Gráinne McElwain continues to follow her dreams

By Michael McMullan

IT’S a long way from Edmonton to Béal an Daingin, outside Leitir Móir, in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht, but leading GAA broadcaster Gráinne McElwain’s roots are deep in both Irish music and GAA.

Born in Canada, the oldest of three children, she moved to Ireland at the age of four when her parents, Séamus and Peggy McElwain, returned to set up home in their native Monaghan.

Séamus, who had two stints as Chairman of Scotstown, is steeped in music. He played while in Canada and was Monaghan GAA’s Cultural Officer.

Nowadays, his voice echoes around St Tiernach’s Park in Clones where he makes the announcements, including team news on match days.

Gráinne was schooled in the local Tydavnet NS and the nearby St Louis Monaghan before ending up qualifying as a teacher in UCD via a history degree from University of Ulster in Coleraine.

“We were fanatical about GAA,” begins Gráinne, who presented the first of a six-part TG4 series, Scéalta na gCorn, on Wednesday night, that delves into history of cups in the GAA.

While not playing sport, GAA was ingrained from an early age and Gráinne was involved in Scór, playing the flute in Scotstown All-Ireland winning instrumental group of 1996.

The tin whistle and piano accordion were also among her repertoire, with her younger brother Seán going on to tour with his group Téada.

“I was PRO of our club for a time, but we were always going to games,” Gráinne said of her GAA involvement.

“Scotstown is only a stones’ throw away from Clones, so we were always going to follow all the Ulster Championship games there in the summer.

“On Sundays we’d sometimes go to three games in a day and you’d meet all the same people.”

Scotstown’s pitch was nearby and they’d always head over to watch games. The seeds of a career that led her to the anchor of Sky Sports’ GAA coverage began with local radio station Northern Sounds’ sports department and compiling articles in the local press during her student days.

“For a couple of years I was teaching (Irish), but sport always seemed to come back into my life,” Gráinne said of her crossroads moment.

“I was running out of essays and went to get one out of an Irish language newspaper, Foinse. They had an advert looking for a sports researcher in Nemeton in An Rinn down in Waterford,” she added of the company involved in much of TG4’s coverage.

“I never heard of An Rinn or Nemeton but six weeks later I left my pensionable job and became a sports researcher with them.”

There were mixed opinions on her leap of faith, from those who felt she was crazy giving up the security of a permanent job to others who lauded her for following her dreams.

But, she lives by one motto: leap and the net will appear. Without kids or a mortgage, in her early 20s, it wasn’t a risk and with an increasing demand for Irish teachers, the door was always ajar.

“I am happy to work at anything,” she points out. “I am a grafter and I know I’ll put my mind to anything, whatever it is.

“I work hard and like to meet people, so I think if you are like that, you will always get a job. I have the attitude that I would hate to look back on life and wish I had done something, that would be torment. If you gut is strong about something, just do it.”

Fortune favours the brave and Gráinne hasn’t looked back, getting to fulfil her dreams in every role imaginable in the world of television production.

“I have done everything,” she said of a career working for RTÉ, TG4, Eir Sport and Sky Sports.

“I have been a researcher, producer, a series producer and now a presenter.

“I have done PA, broadcast coordinator, production manager…all that sort of stuff.

“I have a full understanding with how production works which really helps when you have some knowledge of the roles.”

At the peak of All-Ireland final Sunday, when a message filters into her earpiece to begin summing up, she knows the inner workings. A manager interview or an advert break could be just seconds away.

“It has been a great journey and little did I know when I applied for to that ad in 2003, that 20 years later I’d still be involved.

“I thought I would down and work for a year and go back teaching. It has taken me to lots of brilliant places and I have met lots of wonderful people…it has been a very exciting.

“There is so much sport, if you are confident at all and have a bit of go in you, you will move up the ladder pretty fast,” said Gráinne of her roles in sports like GAA, soccer, rugby, racing and an involvement in leading TG4 series Laochra Gael.

From her initial post with Nemeton, the wheels began to turn fast. TG4 were granted rights to Saturday evening National League games and with Micheál Ó Domhnaill their only presenter, Gráinne joined the team.

A year later, when that league arrangement ended, she was brought in when a female presenter was sought to front their live ladies football coverage.

“I worked on that for 11 years. I loved the ladies football, the whole team around me and loved meeting the players…women in the sport are more open,” said Gráinne, who hopes their male counterparts can, in time, make a u-turn on the dwindling media access.

For the last 15 years she has called Galway home and while their three kids are dressed in Monaghan colours when the Farney County are playing, they are maroon inside.

“The club here is Naomh Anna, Leitir Moir,” Gráinne said of their coastal solace. “It would be 45 minutes outside of Galway city…the next stop is America.

“The people are lovely and it is a lot smaller club than Scotstown with different challenges like employment and emigration.”

It was a memorable season out west as Pádraic Joyce took the county on a magical and dramatic journey.

The closest senior star geographically is Finnian Ó Laoí from nearby Spiddal and the McElwains, like all Tribe fans, fastened their seatbelts on a summer that knocked on the door of dreamland before watching Kerry climb the steps of the Hogan Stand yet again.

