The women breaking down barriers in Irish sports media
These three broadcasters prove sports journalism is no longer the preserve of men
(From left) Jacqui Hurley (RTÉ), Marie Crowe (UTV), Mary Hannigan (The Irish Times) and Maura Treasa Ní Dhubhghail (TG4). Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.
Jacqui Hurley, Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill and Marie Crowe are three of the most recognisable female faces – and voices – in the Irish sports media, the trio, all now “thirtysomethings”, working for RTÉ, TG4 and UTV Ireland, respectively.
Hurley, from Ballinhassig in Cork (with a seven-year sojourn in Australia), played basketball for Ireland and camogie for Cork before joining RTÉ where she went on to become the first female presenter of Sunday Sport.
Ní Dhubhghaill, from Coill Rua in Galway, started out presenting children’s and entertainment shows on TG4 before landing her dream job, hosting the channel’s rugby coverage.
And Crowe, from Sixmilebridge in Clare, has worked in print, radio and television, now combining writing her column for the Sunday Independent with her sports reporting for UTV Ireland.
You’re all steeped in sport, it was at the centre of your lives growing up, playing and spectating. No escaping it?
JH: No! My Mum and Dad just got us to try everything when we were young, so we really knew then what we loved.
We moved to Australia when I was three, they went there to work during the recession, we were living in Canberra and the Australian Institute of Sport was right around the corner, so there was just so much sport going on around us. Australians are us, except with sporting facilities – and tans.
Netball was massive, so I played that, and when we came home to Ireland, seven years later, netball wasn’t so big, basketball was the closest thing.
And you ended up playing basketball for Ireland and camogie for Cork?
JH: I did, but it came to a point when I had to choose one, and looking back now I probably would have chosen camogie.
I didn’t realise then that basketball was going to run in to such difficulties. I thought I’d travel the world with it, but then overnight the money was gone, programmes were finished.
Meanwhile the girls I was playing camogie with – there would have been Anna Geary, Gemma O’Connor, Aoife Murray, Joanne O’Callaghan on the minor team I grew up on – all now have All-Ireland medals in their back pockets. They’d often slag me.
And waving their medals at you?
JH: Pretty much! “Ah, you could have been there,” or whatever. So there are times when you regret it – but look, I got lots of other breaks.
And Marie, sport dominated your childhood too?
MC: Definitely. Dad had been an international runner so athletics was a big part of our lives – my brother Timmy is an international runner now too – and then he was the fitness trainer with the Clare hurlers under Len Gaynor and a selector for the Munster schools rugby team – Peter Stringer and all.
We were brought everywhere, to training and matches, to horse racing, the Irish [golf] Open, rugby internationals, even trips to Old Trafford. We loved it.
My husband plays [Gaelic] football as well (Billy Sheehan of Laois) and people always say, “Jesus, you must be so patient, he’s always away” – but I don’t know any different, it’s just normal life.
There were seven of us, we played everything, did all the community games, the Mosneys, underage county teams. Camogie.
I played soccer for Lifford Ladies in Ennis all through school. And when I moved to Dublin I played for St Pats up until I had my last baby.
My best memories are us as kids all going off in the bus with Clare, which you wouldn’t be allowed do now.
We were on the sideline at Munster finals doing the water, you could see me on the Sunday Game when I was 12 giving water to a Clare player – only [Limerick’s] Gary Kirby took the bottle off me. I was raging.
MC: And we were the only family in the whole of the village who had Sky Sports because Dad was so mad in to sport, we had this huge satellite dish.
We used to watch the wrestling, I’d be there on a Friday night taking down all the results of the Royal Rumble and going in to school with them on a Monday morning. That was my first reporting.
JH: And my Mam and Dad would tell stories about me walking around with a little TV screen telling the gang what happened at the weekend, yapping away, “Johnny passed the ball to Mary,” bla bla bla, and my Mum would be, “Jaaaaaysus, would you shut up, like”.
MT: Same here. Going around doing news reports at home, I’d pretend I was Eileen Dunne, recording radio shows on tape recorders – one of the lads would do the jingles, one reading the news, one doing the weather, and my parents would have to sit there listening to it and pretend it was amazing.
I wouldn’t have played to the level of Jacqui and Marie, but sport was everything in my home too. I played camogie, only gave it up last year just before I got married because I have a tendency to injure myself.
You didn’t want a broken nose on your wedding day?
MT: Ideally, no. Dad is chairman of our camogie club, so it’s still a huge thing for the family.
Because myself and my sister grew up in a house full of lads we didn’t think anything of playing with them.
We played football and hurling underage with lads in our local club, it was the norm, you just toughen up and play.
My Dad is from Limerick city so I’ve always been brought to Limerick matches.
The same with rugby because he’s a huge Munster fan, so I would still be an avid Munster follower.
That’s just the way we were brought up, we didn’t question it – until we got older and realised we’d been brainwashed.
What happened when Limerick played Galway?
MT: It wasn’t even a question, when I was younger the Limerick jersey was just put on me.
