Sunday 25 February 2018

West Side Story: the new breed of gaelgeoirs

Maire Treasa Ni Dhubhghaill trained as a primary school teacher before joining TG4.
Maire Treasa Ni Dhubhghaill trained as a primary school teacher before joining TG4.
Fiona Ni Fhlaithearta presents the weather on TG4. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Caitlin Nic Aoidh

Emily Hourican

For these three rising stars in TG4's firmament, the route to a career in TV came about in very different ways, but all three share similar traits. They are down-to-earth and determined, serious about their position in the public eye, keen to make an impression as women - but for their work rather than their looks - and, in particular, outspoken in their love of Irish language and culture.

Maire Treasa  Ni Dhubhghaill

Maire Treasa Ni Dhubhghaill originally trained as a primary school teacher, and worked for a year in a gaelscoil in Sligo. She was offered a permanent place, but turned it down to follow an already made plan to go travelling with friends.

Just as she was about to leave, however, fate stepped in. "My mam saw an ad in the paper. TG4 were doing a nationwide search for presenters, to attend this presenter course that they were running. I'd always had an interest in drama and musicals, and I had toyed with the idea of doing drama in college. So my mam rang me and told me about it. I went for the screen test and was told that I was one of eight to get on to the course."

That, says the 30-year-old, was "amazing. It was my first time in a TV station, seeing how everything worked. After the week, I thought it wouldn't go any further, but they rang and offered me the chance to present Cula4, the kids show, and I was left with the dilemma. I had already bought my ticket to go travelling - would I go, or stay and take up the position?"

In fact, it wasn't much of a dilemma. "I stayed," she laughs, adding wisely, "and I'm delighted I did - if I hadn't, someone else would have taken it, and an opportunity like that doesn't come around every day."

There was another happy effect of her decision to stay - "at the time I was going out with John, who's now my husband, and we had been together a year at the time.

"I had planned on going travelling with the girls, and God only knows how that would have ended up, if I had gone off with them!"

For a year, Maire Treasa was the studio anchor for Cula4, and "it kind of progressed from there," she says. "I've been doing teenage shows, movie shows, music shows. Then I got called up for the rugby."

It was a call she was thrilled with. "I've always had an interest in rugby. I was brought up going to Munster matches, so I was delighted." Presenting the rugby has been, she says, her "main role for the past four years. I did World Cup coverage, the Championship Cup, rugby league. But this summer I started a new show on the Wild Atlantic Way, some of which was live; it's the kind of thing you shouldn't think too much about before you get into it, because it can be overwhelming, but I loved it."

She has decided to "take a step back from kids' and teenage programmes. You need to grow your career as you grow; it's a natural progression. I love the shows I've done, but I'm ready to try different things."

And live TV, for her, is where it's at. "I love the buzz," she laughs. "Anything could happen, anything could go wrong - the microphone might not work, an interview might get dropped, you could get hit on the head with a rugby ball. But I love the variety. And you get to meet a whole lot of people."

As for what should really be a non-topic - that of being a woman and presenting rugby - Maire Treasa is perfectly sanguine. "A lot of people ask me is it ever an issue. The answer is no. I have never felt any differently because I am a girl. That said, maybe I work harder because I am a girl, but I put that pressure on myself. I don't want to be found out; I don't want to be put on the spot.

"But that is the kind of person I am - I over-prepare for everything, over-analyse. I'm a perfectionist. But I think that's why I have got on so well with the rugby; because I'm passionate about it, and I make sure I know what I'm talking about."

"Being a fan and being an expert," she adds, "are two completely different things. I don't need to be the expert, but I need to ask the questions that the audience wants to hear. You need to know more than you let on, and more than the usual fan.

"Everyone is going to have their opinion about who they trust and who they believe when it comes to sport. Whether you're Joe Brolly or Joe Bloggs, everyone has an opinion, that's what's amazing about it. I don't take things personally; if someone said something negative to me, I'd probably use it as motivation to prove them wrong. That kind of thing makes me determined to be even better at what I do."

She is equally easy-going about expectations around the way women on TV should look. "I love clothes, and looking pretty," she says, "and when people comment on the way I look, I would take those comments as a compliment and wouldn't jump down someone's throat, because it's TV, it's that form of media. It's not like radio, where you're listening.

"That said, I haven't experienced that people judge me as a women presenting, they judge you for what you're doing. I don't want to be the focus of the show. I dress the way I dress, I don't need to draw attention to myself in any way.

"I dress for comfort more than anything else when I'm standing on the sidelines. As a presenter, you are the tool that connects the analyst and the person sitting on the couch at home. You're the person in the middle, there to ask the questions. I don't think the presenter should be the focus. Let the subject be the focus."

Then she laughs, "If I thought about it too much, I wouldn't be doing my job right. The question is, what am I hired to do? Everything else is secondary to that."

