Gráinne McElwain urges more women to get involved in Gaelic games
By John Harrington
Gráinne McElwain is known nationwide for presenting a range of Gaelic games programming on TG4, RTE, Sky Sports, and now GAAGO.
Away from the cameras her life also revolves around Gaelic games. She's an All-ireland champion herself from her days competing in Scór, has held a variety of club commitee roles, coaches her three young children, and is Chairperson of the GAA's Coiste Náisiúnta na Gaeilge.
That all adds up to a hectic schedule, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
On International Women's Day we chatted to her about her passion for Gaelic games and her advice for anyone who is interested in getting involved in sports broadcasting or GAA volunteering.
GAA.ie: Gráinne, you're a Monaghan woman but I believe you were born in Canada?
Gráinne McElwain: I was born in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada and lived there until I was four and then came back to Monaghan. My Mum and Dad are both from Monaghan. My Dad is from a place called Tydavnet and the local GAA club is Scotstown. And my mum is from Ardaghey which is near Ballybay.
We settled in Monaghan twon and then when I was nine years of age we moved out to Killymarron, Ballinode near Scotstown so that's where I'm from.
GAA.ie: Was it a big GAA household?
GM: It was. My Dad would have played football and I have two brothers who played football. I didn't because there wasn't a girls football team at the time and I think unless your peers are playing and you have a very strong reason to play you don't play. That would be one of my regrets, that nobody ever pushed me to do it, but it just didn't happen at the time.
I was a massive club supporter and my Dad was chairperson of the club so we were very involved in the club and what were called the Guest Teas which are basically like a dinner dances. What people would do, invariably the woman of the house, would make a spread and you'd have a table of ten people and someone would have made a starter, dinner, or desert. When you think about it, oh my God, the actual stress of trying to do that and hoping you were a good enough cook for everybody to pay a tenner to get some food!
So I would have helped my mum do things like that and some other things behind the scenes and then I was club PRO for a while as well. I would have been the MC when Sean McCague found out he had won the presidency and we had a massive homecoming. That meant so much to the community and area at the time, somebody from your own club and parish becoming Uachtarán Cumann Luthchleas Gael.
I would have been heavily involved in Scór too. We won loads of county and provincial titles. I would have done singing and instrumental mainly and we won an All-Ireland Scór in 1996 down in Athlone in instrumental music. I would have played the flute. It was great, it was such a thrill. There was five of us who won it and a lot of practice and rehearsing went into it. Everything comes effortlessly on the night, but there's no such thing in life, you have to work really, really hard for everything to make it appear effortless.
So, yeah, it was great, great times. I'd have a huge grá for Scór and the Irish language as well.
Scór is a huge part of the GAA, particularly in Ulster. We would have went to all these exotic places at the time like Moy or Donaghmore! And it was just great craic. My brothers who played football would have been involved too and there was a great crossover between those who played football and those who took part in Scór. I just hugely loved being part of that community and it was a very strong and vibrant community in Scotstown.
GAA.ie: How did you get started in GAA journalism?
GM: I would have started as a club PRO and then got involved in radio broadcasting and would have worked with Northern Sound which is our local radio station in Monaghan and would have been presenting programmes there. I had a total baptism of fire on my very first day. A guy was supposed to be playing music and doing the faders and I was just meant to come into my little booth and give out the sports news. But there had been a mix-up and he was in Longford and I was by myself in Monaghan going 'Oh my God!' I had to talk to him over a phone asking which faders I needed to push up to get on air. Very stressful, but I survived it. And I thought if I could survive that I could survive anything.
Then I worked as a teacher for a while and saw an ad for a sports researcher down in Nemeton in An Rinn in Port Lairge and got that job as a sports researcher and literally went quickly from sports researching to producing to presenting to series producer. And just really loved that trajectory as well. I did a lot of production as well of series and documentaries for RTE and TG4.
But I just loved presenting and being the person that gets to ask the questions. I really enjoy that. So I got that chance working with Ladies Football, Peil na mBan Beo on TG4. I did the Allianz Leagues too when it was first on TG4 when it was on a Saturday night but only got a year of that before it was lost to Setanta. From that I just worked in TG4 and RTE on the Sunday Game as a sideline reporter doing reports at the weekend.
