Sky’s the limit

Skys the limit for Gráinne McElwain

Gráinne McElwain told David Hennessy why she is honoured to be the face of Sky Sports’ GAA coverage, why it is important that girls see themselves represented in sport and why she has to remain professional- even if she sees Monaghan get beaten.

Gráinne McElwain is enjoying her first season as the face of Sky’s GAA coverage.

The Monaghan native had already become a familiar face on Sky while covering Rachel Wyse’s maternity leave but is now a full-time fixture following Wyse’s departure.

Gráinne told The Irish World: “I’m really honoured.

“GAA is a huge grá, huge love of mine from a very young age so it’s a real honour to be able to be involved in championship.

“I always see myself as a facilitator.

“I always feel that I’m the person lucky enough to ask the experts the questions and we have just brilliant experts on Sky Sports.

“In football, we have Jim McGuinness, Kieran Donaghy and Peter Canavan, and then in hurling, we have Jamesie O’Connor, Ollie Canning, and JJ Delaney.

“They just have so much expert knowledge. It’s just fascinating to hear their insights on the games pre-match and after.

“It’s a huge honour to be asked to be involved in any broadcaster’s sports coverage.

“I always feel very privileged to be there.

“It’s a huge honour and we’re just really looking forward to the All- Ireland stages now, getting back to Croke Park.”

And it will be a Croke Park with fans in attendance this year.

Gráinne got to see Limerick and Dublin lift the cups last year, occasions not many were able to be there for.

What was an All-Ireland final like with no fans? “It was very different.

“Because I think you just realise how important fans make occasions and that they add so much to the atmosphere.

“They react to every decision or every score, whatever happens.

“But I think it was interesting. You would be in massive crowds of maybe 80,000 and you would be kind of going, ‘I wonder what they’re saying on the sideline’.

“And, ‘I wonder what players are thinking’.

“And then suddenly it’s like, ‘Actually, I can hear what they’re saying on the sideline, I can hear what the players are saying’.

“It was very surreal.

“Because of Covid, you were really taking it week by week as well.

Skys the limit for Gráinne McElwain

“When we started you were kind of going, ‘Are we actually going to get to an All-Ireland final?’

“Because numbers are up and down and you just weren’t sure if we were actually going to get to the end of it.

“So I think it was a massive achievement that we got to the end, and that we got an All-Ireland series and finals last year.

“And I think it gave such a boost of people at home, that they were able to watch these games and it shortened the winter for so many people as well.

“It was hard because a lot of people couldn’t get home.

“I think technology played a huge part in our lives last year as well.

“It was great that you could watch these games, connect with your family and talk about them from overseas or from wherever you were based.

“It was very privileged and humbling to be there.

“This year, we were at the game at the weekend, Waterford and Galway.

“There was loads of fans from Waterford there and just the noise level from them.

“There might have been only 3,000 but my gosh, you could hear them. They were just willing their team on and it was just great to have them back.

“It just really added to the atmosphere of the occasion.”

The arena of sports broadcasting may traditionally be considered a man’s world but things have been changing in recent years.

This has been evident in the recent coverage of Euro 2020 with expert panels usually including one female like Alex Scott or Eniola Aluko.

As a mother of three children, Gráinne feels it is important to ensure gender equality both inside and outside the home.

“I think it’s really important that there’s visibility, that you actually see women there.

“And I think people that have a problem with that have never actually seen women doing the job.

“The women that are on talking, they’re brilliant.

“And why wouldn’t they be on the screen and talking about that?

“I just don’t understand the rationale of people who say, ‘They shouldn’t be there. It should be a man’.

“I really welcome that we have women in these roles because I think it’s really important for young boys and young girls to see women and men equally.

“It’s the same in a household.

“If I’m doing all the cooking and ironing the whole time and my husband isn’t, the kids will go, ‘Well that’s just what mommy does. Mommy does all the cooking and all the cleaning and that’s just what happens’.

