TG20 - toasting two decades of TG4 with the channel's biggest stars
There will be magic in the air in Connemara this Halloween night, as TG4 celebrates 20 years on air. Here, our reporter meets some of the stars, both past and present, who helped make the station a success
Watching that rare breed, Gaeilgeoirí, shoot the cover of Weekend, you learn a thing or two about Irish. First, there actually are people out there who speak Ireland's struggling first language. The camera snaps, four women shout, "Tá sé an deis", "Cailín bocht!", "Slán a leanbh!"
But they're running out of Irish words. "Fan mé selfie, le do thoil," says Síle Seoige, and they all pack behind an iPhone. "Tá sé go hálainn." "Actually, tá sé kinda blurred." "Féach, jeepers!" The national tongue is mangled up with Facebook English.
And yet, you learn, Irish is still their little secret. Between the cailíni's fixing of straps and pushing up hairdos, Gráinne Seoige says something that is apparently the most hilarious thing anyone has ever said. Howls of laughter blare out. But no one will tell me what it means.
"No, no, no - it's just a Connemara girl thing." Oh? "No, we couldn't tell you. That wouldn't be fair on her." Oh.
Thankfully, the bilinguals at this reunion are uncommonly warm and interesting. They are genuinely passionate about Irish, and keen to talk at length about the TV station that launched their careers.
Just as TG4 made them, they made it, as the minority Irish speakers charged with convincing the rest of the country that their language was not for fogeys.
Did they succeed? Today the station has a daily reach of up to 500,000 viewers - the seventh most watched channel in Irish homes. It hasn't exactly hit big time, but it has survived admirably. For this writer - a Junior Cert Irish fail - it is impossible to leave the company of TG4's personalities without believing that the station has done a lot of good in the 20 years since it pitched itself, unsteadily at first, into our living rooms.
Then called Teilifís na Gaeilge, the channel launched on Halloween Night of 1996. From brand new headquarters carved into the rock in beautiful Baile na hAbhann, Connemara, there were fireworks, a bonfire, and performances from cool Irish speakers, the Hothouse Flowers and Macnas.
President Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins welcomed in a new era on the first news broadcast. Máire Geoghegan Quinn and Michael D had been chief among the politicians who had campaigned for a decade to establish the State-funded Irish language channel. The Welsh channel S4C was their proof it could work. "The feeling was, if Britain can do it, why can't we?" recalls the station's deputy chief executive, Pádhraic Ó Ciardha.
That first night, sharp, lovely-looking young presenters read the news before a specially commissioned film was aired - Draoícht, written by and starring Gabriel Byrne. Irish, with its craggy schoolteachers, schoolbooks and dull officialdom, had a new face: young, vibrant, even a little exotic.
Gráinne Seoige was among the team reporting the news that night. "There was pandemonium," she remembers. "Technologically, it was only just coming together. The floor tiles were all ripped up and we were hopping over wires. The foundations of the building were being built, the computers were coming out of the boxes, everything was getting plugged in."
A native of An Spidéal, Gráinne was 22. She had a two-year-old son and a Master's degree in Irish language communications. There could not have been a more plum spot in which to land her first job in broadcasting, just eight miles from where she grew up. The pressure she felt was of the best kind: "I felt a weight of my people. Of not letting them down.
"I remember the satisfaction when we finished the bulletin. Cathal Goan [the first director general] bursting into the studio. He's like a bear of a man. He just grabbed myself and Gillian [Ní Cheallaigh] the other anchor, and swept us up in a huge hug and said, 'Tá mé cho bródúil' - I'm so proud. It was wonderful."
In Gráinne's Gaeltacht community, where two channels were the norm, the excitement was unqualified. "The media was very Dublin-centric at the time. It was Donnybrook, Dublin 4 - that's where you went for your television. Now, we're used to having TG4 and TV3 and UTV Ireland, people have a lot of options."
Outside Irish-speaking parts, however, critics of TG4 were many and vocal. "We had some very unkind reviews," remembers Pádhraic.
"There were some people who were sceptical and some people who were downright hostile. I think people had an idea that this was going to be full of old people talking about old times, and very traditional and rural and inward-looking."
Matters weren't helped when at first, due to early transmission problems, the picture didn't reach about half of Irish TV screens around the country, or showed up with poor reception. In my own Dublin-centric household, the feeling for TG4 was of suspicion. Irish was a grey and dying part of life, a dreaded exam subject. A friend, however, remembers October 1996 as the moment her parents allowed her to put a TV in the kitchen. Sitting in front of the box was suddenly educational. Her father says that the station restarted his interest in the Irish he was beginning to forget.