Brought up bilingual, Maire Treasa says she would "love the opportunity to do something on TV in English. It would be a new experience, and I think it would be great." She speaks Irish to her parents, but English at home with her husband.

"I wouldn't discriminate against anyone who doesn't speak Irish," she says, "but I have a love for the language and I do feel that's it's our language and I'm proud that I can speak it; it's part of my heritage and part of who I am.

"I don't think we should push people to learn a language they don't want to learn, but having said that, I would love if everyone had a gra for the language the way I do.

"Sometimes I wonder, do people who haven't grown up with Irish feel like there's something missing? I don't know. But I think everyone feels proud of using their cupla focal when they are abroad, even if they might never use it when they are at home, and I think it's a bit crazy that people have this desire to learn other languages - Chinese, Spanish - and broaden their horizons, if they haven't got a grasp of their own native language first."

Fiona Ni Fhlaithearta

The story of how Fiona Ni Fhlaithearta (28) came to her role presenting the weather on TG4 is a winding, intriguing one, with several possible alternative routes along the way.

Some years ago, she spotted an ad for a presenter course with TG4, where they carefully, correctly, specified that there were no specific jobs available, that rather this was simply a search for talent. "We were always big watchers of TG4 from day one in our house," says Fiona, from Camus in Connemara.

"We'd have it on at some point every evening, and I saw the ad. I thought, 'I'd like to do that, for the crack.'

"I have a communications degree from NUI Galway and I majored in radio, but I genuinely thought I had no chance. I decided to apply for it anyway, just so they would know I was out there. I was 23 at the time. I was also heading off to Australia a day or two later, because I had finished college and there wasn't anything much happening here; it wasn't a great time, so I went over on a year's visa.

"I was three weeks there when I got an email from TG4 saying they were very happy with the showreel. I nearly didn't finish the email, because I thought it was one of those, 'Thanks, great, but . . .'"

Except it wasn't.

Fiona was offered a place on the course, which precipitated a major dilemma. In the end, she decided to stay put. "If there had been the chance of a job at the end of it, I would have come home on the next flight," she laughs, "but there wasn't, and they didn't want to encourage me because of that, but we kept in touch, and they said that any time I was home again, they would be delighted to do some training with me in front of the camera."

In the meantime, Australia turned into nearly three years instead of a year, and Fiona had her first child, a little girl, Niamh, while over there, with her partner Kevin, who is also Irish.

That must have been hard, so far from family? "It was tough," she admits, "but I didn't know any different, because that was my first baby. Actually, in a way, I think I had it pretty easy. I can't imagine having a baby here and having endless visitors - people coming in on top of you and telling you what to do. We just had to figure it all out on our own, which meant we had time to work things out. I can't compare - but it was nice, just the three of us."

When they did come home for a visit, Niamh was 10 months old, "and even then, a few people still tried to tell us what to do," Fiona laughs. "She was nearly a year at that point, and we were like - 'I think we've got it . . .'" That was a six-week visit, and Fiona emailed TG4 saying she would be back and would love to take up the offer of training. The response was favourable, and so she spent a week or so shadowing the weather presenters, and getting to record herself doing the job.

Just after Christmas 2013, when Fiona was again home in Connemara, the call came. "TG4 got in touch and offered me a position on a panel to do the weather. I accepted, even though there was none of the security of a full-time job. It's what I wanted to do," she says.

"I certainly wasn't going to let that chance go. I had stopped working in Australia after I had my daughter. In a foreign country, without anyone who could recommend a creche, or help out with childcare, it just didn't make sense."

For a while, accepting the role meant living as a single mother as Kevin stayed with his job in Australia. "He would come home once every two months. We did the long-distance thing, and it was hard, but sometimes you have to make hard decisions if it's something you really want. And he's back with us now.

"Because I'm on a panel, I get called in when one of the full-time presenters is away, so I'll have periods where I'm busy and times I'm quiet. I think that works well with being a mother. It suits me, because it's not Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm.

"It was hard at the beginning when I didn't have any experience at all in front of the camera. I was learning the job, the place, the people, all at the same time. Ideally, I would like a full-time contract, and I'd love to try different shows, but ultimately I want to end up in the newsroom. That's the objective."

Fiona recently went for an interview with the newsroom at TG4. "They were looking for a panel of news coordinators. I got a place on the panel, but I haven't started training yet," she says, adding, "but once I get my foot in the door, we'll see . . ."

Fiona is bringing her daughter up to speak Irish as much as possible, but admits that it is harder now.

"Irish was always a part of my life, without thinking about it. When we were kids, we didn't really learn English until we were four and went to school. We had cousins from the States and when they came over we'd try to speak English to them, but it was pretty broken.

