Dublin: 15°C Tuesday 3 August 2021

'It's always a pinch me moment' - fronting the TV coverage through a GAA season like no other

Gráinne McElwain – best known as the face of TG4′s ladies football coverage – is Sky Sports’ presenter for the 2020 championship.

IT FEELS LIKE fate intervened at one or two points along the way.

The story of how Gráinne McElwain’s career in sports broadcasting kickstarted is a brilliant one. Without a mix-up with essays as an Irish teacher and a newspaper advertisement she spotted as a result, you’d wonder how things would have turned out.

sky-sports-gaa-championship-launch Sky Sports GAA presenter Gráinne McElwain. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Growing up in the village of Ballinode, near Scotstown in county Monaghan, McElwain always had a huge interest in, and love for, Gaelic games. That burning passion meant she eventually gravitated towards the administrative side of things and assumed the role of club PRO through the 90s. In fact, when Sean McCague was named president of the GAA just before the turn of the century, she MC’d the homecoming. It was something she always enjoyed.

During her undergraduate college years at University of Ulster, Coleraine, she dipped her toes into more solid sports media work with local radio station, Northern Sound. But like many at that stage, was unsure on what she wanted to do next.

Her father ultimately made up her mind for her, enrolling her for the H.Dip to follow the family tradition of teaching. He thought this was a great idea for his daughter, who was in America for the summer. When the application was accepted, she reluctantly came home to take up her new position in UCD.

From there, she followed the path laid ahead of her, and thoroughly enjoyed it. A history and Irish teacher back then, McElwain taught in Monaghan and Dublin. “I like teaching, but I just knew that I wouldn’t be doing it for 40 years, I just wasn’t the type of person that could stay at that,” she explains.

Everything changed in 2003, one day in Castleknock Community College in Dublin. A day she will never forget. Teaching an honours fifth year Irish class at the time, she realised she left a bunch of essays at home. A moment of quick-thinking led her to the Irish language newspaper, Foinse, and a random essay within was photocopied for the class to go through.

At the bottom of the page, McElwain spotted an ad. An ad that soon changed her life. Nemeton TV were looking for a sports researcher down in An Rinn in Waterford. Interesting, she thought, and with little else consideration, she applied with nothing to lose. Everything to gain, though.

“Literally within six weeks, I had left my full time pensionable job, I moved counties and I started a role as a sports researcher,” she picks up the story. “From there, I went from sports researcher to producing to presenting.”

In 2005, she did a screen test and landed a job doing TG4′s Saturday night GAA league programme. In 2008, she started working as the presenter of their renowned ladies football coverage on Peil na mBan Beo. With every word she speaks of that, her love for it shines through more and more. She really hopes her new chapter doesn’t spell the end of that journey, as it really has been “like another child” to her for the last 12 years.

A freelance broadcaster, McElwain has also worked on GAA coverage with RTÉ and eir sport, predominantly as a sideline reporter, over the past few years. A far cry from her past life as a teacher.

grainne-mcelwain-meadhbh-lewis-and-joy-neville Speaking at the Irish Women In Rugby conference earlier this year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I love a variety of jobs, and I think that’s why I love being a freelancer in a way because I’m working with loads of different people and companies and broadcasters, because you get to learn so much from so many different people and meet so many different people.

“I enjoy the variety of how everyone does things differently. And just mixing with loads of different people, I’m a real people person, I like talking to people.

“It’s just been great. I always think it’s such a privilege to be the person that can ask questions to managers and to players and to experts. I always see my role as a facilitator, that I’m someone just asking the experts what they think.

“I’m a fan so I just love asking the questions that I, as a fan, really want to know the answers to. I love that aspect of it, I just really, really enjoy it.”

McElwain pauses for a second, before choosing her next words. Vibrant and passionate throughout our phonecall, that shines though best as she sums it all up in two sentences.

“It’s always a pinch-me moment, definitely. Every time I’m on that sideline, it’s always like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here. I’m so grateful to be here.’”

That exact same feeling will surely come over her this evening as she prepares to front Sky Sports’ coverage through this weird, but hopefully wonderful, championship.

The stations’ cameras will pitch up in Croke Park for the first time in a long time for the Leinster hurling championship clash of Dublin and Laois, with McElwain in the presenter role for the foreseeable.

Again, it’s like fate intervened in some sense this year. While the Covid-19 pandemic meant her original work plans for the summer of 2020 — which included plenty of Gaelic games coverage and assignments at the Tokyo Olympics — were torn to shreds, everything slowly but surely fell into place in another sense.