Some enjoyed criticising the station - and still do - for its hand-picked female presenters. How important a consideration are looks when hiring in TG4? "Television is about appearance. You don't hire TV presenters for their grammatical complexity, it is a visual medium," says Pádhraic. "So I'd be telling a lie if I said, 'No, no, we completely ignore people's appearances'."
He is very proud of the past 20 years, which has seen TnaG rebrand itself as TG4 to get on the cable map, and in 2011, gain independence from RTÉ. TG4's philosophy of 'súil eile' - another eye - which was Pádhraic's coinage, seems to have worked its way into the programming at TG4. There were eccentric dating shows like Paisean Faisean, the anarchic travel shows of Hector; its early comedy, such as C.U. Burn about an undertaker business, which this newspaper's TV critic John Boland described in 1997 as "a home-produced comedy that is ingeniously plotted, cleverly scripted, well acted and very funny".
TG4 was the first to broadcast so-called "ladies' football" and offer wide coverage of GAA, including its popular All-Ireland Gold, replays of historic matches. With children's programmes on Cúla4 six hours a day and its long-lasting soap, Ros na Rún, it is constantly creating new content in a language which even its deputy chief executive admits is "in decline".
Though some are still surprised that so much of the programming was in English (for cost reasons, only 60pc per day is in Irish), it has at least managed to compete in English. TG4 bought The Wire, Breaking Bad and Borgen before other Irish stations caught on, and its documentaries are considered the best Irish television has to offer.
Now, with a new director, Scotsman Alan Esslemont, TG4 heads into the uncertain digital future that all traditional media face. The birthday itself will be marked with a special broadcast themed 'Passing the Torch', which will feature the best of Irish talent mixed with characters created specially for the night, as well as an address from President Higgins.
It's a bold statement of its future ambitions, but TG4 confronts the double challenge of not just attracting viewers, but attracting viewers to Irish language programmes. Even the presenters that spoke to Weekend admitted they rarely watch TV. Just a Connemara girl thing? We might all have something in common.
TG4's 20th birthday party, 'TG4XX Beo', will broadcast live from 9.30pm to 11.30pm on October 31
Mairéad Ní Chuaig (2005 - present)
Twenty years ago, 'weather girl' Mairéad Ní Chuaig was a young teen, sitting with her Irish-speaking family in Connemara, watching the launch of the new TV station that spoke her language.
"Because it was Halloween night, there was something slightly mythical about the event. It wasn't a polished party. It was a wild Connemara party." Her father, Micheál Ó Cuaig, is an Irish language poet, her mother, also called Mairéad, an actress and producer, both "very passionate about the arts, the culture, the language".
"My own love of the language goes beyond trying to find career prospects. It's something that's in you, it's do theanga dúchas fhéin." However, she says, "Before TG4, you couldn't visualise that if you had an interest in broadcasting that you would be able to do it in your own language."
At 15, she was inside TG4 doing short reviews of children's movies. Having been to university, trained as an actress, worked as a bartender and at check-in at Dublin airport, Mairéad got a job in weather and continuity - her job to announce the next programme, or keep people glued. She recalls "A wonderful, welcoming atmosphere" in her first days. "It felt like an extremely exciting, progressive place to be. It's still constantly evolving."
In TG4, she says, "They always encouraged your personality to come across. That's why you have such a collection of colourful people - Gráinne, Hector, Daithí Ó Sé. I was told: 'We love your personality, we want your personality to come across on the weather.'" She came to present her own shows, including Paisean Faisean and her current travelogue, Wwoofáil, visiting organic farms around the world.
"We've gone all over Europe, Morocco, California, and we're just back from Australia. We're going to Thailand soon in our fourth season. I just couldn't be more proud. It's a dream come true really, performing, presenting as Gaeilge."
Mairéad Ní Chuaig and Siún Nic Gearailt
Siún Nic Gearailt (1996 - 2003)
From the Irish-speaking village of Feothanach in west Kerry, Siún Nic Gearailt was part of TG4's first team. "That summer, around 17 aspiring journalists were brought together in a building in the Connemara Gaeltacht. No one knew what to expect. The boss, however, Michael Lally, had a plan. Part of that plan was to train and to groom each and every one of us for the widely anticipated launch of Ireland's first Irish language station. We had three months to prepare. To say the least, it was an exciting time. We were all in our early 20s. I, for one, was delighted just to have a job."
