was always more suited to supporting his friends from the sidelines than playing himself.
“I never played for them because I'm pretty rubbish at sport, I just have to hold my hands up there,” he says. “Loads of my mates played for them, all of the lads.
“I was always horrible at hurling so I never even tried that with Commercials. And then the team in St. Mary's was really good, we had people on the underage panels with Dublin, it was just a really strong team and I never would have gotten a chance, I wouldn't have even been on the bench.
“This is not false modesty, I was always the last person picked, I was always the worst player. I don't have the coordination, none of that. But I loved playing football even though I was terrible at it.
“I never really got involved when I was living at home, it was only when I moved to Canada when I was 27/28 that I started really playing.”
Darragh’s story is a very familiar one. Were you to poll the Irish-born membership of GAA clubs outside of Ireland, you’d find that a large proportion didn’t play all that much Gaelic Games or even any at all before they moved abroad.
The decision to join a GAA club is often a social one first and foremost, but then a love for the sports themselves quickly blossoms. That was certainly the case for Ennis.
“I moved to Montreal because my wife got a job there,” he says. “We didn't know anybody, and definitely the best way to meet people when you're an Irish person abroad is to join a local GAA club.
“So, I joined in with the Shamrocks and it was much more my kind of standard because there was a lot of people there who were either Irish heritage or were just Canadians who happened to know someone, so there were a lot of people who had never played before. The general standard was a good bit lower.
“The matches were played in the summer and the summer in Canada is outrageous. It's 35/40 degrees some days, really high humidity, so it's a running subs kind of situation and that suited me because I'm not the fittest man in the world either. You were able to come and jump in for five or ten minutes and jump out.
“It was much more relaxed, we weren't worried about results, we were having a laugh and getting together and going out afterwards for a social thing so that was much more the kind of thing I was after. I was never good enough to be really competitive, so this idea of a more relaxed atmosphere was much more my kind of speed.”
Employment opportunities then brought Ennis and his wife to Oxford where he works in Oxford University as a Lab Manager/Research technician.
Pretty much as soon as he arrived in the city he touched base with Éire Óg which quickly accelerated the process of making his new home feel like one.
“I contacted them pretty much straight away and I played for a couple of seasons, but the standard here was that step up from Canada so I was very fringe,” says Ennis. “I would have been a sub and only made a couple of competitive appearances off the bench.
“I played a few challenge matches and played some blitzes and stuff, but I would have been very much a fringe player and I was getting to the age where my knees weren't able for it anymore anyway.
“I used to go along quite a bit and help set up goals and we used to run an underage day and other clubs from around the country would come and I'd usually man the barbecue and that kind of thing. But lately I just don't have time, I'm the busiest man in the world, so I've taken a bit of a step back. I'm nominally on the committee still, but I only chip in when I've got time.”
More than anything else, what his involvement with Éire Óg Oxford and Montreal Shamrocks has given him is a network of good friends, which isn’t that easy to develop when you move abroad.
“I think it's a great thing,” he says. “It's so hard, especially once you're older, to make friends. My friends at home I've known since we were tiny kids and we're really, really good friends and I can disappear for years and come back and it's like I've never gone. Whereas that's really hard to do once you’re over a certain age.
“So, you need something in common, some binding thing. Because it's not taken so seriously most of the time abroad, it becomes a great social outlet for people who don't want to just go to the pub all the time.
“Part of it is about going out together, but it's a good, fun activity and you can involve your kids in it if you've got kids. It's inclusive and it draws people together and it doesn't necessarily have to just be Irish people, that's the thing.
“Over half of the people in Montreal weren't Irish. They were Canadians who saw the sport and bought into it. It's a hugely positive thing. It's one of the best ways to not get isolated, especially if you've moved to a new country and don't know anyone.
“In every situation I've been in, when you go, if you're a new person who has just moved, they're delighted and they check with you if you've got a job and somewhere to stay, all of that.
“Everyone is really friendly because pretty much everyone in the club pretty were previously in the exact same situation as you and needed somewhere and found that the club helped them out.
“I think everybody understands and it just makes that horrible leap when you land somewhere new and don't know anyone that bit easier because you can get to know a few people who have similar interests to you. It's a huge bonus.”
There’s little danger of his new status as a TV celebrity going to Ennis’ head. He’s as down to earth as they come, a natural conversationalist with a good line in self-deprecating humour.
He has the engaging personality to cope with the being recognised on the street sort of fame that has quickly come his way, but it has still taken a bit of getting used to.
“It's been the weirdest thing in the world,” he says. “It's been doubly strange for me because when this started it was the middle of lockdown when my first episode went out and no-one saw me and no-one met me. I was famous online, I'd loads of followers online, but when I went out I had a mask on so for a good six/seven months of this it made no difference.
“And then all of a sudden when I had to start going back to work and would be making my way in there I'd get stopped on the street all the time. It was really weird. And then people who I'd know in the school would be afraid to talk to me and I'd be like, 'I know you!'.
“It's very, very, very weird. Even when I was a contestant on the show that blew up on Twitter, it went mad. I had newspapers contacting me and everything and that was even worse, that was weirder.
“I was prepared for this when I joined the show as a professional, but when I was on as a contestant I didn't think people would care and they really, really did care. That was really weird.
“I sometimes don't think it's real. I had to go the National Television Awards and that was the most surreal experience. I had to get dressed up and they picked me up in a limo and I opened up the door and it was literally red carpet. I'm like, 'This is weird, how do these people even know who I am?'
“People asked me for photographs and autographs and I met loads of properly famous people. I was chatting away, feeling a bit like an imposter a lot of the time, but you have to roll with it.”
Ennis now hopes to use his new-found fame to help Éire Óg Oxford raise funds to further develop their already thriving underage academy.
The plan is to host some quiz events in the near future where the TV star’s presence should ensure plenty of public interest.
“It's a good way to raise money and now that we're allowed to go back in person I'll be able to leverage my TV persona,” says Ennis.
“I think we're going to try to do a big fund-raiser probably before Christmas to try to get some money together. The club always needs money.
“One of the big advantages we have with the youth set-up is that we don't charge for it. So, we fundraise to do it and it's one of the really few things that parents can bring their kids along to that doesn't cost money.
“We're hoping to keep that going and keep it either at a nominal cost or none at all. So, we need to raise money and I think we'll be doing a few quizzes with me as the quiz master and put a few posters up and hopefully get people outside of the club to join in.”
Éire Óg Oxford helped put Ennis on the path to TV stardom. Now he’s following the fine GAA tradition of giving back to the club that helped make him.