TG4’s Alan Esslemont: ‘We should have equal status with RTÉ if Irish is to flourish’

Interview: Despite successes, 25-year-old TG4 is still stuck in ‘wrong paradigm’, says DG

"It's only since the pandemic and only since the new Minister that I've really been able to say what I think," says Alan Esslemont, ard stiúrthóir (director general) of TG4.

What he thinks is that TG4 is trapped in “the wrong paradigm” and the Irish language can’t afford for it to remain there. Recent financial injections, such as the €4.2 million Budget 2022 boost that brings the broadcaster’s annual exchequer funding to €44.9 million, though gratefully received, are ultimately “increments”, he says, and won’t lift TG4 out of “the paradigm of second- or third-class resources” that dictated the terms of its on-air birth as Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG) on October 31st, 1996.

This Halloween, TG4 is celebrating its 25th birthday by broadcasting traditional music awards event Gradam Ceoil, while in select cinemas, there’s a more uncommon sight: a predominantly Irish-language film, the TG4-backed Famine thriller Arracht, is on its third week of release. For his part, Esslemont wants to mark the anniversary by forcing a conversation about how TG4 and the Irish language are treated by the State.

“I’m trying to use 25 to get people to reflect on all of the great stuff that we’ve done, but say it’s not enough.”


If we lose intergenerational family transmission, then the Irish language just becomes a Potemkin village

He believes it is harder for politicians to be openly hostile to Irish now than when he first came to Ireland from Scotland in 1984, but the State is still capable of stuffing it into what Monsignor Horan called "the MAD files" – subjecting it to "Maximum Administrative Delay" – and the "institutional pushback" to TnaG's establishment was a manifestation of a "deeply rooted" failure to regard Irish as anything other than hassle.

“My own gut is that the civil service is still saying this is a great inconvenience,” he says. When the Covid-19 crisis first unfolded, Irish was “invisible”, he asserts.

He describes Catherine Martin as "the first broadcasting Minister since Michael D [Higgins] who has really understood the value of the Irish language". Some of those who came in between were "downright anti".

Covid technology

Esslemont and I are speaking inside TG4’s granite-and-glass headquarters in Baile na hAbhann in Co Galway, the width of its boardroom table providing the requisite social distance. Its modestly labyrinthine building is Covid-quiet, though Pota, a lively new cafe next door, is offering much-welcomed compensation for the closure of the TG4 canteen.

He has mostly been working from home himself, though home is “only about eight miles west and it’s very easy to come in and do things”. He points to a video-conferencing device – “that thing is called an Owl” – added for hybrid meetings. The pandemic flight to technology means TG4 doesn’t feel as geographically peripheral as it did pre-Covid. Its executives can join meetings “as easily as anyone in Dublin” and he doesn’t have to spend so much time on the train.

Covid is the disruption that has allowed him to become blunter publicly about how and why TG4 should be funded. In the past he had focused on promoting it as the investable heart of a regional creative economy – “I knew that if I said, ‘Okay, give me money for more Irish-language programmes’, they would just roll their eyes” – but now he also urges increased funding on a diversity and plurality basis and because the State has an obligation to the Irish-speaking community.

“If we lose intergenerational family transmission, then the Irish language just becomes a Potemkin village. It just becomes a false facade.”

His own path to Irish, and to the Scots Gaelic he learned before it, did not come through family transmission. “It’s really weird for me to be in this position,” he says, seeming cheerful about it. “To have a Scottish Protestant running TG4, you wouldn’t really make it up.”

Born in 1958, his first home was Braemar, a "lovely" village close to Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, where his father was a butcher. As the economy struggled, the family "moved over the hill" closer to Dundee, where his mother resumed primary teaching. Esslemont pursued languages, mainly to avoid maths, falling in love with French and spending summers working in an ice-cream parlour in Carnac in Brittany, before his French degree at Edinburgh sent him to rainy Morlaix.

There the Breton speakers had a question for him: “People said, ‘Oh, you’re Scottish, can you speak Gaelic?’ I remember asking my mum if they still spoke Gaelic in Scotland.”

We put so much energy into day one, that we forgot, actually, there's day two and day three

After a stint at a ski resort in multilingual Switzerland, he went up to the Isle of Skye for a short course in Gaelic and wound up living in his dad's caravan there for two years, becoming fluent while working in a knitting factory, "just standing at the machine going backward and forward". (Today, if he found himself in a room with a flat-bed knitting machine, he would still know what to do.)

He made enough money to go back to Edinburgh to pursue Celtic studies and during his final exams, a professor told him University College Galway (now NUI Galway) was looking for someone to teach Gaelic: “I almost said: ‘Where’s Galway?’”

Of course, he did have "a rough idea" where Galway was, and it was during his University College Galway spell that he met his future wife and decided to stay in Connemara (he is now an Irish citizen). It was an ad on Raidió na Gaeltachta that diverted him to a Tralee commute for what became a career-starting Fás course in video editing.

He knew as soon as he began putting pictures together that he was fascinated by the process, and after six weeks on RTÉ's Cursaí, he got work at Telegael in Spiddal. There, one of his tasks was to attend the Mipcom trade show in Cannes to find a better cartoon than a "rubbish" one RTÉ had sent Telegael for dubbing – he returned with Bouli, a series about a French snowman still fondly remembered by a generation of Irish viewers.

TnaG beginnings

About the time TnaG was starting up, he had been in contact with RTÉ's Cathal Goan, the new service's first ceannasaí, and "knew what he [Goan] was looking for" when he applied for a senior management gig. The launch was "great fun", but an unsustainable affair. "We put so much energy into day one, that we forgot, actually, there's day two and day three . . . eventually the adrenalin didn't work any more for lots of people."

