Behind the Microphone – Gráinne McElwain

They bring us most of the magical moments we enjoy in sport through the commentary and analysis. Their personalities and the words they choose so often become a central part of our national memory around the truly defining moments in sport but they are there for the quieter days as well, telling the story of sport.

In our Sport for Business series ‘Behind the Microphone’ we meet with the individuals in the media who bring sporting stories to life on television and radio.

In the latest of our Summer 2019 collection of media personalities, we meet Gráinne McElwain on the eve of her hosting 17 live games for TG4 as part of their 19 years and still going strong commitment to Ladies Gaelic Football.

How did you get a start behind the microphone?

To xxbe honest I kind of fell into it.  At school I did some work experience with Northern Sound and I loved it.  At home I was immersed in sport.  We are from Scotstown in Monaghan which has a very rich tradition in Gaelic Football and that was just what I loved.

When I went to college, I went back to Northern Sound and was covering sport as my student and summer job and it was just brilliant.  I loved every minute of it but never really thought of it as being a career.

I qualified as a History and Irish teacher and was enjoying that when I got a break that changed everything.

I was working in Castleknock Community College as a teacher and one day I was running late and forgot to bring the essays I had planned for a fifth year honours Irish class.

I had to find something and so I picked up a copy of the irish language newspaper Foinse.  there was an essay in that so I photocopied it to give as an idea to the students but on the same page was this advertisement for a researcher with Nemeton down in An Rinn in Waterford.

It just caught my eye so I thought why not?

Six weeks later I had quit my full time pensionable teaching job, moved to Waterford and was working away full time in sport.

That’s a case of serendipity backed up by determination.  How did things progress then from the research desk to being in front of the camera?

I was working away as a researcher and then started to produce one or two segments.  The opportunity arose to do a screen test to present a Saturday Night GAA programme on TG4.

It was absolutely nerve wracking and I was up against other people that had more experience but they must have liked what they saw and luckily I got it.

That then was what really kicked off my career as a presenter.

Scotstown wouldn’t have been a strong gaeltacht area.  were you a natural speaker?

No not at all.  My Granny had a real passion for the language, she was a teacher herself but my parents didn’t speak much and we grew up with English as outr language at home so I just learned it through education.

I studeied humanities at Ulster University in Coleraine and then did a hDip in UCD and now of course I am working mostly through irish and I’m always keen to promote it.

What do you think was the most important part of your own make up that led you into presenting.

I love meeting people and I love asking questions.  Curiosity would be one of the qualities that I’d put the most value on.

It’s humbling to have the opportunity to interview people that are really good at what they do and bring that to a wider audience.

It’s also very important to work hard.  There are no short cuts in this game and everyone who is in it started out in the main by doing shifts that nobody else wanted, going to games to work when others went to enjoy and all that.  You have to put in the hard yards to earn your place in people’s enjoyment of sport.

I also just love doing what I do.

Sport is perhaps the one thing that you can tune out from anything else that’s happening in your life.  its very special.

What would be your highlight so far?

This is my eleventh year presenting and last year was a real wow moment.  The volume of the crowd at the final was huge and it was great to see these brilliant athletes were getting their due reward.

There was such a great atmosphere.  The Dublin Men’s team were there offering real genuine support and the whole thing was just magic.  It felt like a real tipping point and it was just so much fun to be involved.

Working as an MC It was a huge privilege last week to host a GAA Championship launch at Scotstown.  Looking out on a room filled with people like Paraic Duffy I have known since being a little girl was something that really stopped me in my tracks.

If you had one sporting event above all that you’d like to work at, what would it be?

There are so many but I think the razzamatazz of the Superbowl would be special.

Who would be your role models?

My dad has always been a real inspiration.  He is always so positive and has always encouraged me so much.

I love watching Clare Balding.  She makes it look so easy.  Gabby Logan and Sue Barker as well are great while in Ireland we have such a rich pool of talented women that are always there to talk to and share things with as well.

What else are you doing at the moment?

I’m a freelancer so you have to be out and about.  I’ve been very lucky to have worked with the BBC, with RTÉ and with eir Sport among others.

The variety is great and I have a bit of an advantage working in front of the camera as well as on the producer side.  That empathy I have between the voice to camera and the voice into the ear tends to work quite well.  If someone tells me to stop talking I understand why and so wrap it up.  Sometimes that’s not always as easy with others.

I have also worked in music with Gradam Ceoil and presenting live events is something that I’ve been lucky enough to do as well.

What’s the screen saver on your phone?

My three kids standing on the beach at home in Connemara.

Who would you say was one of the most special people you have interviewed?

Gareth Thomas was incredible when I interviewed him at the Federation of irish Sport Conference.  He is so honest and the emotion was so raw was great.

Lynsey Peat who I interviewed with you on our Facebook event in 2017 is always special.  So humble but so easy to talk to as well.  Valerie Mulcahy and Kelli Harrington were there that night and they are so relaxed as well, so obviously comfortable in telling their story.

And finally, any special preparations or superstitions when you are going on air?

No superstitions but I’m always conscious to breathe and i always think, no matter the size of the audience that I’m just having a chat with my Dad and Mam at home.  I was told once that the most important thing in presenting is to knock your own ego out of the way.  it’s about the person you are talking to and not you.  That’s always stuck with me.

Join us next week when we will be chatting with Ruth Fahy fresh from co-commentating on the Women’s World Cup Final

Image Credit: Eoin Noonan, Sportsfile

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