Then I got the job with Sky Sports and I loved that being the anchor for three years. It was just a phenomenal experience working with such talented analysts and learning so much which was great. I've been lucky enough now to have the job with GAAGO and I cannnot wait to start presenting that and again work with terrific analysts that I haven't worked with before. So I'm really excited about talking to them and hearing their insights into the game.
So it's been a brilliant journey and something that I've really, really enjoyed.
GAA.ie: A generation of talented female sports broadcasters have come through in the last number of years. Has it been nice to see that develop over time and be a part of it?
GM: It has been really lovely. And I must say from my perspective growing up and being involved, I've never, ever felt that someone has been thinking, 'oh Jesus, she's a woman, she can't do this'. Or, 'My God, she's a woman, I can't say anything'. I have always been treated very respectfully by any man I've ever interviewed. Maybe people have said stuff and I haven't heard it, I don't know, but all I can say is my own experience is that I've interviewed people and they've been really great to interview. I've been in press-boxes when it's been all men and me and they've been very respectful and nice and I've always had that experience.
I think the demographics are changing. And not just in a broadcast sense because up until last year I would have been the Oifigeach Gaeilge in my club, Naomh Anna Leitir Móir, and we have a Chairperson, Secretary, and Treasurer for the past two years and now this year who are all female. Which wasn't something that ever happened before so there's very strong women leadership roles in the club and it's very much a One Club model too, Leitrim Mór, so from the very beginning both the men and women are treated equally and nobody gives out about it.
So, for example, if the lads say we're going to be on the pitch on Tuesday and Thursday then the girls will say we're there Monday and Wednesday, and that's fine, everyone shares. There's no 'well, we're the men's team, why don't we get that'. Everyone in Leitir Móir is very respectful of each person's right and each team's right to be on the pitch whether it's male or female.
We have very strong role-models in the GAA and I think it's great to get away from that notion that women are there to make the tea which would have happened a long time ago. But there was also very strong women involved in the club when I was growing up in terms of people who would have been heavily involved in Scór. Now we see strong women to the fore and very much involved in their club and that's great to see.
GAA.ie: The involvement of women at all levels of the GAA is only going one way. That's hugely positive, isn't it?
GM: It is hugely positive. More and more coaches in our club now are women too. I think that maybe is an area a lot of women have struggled with in the past, they don't think they could get involved in coaching. But because you've so many girls playing now they're more confident of getting involved in coaching and doing that. So it's great to see, it's positive, and hopefully other clubs will look at those clubs who are doing it well and see that this is where they need to go as well.
It's important that happens because women are 50% of the population and we work well together in so many other sectors of life so why can we not work well together in the GAA?
GAA.ie: Have many girls or young women come to you looking for advice on how to make their way in sports journalism?
GM: I've had a few, and it's usually college students asking me. I think for women and men, it's important to know that journalism is tough. This is what I say to people, because people often just think it's very glamorous. Oh you're on the sideline, that's really glamorous, but it's not. You have to be prepared to work very long hours and all your weekends. A lot of people can't do that. So I think sometimes for people who want to get involved they need to be very aware that it's not an easy number. And I don't believe there are easy numbers in this life, you have to be able to work hard. So that's what I tell people, to work hard.
If you're prepared to work long hours and weekends and you love sport then do it. For anyone that works in the sports industry, we'd probably do it if we weren't getting paid because you'd be at the matches anyway. Last weekend I had a weekend off, but what did I do only go as family to see the Galway v Monaghan game in Pearse Stadium.
I have such happy memories of my childhood where we just went to games as a family and it's something that I really want my kids to be involved in. I think if you're interested in becoming a sports journalist you have to love sport and be really passionate about it, and that's what I am. Any sports journalist I've worked with is like that.
GAA.ie: It's encouraging to hear you say there's never been a barrier put in front of you as a female sports journalist. You wanted it badly, you were willing to work hard enough for it, and it was always going to happen for you if you had those two things in your locker...
GM: You have to be knowledgeable too first of all. But I think you have to be humble also, and accept that you don't know everything. That there's people that know more than you do and that's great. Because if you know everything and you're the presenter, then what's the point of you being a presenter, you should be at the other side of the table. You should be the expert. So I think it's really important that you're knowledgeable but that you also work hard. That you listen to everything, that you read everything, that you ask for help from people who know more than you. What should I be doing better? How can I improve? That would be a big thing for me, to ask myself how I can be better.