During a tense training period they were given mock news reports and even homework. "We were treated to the crème de la crème of teachers brought in from RTÉ - Seán O'Rourke, Charlie Bird. To this day Seán's tips come to mind when I'm preparing for interviews. No, I'm not sharing any!"
She remembers the first bulletin she sent out on October 31, 1996, on the impending demolition of the Rahoon flats.
Her start at TG4 took her to RTÉ where she works as a newscaster through Irish for Nuacht.
She still thinks with a 'súil eile' every day she is reading the news. "TG4 wanted to give a different view, a different perspective. We tried to approach news in a different way, and focus on the human interest side of a story, as opposed to the 'hard' part. We cover hard news stories, but it's important to remember that there's a person behind the story." She is very proud to have delivered breaking stories over Ireland's "turbulent years, from wealth and prosperity to economic depression."
"I love what I do. I'm happiest waiting for the chaos to turn to calm - that's what happens in a newsroom. First, you hear 10, 9, 8, and then you hear 3, 2 - and then you're on."
Gráinne (1996 - 1998) and Síle Seoige (1998 - present)
Síle Seoige was a 17-year-old schoolgirl the night TnaG launched. Her older sister Gráinne was in the studios reporting the news. Síle was at the party outside, "dressed in a medieval dress. We were dancing, and prancing, and laughing, and running around the bonfire." Two years later she found herself with her own show, Hollywood Anocht, interviewing Meryl Streep and various stars. "The whole year was a bit mad. It was a cocktail of terror, and excitement, and 'What the hell's going on?'
"My first ever gig, there was no rehearsal. In the beginning it's terrifying. You're really, really, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone getting in front of a camera. I feel very lucky that I have Irish. If I didn't have Irish, I'm not sure I'd be working in the TV industry today."
Having worked across all the main stations in Ireland, she says of TG4, "It's a small hub. Everybody knows everybody, there's no sense of hierarchy. You could sit down with the head of the station and have a cup of tea and a chat. There is no pretentiousness.
"Based in Connemara, away from the capital, you had to fight against the grain to be seen and be heard. To break through the stereotype that if you're speaking Irish you must be wearing tweed and eating turf.
"We showcased what the Irish language is - it's contemporary, it's live, it's vibrant, it's very much part of people's lives living in Gaeltacht areas. It's our heritage, and something I'm really proud of."
She has since presented an assortment of television - from children's programmes for Cúla4 to fashion, dating, comedy, music shows and Oireachtas TV - and radio. She has qualified as a yoga teacher (with a special interest in chanting) and made her acting debut in I, Keano on the Olympia stage.
Sile Seoige was 19 when she started at TG4
Gráinne, from her beginnings as a newscaster with a tiny Irish language TV station, went on to work for several major broadcasters. "My career went TG4, TV3, Sky News. Then, I was with RTÉ, and ITV Breakfast, and BBC One. Without TG4 and that grounding, I couldn't have gone anywhere else." (Alongside her broadcasting career, she has also recently become a gemologist and launched her own line, Grace Diamonds.)
She remembers something the late journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman wrote about the Irish language - "That the image he had was of old men with beards and leather patches on the elbows of their jackets. All of a sudden there was all these young people speaking Irish. It was vibrant, it was fresh, it was contemporary - that image really flipped, didn't it?"
Hector Ó hEochagáin (1996 - present)
Travel guerrilla Hector Ó hEochagáin was teaching English in the Basque Country when he heard about a new Irish language TV station. Brought up in Navan, he had spent summers in the Gaeltacht. He sent in his CV, and was invited to Connemara for a screen test, where, "I spoke about fake tan as Gaeilge in front of the camera for about three minutes, how it doesn't really suit redheads". That led to presenting the fashion programme Iomha (Image), which was "absolutely terrible. It was cringy." The programme was axed after four months, and Hector went on the dole.
Then in 2000 Hector started the travel programme Amú, interviewing Irish speakers around the world. "In America, they saw the fun I was having in between the shoot, on the street, and they said, why don't we let this guy do his own show, just travelling round?"
"Everybody needs a break, and a bit of luck. TG4 gave me my break, way back in the day." Now, 105 programmes later Hector has been to 85 countries, won four IFTAs, and appeared on the Junior and Leaving Cert exam papers.