Something had to change. “I always felt we just tried to be RTÉ One but in the Irish language, and I thought we needed a different brand positioning. We’d always had the motto Súil Eile [meaning “another perspective”] but we’d never really lived up to that.”

He was instrumental in relaunching the station as TG4 with a tweaked schedule in 1999. This could have gone “badly, badly wrong”, he admits. But it didn’t. “For years after that, we just kept on going up and up and up.”

Scotland came calling. In 2008, he left TG4 and was proud to help set up Gaelic channel BBC Alba as head of content. With Ireland soon reeling from the crash, Scotland was “almost the reverse – people were feeling good about themselves”, its independence referendum fast approaching.

The contrast struck him because he was living in both places, leaving Connemara every Monday morning at 2am and arriving at his Glasgow desk at 9am, then returning through Thursday night, honing his airport routine into a fine art. He intended to "see things out" in Scotland, but when the TG4 ard stiúrthóir job was advertised, he knew he could do it and thought it would "probably be better for the family" if he did.

By 2016, the State’s attitude to Irish might not have evolved, but the television industry certainly had, its Netflixification making the soft power of media more vital than ever. “If Ireland doesn’t invest in its own public media, then because everyone here speaks English, we are just going to be totally swamped,” he says.

The long-term aim must be for TG4 to be funded on a par with RTÉ, he says. “We actually should have equal status with RTÉ if the Irish language is really going to flourish. But we’re a long, long way from that.”

TG4’s post-Covid vision document, submitted ahead of Budget 2022, instead proposed that the combined public funding of TG4, Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Sound & Vision fund should be put on a 1:1 ratio with RTÉ’s and that TG4’s own annual support should reach €78.6 million in 2025 – a near doubling over four years.

This would only take TG4 up to the funding level of Welsh-language public service broadcaster S4C, Esslemont notes, “and they probably would have moved on by then”. And it would still only be about 40 per cent of RTÉ’s current licence fee funding.

In the absence of a published Future of Media Commission report – “they’re being very tight-lipped” – TG4’s own post-Covid vision will serve as proof of concept for what its board wants to do. Among its main targets is an “enhanced” news and current affairs service.

Nuacht TG4 once enjoyed “independence of vision” from RTÉ, which supplies it with news under a statutory one-hour-a-day programming provision, but this has been “eroded” over time, says Esslemont, who argues the system should resemble ITN’s delivery of two distinctive services to Channel 4 and Channel 5.

At the end of the day, linear television is going down

TG4's relationship with RTÉ has been "rocky most of the 25 years", he says, not least during a phase when Montrose resisted TG4's push to free itself of its control – independence was the making of TG4, in Esslemont's view, when it was finally achieved in 2007. But RTÉ has also been a "wonderful" partner on some things, and now TG4 needs it to sit down with it again on the Nuacht question. "I think it can be fixed, but it does need RTÉ to move a little bit."

A photograph of original TnaG news presenter Gráinne Seoige preparing to go on air in 1996 adorns his office wall, where it is joined by a framed reminder of TG4’s coverage of the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association. The poster for another success story, Arracht, hangs by his desk, the Macalla-produced film’s star, Dónall Ó Héalai, rowing his way to survival.

Cinema vision

When I say I'm going to see Arracht, which debuts on the day of our interview, Esslemont hopes I enjoy it, then hurriedly cautions that "the budget is really tight, it's €1.2 million". That the film – a product of Cine4, the nascent "three-legged partnership" between TG4, Screen Ireland and the BAI – exists at all is testimony to his prioritisation of "status planning" for the Irish language, which led him to seek a meeting with then Screen Ireland chief James Hickey.

“I think James expected me to be banging on about television, but I said, ‘What if we tried Irish-language cinema?’ and his eyes lit up.”

Cine4’s financial clout is restricted – “you’re not going to get Warner Bros to straight off invest in the Irish language” – but he’s pleased to be “getting somewhere” with it: “If it wasn’t us that did it, no one was going to do it.”

The Oscar-chasing scheme can also be seen as an extension of TG4’s Gach Áit (Everywhere) strategy to commission content for all platforms, not just the sixth most-watched linear channel in the market. “At the end of the day, linear is going down,” he says.

This slide to on-demand has prompted the development of non-linear TG4 platforms Molscéal and Bloc, aimed at younger audiences, and also informed his frank complaint to an Oireachtas committee in May that the broadcaster's efforts to get the TG4 app on the Sky Ireland platform had been met with "years of foot-dragging". All technical issues were resolved soon after this "answer from my heart", and he now has a good relationship with Sky. "I see that on their landing page, they'll have the likes of Hector."

Did raising the issue in public help? “Sky would say not. But I have a feeling that it didn’t harm at all.”

One delightful execution of the Gach Áit philosophy is @TG4TV, the eyes-emoji Twitter account run by an in-house team jokingly referred to as “the intern”. It has managed the trick of eschewing top-down staidness in favour of credible joy.

While this helps TG4 with “the challenges we have with young people”, that’s not the only reason for doing it, he says, explaining how he learned from a Scottish politician friend that for the political class “television is not something you watch, it’s something you appear on”. Social media, however, is “definitely a way” to reach this group.

Behind this is the plurality-defining conviction that TG4, though it may serve as a “conduit” for independent production companies, has its own personality.

“Sometimes TG4 can flirt with people, sometimes TG4 can be funny. And sometimes TG4 can say something really, really pointed.”

In profile

Name: Alan Esslemont

Age: 63

Family: He is married to Mary Meehan (also known as Máire Ní Mhiochain), an Irish and geography teacher, and they have five adult children.

Something you might expect: He likes to watch "some of the most obscure stuff" on BBC Four.

Something that might surprise: Esslemont is a Scottish place name.