My friends just didn’t understand it, “but you were born in Galway”. So, we were always brought to matches, to the All-Irelands that Limerick . . . lost.
JH: And lost again.
MT: And again. Tears going home. But it was always so passionate in our family. Same with rugby. Going to the matches with my Dad and my brothers, Young Munster, Munster, you were just immersed in that atmosphere.
MC: Notice how all our Dads were such an influence? Mine would line up the seven of us before there was some sport on the television and he’d give us all 5p to bet on, say, the athletics – so we’d be backing FloJo or Gwen Torrence or Gail Devers.
JH: What a great idea.
Did you make a fortune?
MC: Well . . .
Another thing you all have in common, you knew from the earliest of ages that you wanted to work in sport’s media. At that stage they were still relatively few women in that area, so did that ever make you pause, wonder if you could get in to that world?
JH: I never thought it wouldn’t happen, to be honest. I looked across the water and saw the BBC and they had brilliant people like Hazel Irvine, one of my favourites, Clare [Balding], probably my most favourite presenter of all time, Gabby [Logan], Sue Barker, all strong women, not afraid to put people in their box.
MC: I just found people were always saying to me “there’s a great niche there to write about women’s sport”, and I was like “no, I want to write about all sport”.
I want to write beside Eamon Sweeney and Paul Kimmage, I don’t just want to be the person who writes about women’s sport because I’m a woman. I wanted to cast my net a bit wider than that.
It’s like when I always get asked to go on radio shows to talk about women in sport when some big issue arises.
I started saying: “No, you don’t ask me to come on and talk about football or athletics or whatever, but yet you ring me once a year when there’s a scandal.
When you start ringing me to talk about things I’m writing about every week and you include me on a more regular basis, then grand.”
The spookiest thing is, both Jacqui and Máire Treasa went to Mary Immaculate College in Limerick around the same time, and you didn’t know each other?
JH and MT: No.
It gave you a good grounding?
JH: It really did, especially because the third year in the media programme was totally practical, you could work abroad, so I got an internship with CBS Television in Mississippi, which for me was huge.
I learned how to do everything. I got a job in the newsroom, I was running the teleprompter, doing cameras, literally everything that I could.
It really reaffirmed in my mind that this was for me. Later, I just sent in a tape to RTÉ, was working away with Live 95fm in Limerick, and out of the blue I get a call for an audition for a slot talking about sport just before Home and Away.
I got the job, and it went from there.
And Sunday Sport?
JH: My then boss Paddy Glackin called me in and I thought he was letting me go. I was thinking: “Jesus, what am I going to do?” But he asked me to present Sunday Sport with Con Murphy.
I was actually like, “are you for real?” I said I’d never done anything like that and he said, “well you’ll be able for it”.
Until then, the longest I’d ever been on radio was five minutes doing a bulletin. So I went from five minutes to doing four hours of live radio.
And you started in radio too, Marie?
MC: I did – and someone I’ll always be thankful to is Marty Morrissey, he helped me make my demo for Clare FM, he really got me in the door and gave me so much time.
It’s phenomenal the way people can give you a hand and spend time on you – and it has a knock-on effect, any time anyone asks me for advice I’ll always try to help out.
It just went from there, I began working for the Sunday Independent, and then I was anchoring my own show on Setanta.
And last year, I got the job with UTV Ireland. It’s just about people taking a chance on you, giving you a break.
MT: Well, I was teaching in a Gaelscoil in Sligo but just planned on doing it for a year, I had my ticket to travel around the world with my friends.
Then my Mam saw an ad for a TG4 presenter course, so I decided to give it a go. It was my first time in a television studio, I just thought it was amazing.
But I didn’t think about it too much, I thought I was off to Australia – then a fortnight later I got a phone call from TG4 asking me if I’d be interested in a job presenting a kids’ show.
So, I was left with the dilemma: would I travel or take the job? That was seven years ago.
So I started presenting kids, then teenage programmes, then about four years ago I got a phone call saying they were looking for a woman to present their rugby and asked me if I’d be interested in doing an audition – I was like, rugby? Of course!
So I’ve been doing that since and I absolutely love it. The buzz you get on the day of a match, it’s unbelievable.
And you all love the buzz of live broad- casting, even though it looks terrifying?
MT: Love it.
MC: You definitely feel alive any way when you’re doing it.
JH: And I don’t think there’s any greater feeling than being part of a live broadcast, when you know half the country is immersed in what is going on when it’s a big occasion, and you’re one of the team tasked with delivering it to the nation.
That’s such an amazing rush.
You’ve all been ground-breakers in your own way – do you think about that, do you feel like you’ve done a bit of pioneering?
MT: Not really, to be honest. You’re hired to do a job and if you’re not fulfilling your role you won’t be in that job for very long.
I personally don’t think about being a female in what would be a male dominated sport. It just doesn’t cross my mind.
Jacqui? First female presenter of Sunday Sport?