He has filmed inside the Playboy mansion in LA, discussing scannan gorm (blue movies) with Hugh Heffner. "I got away with stuff because I spoke Irish to the camera." He has travelled from the Pyramids in Egypt over Table Mountain in Cape Town into Ethiopia. He got married in Rio after a stag night in the Amazon. He has just returned from Central America and some "hairy moments" in Honduras (Hector Central airs on November 3).
"I'm very proud of my journey," says Hector. "I've gone on to do other stuff [slots on 2FM and his latest show, Hector's Sunday Sitting Room on Today FM] but my heart is always with TG4. There's a family feeling inside there. There's a nice connection between the TV station and the independent producers. You don't get that in RTÉ.
"You will always have the people that will knock it, that say, 'TG4 is a load of s****, I don't speak Irish, why do we need it, it's a waste of money'. Some people don't like maths, some people don't like celery, some people don't like Hector. That's the way life is."
Explorer: Hector's travel show, Hector Amu
Irial Ó Ceallaigh (2013 - present)
From An Rinn in Waterford, "weather boy" Irial Ó Ceallaigh was working in the Department of Justice when TG4's head of programming spotted him singing Sean Nós. "I had never applied for TV, never thought of working in the media." Three years on, he is a familiar face on the station, saying the words "mixed weather" and "wind" in Irish several times a day. Behind the scenes, the young reporter works hard to promote TG4 on online platforms Facebook Live, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.
"A lot of people aren't watching [terrestrial] TV any more, especially the younger generation. And as a service provider in Ireland, it's really important that we get ourselves across to that younger audience."
He likes that people can engage and comment on programmes this way in their broken Irish. "On Snapchat, people come on and speak in Irish. They enjoy it, there's no one correcting your grammar, or saying you have exams to study for."
He hadn't imagined himself at 28, living in Galway with a drive to work that takes 25 minutes of country road "depending on how many mammals and cyclists you get stuck behind". But the location is vital to what the station does, he believes.
"The reason TG4 is out there is because you pick up the culture of the Gaeltacht - you're out in the wilds and you can't escape it. The cleaners, the people in the canteen, the security staff, they're all Irish speakers, and that makes a huge difference."
As for any career ambitions to move beyond his current post, he says: "People think that RTÉ is the progression. But for me as an Irish speaker who sings Sean Nós and plays trad and loves rugby, hurling, football, history, documentaries - I really couldn't be more suited to the station here."
He is glad TG4 is getting some exposure for its 20-year celebrations. "We don't have a lot of people who stand up for us. There's always a lot of negative stuff. You see it online - fellas saying 'Why are they showing rugby in Irish, can't understand a word of this'. But others say they learn a few words watching it."
Páidí Ó Lionáird and Irial Ó Ceallaigh
Páidí Ó Lionáird (1997 - present)
Seacht Lá current affairs anchor Páidí Ó Lionáird was brought up in the Cork Gaeltacht, one of 12 children, and "had no English until I went to school." In 1997 he was working as a stonemason and training to be a primary school teacher when TnaG offered him a screen-test.
His only experience of broadcasting was from singing with the Coolea choir: "It wasn't on my radar." But, "I was five years married with a five-year-old son, so thought to myself, it's time to pull your act together and cop on, young man."
The screen test led to his moving to Dingle to present a light programme, Seo Bothar. Since then, "I've worked all the way through. Everything from TG4's take on blind dates to my current weekly slot on TG4, Seacht Lá, and the Tour de France in the summer.
The man for the job: Páidi Ó Lionáird in the early days of TG4
"I believe in the project, I believe in what we do. I've made my life here, I really like what I spend my time doing from Monday to Friday, my news editing and my presenting for Seacht Lá.
"It's a very dynamic place. It's got a staff of about 80 people who are very dedicated, very creative. Our budgets for programme-making are certainly not as generous as other broadcasters. There is a marvellous can-do attitude - if we can't figure that out now we'll figure it out in the next half hour. I've seldom, if ever, heard the word 'no' in here."
He and his family live in the Gaeltacht area of Inverin near An Spidéal, six miles from the station's HQ. "I still think it's quite wonderful that I can not only earn my living through the medium of Irish but I can pretty much do all my day-to-day business, banking, shopping, socialising, from morning to night, through Irish."
Of his Gaelgóir community, he says, "We don't make any big deal about the language aspect. We don't look in the mirror and say, 'Oh, we're Irish speakers'. I think we can blend with every aspect of Irish society at any level. I think we're just happy with our lot here."