If I did a good job one week and then I'll look back and think maybe I didn't do that good a job or I should have said a question this way or done something else another way. You should ask people you trust in the industry how you could improve. It's important to realise and have the confidence in your own ability to do the job but also to be humble enough and accepting enough that, yes, I can get better, and then find out how you get better. Ask people, because everyone I've ever asked has been so helpful. People would say well maybe do this or that. Or if I'm looking for particular research, instead of me poring over 17 articles I should just phone somebody who maybe played for one of the teams or someone who has written about them for years.
People are really generous with their time because they're happy to help if you ask. That has been my experience of being involved in sports journalism. Just work really hard and ask people for help. You're not the expert you don't need to the expert so ask the people who are the experts and they're always very willing to help you. And that's how you improve and become better.
GAA.ie: You're talking about hard work. Can you give people an insight into your average week? I'd imagine it's hectic?
GM: It's a lot of driving. I live in a place called Béal An Daingin near Leitir Móir in County Galway. So most of my work is not in Galway, it's everywhere else other than Galway. I like driving and I've been doing it for 20 years where I've been literally getting in a car and driving to matches. You're thinking, 'God, the driving', but when you get there it's just the excitement of being at a match and talking to players and experts about how this is going to go and what's going to happen. I always find that really exciting.
So my typcial week, with GAAGO you're researching during the week. You're reading everything, you're interviewing people, you're talking to your producer, you're talking to your analysts. You're deciding what you're going to talk about at the weekend. Is there any particular piece of analysis that we want to show the public so that they can learn from it? I think that's really important from a TV point of view - if people tune into a programme they're giving their time to watch it and they want to learn something. They want to know 'what do I need to look out for when I'm watching this game?'
When you're working at a match at the weekend you're there at least three hours before it starts and you're going through prep time and you're doing a little bit of rehearsal in terms of cameras mainly, where you all stand, so everyone is happy from that perspective. Then you do the match and you have certain things you want to talk about and highlight before the game and then half-time is about whatever happened in the match and then at full-time you're just reflecting on what happened throughout the game.
With Sky Sports I was working just Saturdays but with GAAGO I'll be working Saturdays and Sundays and a lot of them are double-headers on both days so it's going to be hectic. We could be in Cork one night and Dublin the following day. It just all depends on the matches we're doing.
There's a lot of driving but it's something I'm used to doing and I enjoy it. It's exciting, I'm looking forward to it. You'd want to love what you do because you don't have a social life, let's put it that way.
GAA.ie: You're also a GAA parent with three kids who are all playing Gaelic games too. So you're totally immersed in it?
GM: 100 per cent. I would have been a coach as well of U7s and U9s because my kids are of that age. I don't understand parents who just bring their kids somewhere and don't involved because everyone has the same amount of time, 24 hours in the day, and it's just one hour to help out. And young kids love their mums and dads being involved. They really love having them there to see them play and help out.
So I've been involved in coaching as well, fund-raisers, everything. I think because I'm a big community person community means a lot to me. I always think that you have to give back. People have invested time in you so you have to give back. Being involved in coaching kids is amazing because kids are so great. They're so funny and open and keen to learn and they respond so well to praise.
It's a lovely experience to be involved in coaching and helping your kids. The GAA was very big in my house growing up and is very big in my house now as my kids are growing up. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
GAA.ie: So the message on International Women's Day is to just get stuck in?
GM: Get stuck in and enjoy it. And don't be afraid. I think all of us suffer sometimes from thinking that we're not good enough. And, 'I don't have a PhD in coaching so I can't do it'. It doesn't matter. Clubs are crying out for people to get involved. And there are so many things you can do. You don't need a coaching qualification to put cones out or to smile at the kids or do a warm-up with them. There are other people there who might be very qualified coaches. It gives you an insight to realise it's actually not rocket-science either. You're not taking the Donegal senior football team, you're coaching kids underage. You don't need to talk tactics, you just need to ensure that they have fun.
And if they're having fun they're going to come back next week. That's the most important thing, that they go home feeling like they had a great time. They're not going home thinking, 'Who's your one who doesn't know anything about coaching?' They're just going, great, there's Gráinne, she smiles and make us run up and down, do our press-ups, or play animal games or whatever is going to happen. That's all they think of.
So I just would say, absolutely, just go for it and enjoy it. And don't be hard on yourself or put too much pressure on yourself to be something that you're not. Just go and enjoy it and do it for you.