JH: But I didn’t even know about it until a journalist said it to me in an interview. It was just so, honestly, unimportant to me.
Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely, it was great for my parents, they were proud – but they were proud any way.
It’ll be nice when I’m finished later in life and somebody says it to me, but at the time, it just wasn’t important.
MC: But television and radio are way ahead – what I find very disappointing is that there are so few women in print sports journalism.
When you open the sports pages every week it’s still not normal to see a woman writing about sport. It is for women to be broadcasting, there’s loads now, but not in print. And you notice it so much when you go to a press box.
JH: Ninety per cent men?
MC: More like 99, Jacqui. And for four or five years I was asked for my press pass, when they weren’t asking the lads.
People were asking me to move seats, PROs wouldn’t give me programmes.
It’s like, “what’s your wan doing in here?” Sometimes they think you’re there to sing the national anthem.
JH: I remember a fella one day, years back, wouldn’t give me a match programme. I absolutely lost the head.
I wouldn’t do it now, I’d be “ah Jaysus Jimmy, what’s wrong with you?”, but back then it would have absolutely grated on me. But I developed a thick skin.
MC: You have to. I’d been in the Indo about four years at this stage, I went to a press conference with [Waterford hurler] Ken McGrath, it was a roundtable chat with all the Sunday journalists.
I sat down, turned on my dictaphone, Ken was talking, one of the journalists says, “hang on a second Ken”, turns to me and says “this is a press conference for Sunday journalists”. I said, “I know – I am one”.
MC: And there was the time I did an interview with a former All Star – about 25 minutes on the phone, went through everything, the match coming up, full on conversation, and at the end he said, “are you collecting the information for one of the lads?”
All: Nooooo . . .
Ambition wise, do you think long term or are you all one-day-at-a-time people?
MC: One baby at a time.
JH: How many have you?
MC: I’ve two – with a third on the way. So I’m finding it hard to see past that at the moment.
When is it due?
MC: September. After the Olympics.
“After the Olympics” – you’re such a sporty person.
JH: But you really do have to plan your life around the Olympics, World Cups and all.
Squeeze a baby in between Euro 2016 and the Olympics?
JH: Exactly! I’m actually putting off a baby until after Rio.
JH: These are the things that women have to think about that men do not. We had one baby, we’d love more, but you have to say quite publicly “by the way I’d like to have another baby”, even though that’s nobody’s business.
Imagine having to go to your boss and say, “listen, I’m thinking of trying for a baby – when would suit you?”
MC: Remember The Irish Times printed that letter about Maeve Kyle, that she was a disgrace to motherhood and her husband, going off running – that wasn’t that long ago. When you look at all of us now and where we are.
JH: But when you’re on television, people are like, “is she pregnant or has she put on a pile of weight?”. “Hasn’t Jacqui wintered well?” It is very public.
Nobody would ever say, “Jaysus Marty had a heavy winter”.
Right then, mandatory question: where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?
JH: Well it’s no secret that I’d love to do more TV sport, I’d like to anchor, that’s where I’d like to be in the end.
I think there are more opportunities there than there have previously been, and there’s been a bit of a changing of the guard as well.
Darragh Maloney’s in one chair, Daire O’Brien’s in another, and yet the place hasn’t fallen down.
So I’d like to think more chairs will become available for a lot more of us to make a breakthrough.
MC: We’ve been bought by ITV but we don’t know what their plans are for us yet. It all depends on what rights we get.
Like Jacqui I’d love to present and work on more live sport, but we have to see what ITV decide. I’ll carry on writing away, I love it.
MT: I’d love to broaden my sporting horizons, venture into other sports because I’m a fan of them all, and doing more of the rugby would be fantastic.
I’ve been really lucky so far with the variety of work I’ve done for TG4, like being over in London doing red carpet interviews and then back doing rugby at Thomond Park.
JH: They couldn’t be further apart.
So, if you all had free reign, what kind of programme/series would you like to make?
JH: One of the shows that I loved, and one of the reasons I do what I do, was OB Sport. I come from a background of minority sports and it gave a voice to people from there.
There are some amazing stories out there, like the rowers, for example.
They’re in Cork, they’re all training for the Olympics, they’re living in this Big Brother house together, and nobody really gets to see that – that would make great TV.
To interview people like that, give them a chance to tell their stories, that would be one of the highest things on my list.
MT: I’m really interested in the training side, I run a bit, I did a marathon last year, I love training, so I’d love to do a programme that follows training regimes – say, train with Katie Taylor or the women’s rugby team, just to see what they go through day to day. Especially the rugby team.
You have Niamh Briggs who’s going back to Roxboro Garda Station the day after a Six Nations match.
I’d just love to be a fly on the wall to see how they do it. We only see the big day, we only see that 80 minutes, we don’t see what’s happened during the week, what goes on in their personal lives, the sacrifices that they make.
MC: I just want ITV to buy the GAA rights.
And you reporting live from the sideline when Clare win an All-Ireland?
MC: [Drifts in to dreamland.]