“It’s brilliant to see. It’s about time. It’s very late happening but it’s I think across the board now: All broadcasters are going, ‘Yeah, this has to happen’.”

Gráinne refers to the 20 x 20 movement that aimed to create a more inclusive Ireland although she did it find that young girls could not name a female sporting role model.

“A big thing in Ireland was the 20 x 20 movement which really opened up the whole conversation about visibility of women and role models.

“And one of the things I found particularly really sad was when I went to the launch, young girls couldn’t name one female role model in a sporting sense.

“That was really sad and it kind of got me thinking, because I have a nine-year-old daughter: ‘Gosh, is she aware of all the female role models?’

“So visibility is huge.”

Skys the limit for Gráinne McElwain

Ireland has no shortage of female sporting role models with Katie Taylor, Cora Staunton and Niamh Fahey being three that spring to mind..

“And we are really proud of them.

“They’re fantastic ambassadors for their sport and it’s brilliant that they’re getting the recognition that they should get.

“I remember Niamh Fahey playing with Galway before she went on to playing with Liverpool and a great career before that in England.

“People didn’t recognize them.

“Cora Staunton, the same. They just did not get the recognition.

“And it’s kind of like, ‘Well, if she was a man she would have’.

“And it is brilliant now we all recognize how brilliant Cora Staunton, Niamh Fahey, Katie Taylor is.

“I think Katie Taylor has crossed the coals for everybody, both men and women, because everyone just recognizes what a brilliant fighter that she is.

“So gender doesn’t come into the equation with Katie, I don’t think, because I think we all recognize how brilliant that she is.

“And I think for female sport in Ireland and in England, it’s just great that we’re talking about it more.

“That we’re actually visible. It’s seeing it. If you don’t see it, you can’t relate to it or you can’t be it.

“It gives a pathway for young girls as well to say, ‘Oh look, I know who that person is. That’s my role model. So why can’t I be like that person?’

“I think that has been a huge change and a huge mindset shift as well.”

Gráinne was always involved in the GAA but admits she didn’t play it a lot herself perhaps because she didn’t get the encouragement she needed.

“I didn’t play that much.

“It’s funny.

“When I look back now, I think probably I was the type of person that would have needed encouragement to kind of go, ‘You know what? Stay at it. Keep doing it’.

“And it didn’t happen. And I probably didn’t get that encouragement.

“I think young girls particularly need that.

“And I didn’t stay in it because none of my peers and my friends were staying in it.

“It’s probably a confidence thing: You’re a teenager and it’s body image and all that thing happening as well.

“So I turned to administration. I became more involved in PRO and that area of the club rather than actually playing.”

Does Gráinne feel she would be encouraged now? “I hope so.

“My own daughter plays football underage at our local club.

“She enjoys it. I encourage her.

“And you can see even in her the reticence. It’s a bit like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m not really good at it’.

“And for me sport’s more than just being good, it’s being part of a community.

“It’s about learning, It’s about growing, it’s meeting friends, it’s the social aspect and I think that’s hugely important because not everyone is going to play inter-county football or hurling.

“Not everybody is going to play senior with your club, but you need people to be involved.

“They’re your junior C teams, you junior B teams, they’re the lotto sellers.

“They’re the future chair people, referees.

Skys the limit for Gráinne McElwain

“I think it’s so important that people feel that they belong.

“There’s a niche for everybody. Not everyone’s going to be that star.

“But it’s lovely that you feel part of that community.

“And I just think it’s important to encourage young girls, young boys just to stay involved.

“Everyone has a different level. Just accept that and enjoy it.

“That’s what it’s about. It’s all about enjoyment.”

There is no mistaking where Gráinne’s allegiances lie. Originally from Ballinode in Monaghan, a framed White and blue shirt can be seen on the wall of her home in Connemara when she chats to the Irish World.

Has she ever had to hide her feelings in order to be professional after a Monaghan defeat?

“I did. Last year actually Monaghan lost to Cavan in the early rounds of the Ulster championship.