"Now, there's more media for Niamh's age, so even though we exclusively speak Irish to her, as does everyone around her, she's more exposed to English than we were. I guess these days, kids are more exposed to everything than we were," she laughs.

She has, she says, "always been into make-up. I wouldn't leave the house without it; since I was a teenager I've always worn it. I suppose you do make more of an effort when you're on TV, but in terms of pressure, I don't think there's quite as much pressure on women here. I think in Ireland, the women on TV are just naturally quite beautiful. They don't need to enhance their looks. Sometimes people will come up to me and say, 'You do a great job,' and they compliment my Irish. It's not all about how you look."

Caitlin Nic Aoidh

Hailing from Cloughaneely, northwest Donegal, Caitlin Nic Aoidh is one of the new faces of TG4's weather service.

The youngest of four, Caitlin (26) studied at Maynooth, where she did a degree and then a master's in Irish, then moved to Galway to teach in a secondary school. "It just happened that I landed a job in here [TG4]," she says, clearly still brimming over with the excitement of success.

"Last year there was a general call-out and I sent in a CV and a showreel, and I was lucky enough to get called to interview and lucky enough to get the job."

That, however, wasn't her first brush with the station or the medium. "About four years ago, I did a training course with TG4. Before that, I had no interest in being in media. I didn't see myself working in the industry at all.

"But TG4 travelled around and they did screen tests and they chose 10 to train. It was sort of like a taster of all the different things - sport, current affairs, continuity, kids' programmes, light entertainment. I really enjoyed it, and I knew from then on that was what I wanted to do. And when a job arose, I had to put my name in the hat."

The way it works for Caitlin is she is part of a panel of four, who cover for the full-time weather presenters when they are on holiday, or off working on other programmes.

"It can be a long day if I'm doing weather and continuity," she says. "We're in early in the morning and go live at 1pm, so there is make-up to do, hair, pre-records for later, pieces to camera for continuity. I had a very busy summer," Caitlin laughs. "Which was great. And it's all very rewarding - when we get good weather is the best; the hardest part is definitely giving the bad weather. My hope is to continue on working for TG4, and to end up presenting one of the shows - probably lifestyle, maybe music."

It's not an unlikely ambition. Caitlin is a trad musician and plays the flute. "I sing a little as well," she admits, "and in the past I spent a lot of time in bands. What with college and work, recently I haven't been home every weekend to practise, but I still join the odd gig here and there."

"Some people might think people in media should look a certain way," she says, "but I believe very few people actually think like that. I feel I got this job because of my abilities, because I grew up speaking Irish at home. From birth on, we were immersed in the language, all my cousins and aunties and uncles speak Irish as well. I love our language and so I'd just like to continue using it, whether I'm teaching, or here presenting.

"I'm here to represent the Donegal dialect. The fact that I've done a degree, and a master's as well, that probably stood to me. I certainly wouldn't consider myself a celebrity," she laughs heartily. "You'll get recognised, sometimes people stop and stare because they don't know where they know you from, but no, I'm far from being any kind of celebrity."

Caitlin's passion for the language of her childhood and country is very obvious. "I think as a nation we're doing our fair bit to encourage Irish, but sometimes I feel that students in school just feel they need to pass it to get to third level, and it's not until they leave school, and leave the country, that they really appreciate it. I have friends who have been away and have been inspired by that, to sit down and learn Irish properly. They go away and they see that all these other countries have their own language, and they realise they don't know how to speak theirs. I'd love if we could encourage students to speak Irish, not just write it, because that will make a difference to the way they think about it; they will become more fluent, although it will be a while before we see the effects."

Personally, Caitlin says that she feels more comfortable presenting in Irish - "it's my native language" - and is a huge supporter of TG4's commitment. "You can turn on the TV and TG4 will be broadcasting from the morning, straight through - children's programmes, teenagers, lifestyle, drama, music; it's absolutely alive."

And she has begun to notice plenty of feedback on what may seem a most unlikely medium - Twitter. "People are talking about the shows with the hashtag #gaeilgechat, which is great to see. Social media is definitely helping the Irish language; it's fantastic."

Does she feel there is a divide between rural and urban Ireland? And if so, is she conscious of any neglect of the countryside?

"I don't feel like the people here feel left out at all," she insists. "There's a lot happening in Dublin; it is the capital, and there is more breaking news there than in other parts of Ireland.

"But we focus on the rural side of Ireland as well - TG4 features stories from each area, and I feel that rural news is constantly covered here."

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Assisted by Claire O'Farrell

Hair by Leona Flanagan and Fiona Marley, Peter Mark, Terryland, Galway, tel: (091) 567-005

Make-up by Roisin Derrane, Twitter @MakeupuRoisin, using the Clarins spring collection. All products available in Clarins stockists nationwide, stores and pharmacies

Photographed at Glenlo Abbey Hotel, Galway, tel: (091) 526-666, or see

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