Gráinne was at the forefront of the coverage as Sky Sports, rolling out a package of action and analysis. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the camera is a military operation of cameras, cables, crew and the challenge of bringing it all together in a schedule measured to the last second.

“I have three kids aged 10, 9 and 7 years old and getting out the door in time and organised is a challenge I definitely have before every game,” she said.

“A typical week sees me researching, reading and listening to all the information I can get my hands on. We have weekly meetings with our producer and analysts to discuss upcoming games and content.”

Nineteen years after answering a job advert that opened the first of many doors, working in sport in a rewarding experience.

“You could be having the worst day possible, but what I love about sport is that when you are at a match, you don’t think about anything other than what is happening in front of you,” Gráinne said.

“It has the power to lift your mind and mood; you go through all the moments of excitement and the uplifting joy when your team wins, the scores and the players.

“I find, for me, that no matter
what is going on in my life, you are fully present in that moment witnessing some brilliant artistry and players.

“It is a good news story, it helps feed your soul and it lifts you…that’s what I love about it.”

Last night, Gráinne presented the first of six episodes of Scéalta na gCorn, a TG4 series looking at the history and names connected with some of the 2,000 cups presented by the GAA annually.

Next week, she will be in her native Monaghan with other episodes focusing on Antrim and Donegal before a look into Galway and Cork to complete the walk down the GAA’s historical trail.

Producer Hannah Ní Dhubhcháin, from Imagine Media in Belfast, came up with the idea for the show based on Humphrey Kelleher’s book GAA Family Silver.

Kelleher, also a consultant on the show, began to chart the history of the GAA’s silverware after a conversation on The Sunday Game studio drew a blank on the origin of a cup being discussed.

“What I have loved about it, you are learning the stories behind the cups and you are learning where the cups came from. Who were these people? And you are bringing them back to life,” Gráinne said of her role as presenter.

“Sam Maguire, Liam McCarthy, Brendan Martin in Ladies Football and Seán O’Duffy in camogie, we have all heard of those names.

“There is the back story of them and they you go to the different counties where are other wonderful names.”

There is ‘Big Ears’ – the Volunteer Cup – presented to the Antrim Senior Hurling champions.

“It’s a brilliant name. We spoke to Neil McManus about that and what winning that means, how important it is and that he, himself, wasn’t aware where the cup came from,” said Gráinne of one of the Ulster links in the show.

Many cups have been named after people who have lost their lives tragically. The series delves into the lives of their loved ones and the pride of seeing a legacy passed down the generations.

“You forget that when people are hoisting a cup, it’s about hoisting it for the families.

“It helps the person they loved, to have their memory living on,” Gráinne explains.

“It brings in the link with the GAA and how important it is to families. It’s a cliché that we all the same DNA, but it’s true, we are all connected and our cups play into that connection too.”

There is the story of the Owen Ward Cup presented to the Monaghan League champions. It is a chapter of emigration and money returning from America to make
sure competition success could be marked.

“There are a few examples of that, where people raised the money because there was no money to present cups or medals back in the 1930s.

“People didn’t know who there were, so I found really interesting,” said Gráinne, who also mentioned the Monaghan Senior Championship silver, the Mick Duffy Cup named after the father of former GAA Director General Páraic.

And it’s not just about the most iconic competitions, there are cups presented in memory of local heroes all over Ireland, like the Maggie Close Cup, an u-14 seven-a-side hurling competition named after a Moneyglass stalwart.

“She was a massive volunteer for the club, she did anything that needed done,” Gráinne points out.

“After she passed away, they asked her daughter Dolores if they could name a cup in her memory because of all the great work that she did.

“She was so proud and said her mummy would’ve loved that. It wasn’t an ex-player or a famous player, it was a woman who did endless hours of volunteer work for the GAA and I loved that.

“People recognise this and honoured those who gave so much to a club, that’s what the GAA is all about; it’s about honouring those people who gave so much every day. I was a gorgeous story and a gorgeous way of honouring that woman as well.”

The show visits Cushendall and Anne Marie McNaughton to trace the origins of a cup named in her late husband Danny’s memory after his untimely death at the age of 40 when he fell ill playing alongside their son in a game.

“It was how much the club helped her after Danny passed away. She had young children to bring up and they were totally immersed in the club, it’s what the cup means to her,” Gráinne explains, giving another flavour of what’s to come over the next five weeks.

She looks at the Seamus McFerran Cup, currently held by Ulster and All-Ireland champions Kilcoo. In Antrim, there is the Bronagh Kelly Cup, named after a young girl of 16 who passed away after an asthma attack.

“There are loads of lovely stories like that of those who died an untimely death and others wanted to honour their memory,” Gráinne added.

“I like to remember people and not to forget who they were. They have a massive role in the forming and running of clubs. It doesn’t matter what era it was, people thought an awful lot of them to dedicate a cup and it’s nice they are still remembered.”

Produced by Imagine Media, with support from NI Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund, ‘Scéalta na gCorn’ will continues on Wednesdays (8.30pm) on TG4.

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