“I remember being heartbroken because they were winning and then they lost.

“Obviously it’s sad but you’re there to do a professional job.

“Maybe when the cameras are not on you you’re kind of shouting and jumping up and down but obviously when the camera is on you, you’re not.

“You do your best to be as professional as possible.

“Maybe it would be different if it was an All-Ireland final.”

Would they have to cut to a commercial pretty sharply then? “Exactly, exactly,” she laughs.

How does Gráinne see this  year’s championships panning out?

Can anyone break Dublin’s stranglehold on the Sam Maguire?

“I just think there’s so much to admire about Dublin.

“I think they deserve all the plaudits that they get because they have been an amazing side.

“They’ve just been brilliant.

“I mean they’re going for a seventh All-Ireland title in a row which is unprecedented.

“But we’ve done live broadcasts with Kerry and they’ve been amazing.

“I think everyone’s thinking Kerry have a have a big say and it’s hard to look past them.

“They have been so impressive the games that we’ve seen them in.

“Most people predict a Dublin- Kerry final and that’s hard to argue with.

“And then you have Mayo of course as well.”

Limerick go for their third Liam McCarthy in four years this year while Kilkenny have failed to land a cup since their 2015 triumph.

“I think the big team this year is Limerick.

“Limerick have been so impressive.

“The questions were asked in the Munster final when they were ten points down at half-time and you were kind of going, ‘They’re gone, they’re finished’.

“But the turnaround that they did to just blow Tipperary away in the second half to become Munster champions for the third year in a row was unbelievable to watch.

Skys the limit for Gráinne McElwain

“They have to be the favourites again to win. They’ve been so, so impressive.

“The big thing about Kilkenny is people write them off, yet they’re in an All-Ireland semi-final.

“They’re still a great, great team.

“Cork are kind of dark horses.

“It will be really interesting to see. I think it’s Limerick’s to lose. I think they’re the team to beat and it will be very hard earned if anyone can overcome Limerick, but they definitely are, for me, the favourites this year again.”

Gráinne now has in excess of a decade’s experience of broadcasting that includes work with TG4, RTE, TV3 and, of course, Sky Sports.

But she did not always know what she wanted to do and even started a career as a teacher before deciding it was simply not for her.

“It’s very funny.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.

“I taught for a couple of years and enjoyed it but was just very like, ‘I just can’t see myself doing this for the next 40 years of my life’.

“No, it just wasn’t me. I love variety. I love trying new things, new jobs, meeting loads of different people.

“An ad came up then basically looking for a sports researcher down in a television production company in Rinn in Waterford called Nemeton TV Productions.

“I just went down there, got the job and just left my full-time pensionable job after six weeks and just moved down to Rinn and started a new career.

“That’s 15 years ago.

“I’ve been loving it ever since then.”

In addition to sport, Gráinne’s other passions include the Irish language, which she is fluent in, and traditional music. She won many prizes at Fleadh Cheoils in her younger years.

“Sport, traditional music and the Irish language was huge growing up in our house.

“It’s just lovely to be put to work in those areas.

“Obviously, I would have started out broadcasting through the Irish language and working with TG4 which was an amazing experience and I still work with them and love working with them.

“I would have played music and would have won lots of Fleadh Cheoils and been involved in Scór.

“It’s great that you start off these things in childhood not really knowing how important they are and then it kind of comes full circle that you’re actually working in it.”

Does she get to play much music anymore? “No, I don’t.

“I played an awful lot up until my early 20s and I would have been involved in competitons and sessions.

“I have children now so I’m starting to play again with them.

“But my brother (Sean) would have continued on that tradition.

“He went and he plays in a band called Téada.

and he’s kind of spent years just traveling around the world playing music so he kind of did it for both of us, I think.”

Can you dance because then you would cover all the bases? “No, I can’t dance,” she laughs.

The 2021 GAA Hurling and Football All-Ireland semi-finals and finals will broadcast live on Sky Sports Arena.

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