A promotion from her Sky sideline reporter role soon arose with Rachel Wyse on maternity leave and with co-host Brian Carney’s involvement more limited due to travel restrictions, it’s McElwain will mainly anchor the outdoor studio base.

“I’m very excited that we’re at this point,” she says. “Back in March, if you told us we were going to have any semblance of a GAA season, I don’t think anyone would have believed you.

“We’re still in very dodgy territory, I must say. We still don’t know what’s going to happen as the weeks progress, but I’m going to remain positive and look forward to what’s happening. I’m delighted to be involved with Sky Sports on their coverage this season and just looking forward to starting.”

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sky-sports-gaa-championship-launch Promo for Sky Sports' 2020 championship coverage. Source: SPORTSFILE

Like many others across the country, she’s conflicted about the season going ahead through Level 5 restrictions. There’s worry for players and all others involved from a health aspect: they can’t be bubbled. At the end of the day, they have to go home to family members, some of whom could be vulnerable and elderly, and they have to go to work. Decisions to opt out at any stage should be respected, she notes.

But McElwain also sees the other side of it. “For a lot of people this is what they’re really looking forward to. Winter’s coming, the nights are getting longer and darker and colder.

“A lot of people that I know, even neighbours beside me, older people, are really excited by the championship coming because it’s something for them to look forward to and something for them to sit down and watch, and talk about.

“It gives a little bit of hope as well that there’s more outside of this world than just Covid-19 because at the moment all we’re hearing is about Covid, the numbers and it’s getting a lot of people down.

“I think it will give people hope and something to look forward to and shorten the winter, but also at the same time, if it’s going to increase health restrictions and that, we can’t have it go ahead either. We have to be guided by what the health officials say.”

As of now, it’s all about lights, camera, action at HQ this evening.

Living in Béal An Daingin, Connemara, with her husband and three children, McElwain — just like her neighbours — can’t contain her excitement for matchday herself.

It’s been a while, after all. “Being at a live venue, it’s so hard to beat it,” she beams. “It’s going to be really strange, really eerie because obviously we’ll have no fans.”

She recalls her experience from an Ireland Nations League match, held behind-closed-doors at the Aviva, and how different it was to what she’s used to: the extremely early arrival, the temperature check, the health questionnaire, the isolated area, the masks; all of the things we’ve become so accustomed to this year.

“It was just a different experience and the whole thing was the eeriness of being in the stand and actually being fit to hear what the manager and players would say. I know we’ve always wished, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to hear what they were saying?’ but it was just so different.

“I think that’s going to be very strange. When we go into Croke Park now Saturday… my last memory of Croke Park was the ladies final with 56,000 people there. It’s a full stadium. The men’s game the night before, there was 80,000 for the for the replay.

“It’s just going to be very strange going there. But I think everybody realises it’s a strange, strange year. There’s nothing normal about this. What we’re all trying to do is just bring some coverage, bring some normality to people’s lives as the winter comes that they can actually see and witness some games, and I just really hope that we’re able to do this.

“I hope that we can start it, first of all, but it depends on numbers how we get along between now and 19 December, but I just really hope that we can get the championship played.”

For McElwain, it’s shaping up to be a busy few weeks, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. The return to sport and work has been a breadth of fresh air, and a welcome taste of normality through these unprecedented times.

tg4-2018-ladies-football-championship-launch Launching the 2018 TG4 All-Ireland championship. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

Having had her bread and butter in broadcasting and match reporting taken from her earlier this year, she’s hoping that won’t happen again over the next few weeks.

As she says, she’ll understand if things need to be called to a halt, but for now, she’s relishing being right in the middle of the excitement. Right in the thick of the action. She’s ready for the madness of the inter-county championship to kick off once again, and for many more of those “pinch me” moments after a lengthy layoff.

Like for many, the 2020 shutdown reminded her of just how much she loves what she does.

“You go from working to being full time Mom, which was lovely but at the same time, I just realised how much I love my work. I love going out to the sideline, I’ll never complain about a cold sideline again! It’s great.

“I’m looking forward to getting involved. It’s been great doing Inside The Game over the past few weeks. It’s been lovely chatting about football and hurling, and camogie as well.

“It’s just been really interesting, chatting about it to different people. Everyone’s excited, but cautiously kind of excited as well. We’re all just hoping that it’s going to happen.”

“Everything’s evolving from day to day, week to week,” she concludes, fittingly. “I think you just have to take it one day at a time and and just see what happens.”

One day at a time, a mantra to live by these days.

- All of Sky’s 2020 championship games will be available on Sky Sports Mix.

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Emma Duffy

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