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In a league of her own, Jacqui Hurley on her phenomenal career as RTE’s record breaking sports presenter and bestselling children’s author

In a league of her own, Jacqui Hurley on her phenomenal career as RTE’s record breaking sports presenter and bestselling children’s author

Jacqui can you tell us a little about your early life and what developed your passion for sports?

Well I actually spent a lot of my early life in Australia, my early memories were more or less formed there. We moved when I was 3 and lived there for 7 years so those formative primary school years were spent in Canberra in Australia. I guess the love of it really started because in Australia they just really love sport they really do, everything is set up for the outdoors, the children have so much opportunities to play lots of different things. So for me the real love of it probably started there with just my Mom and Dad kind of throwing us into everything from little athletics to netball to soccer, whatever was going really we just played loads of sport. When we moved back to Ireland it was really just continuing that, as soon as we got home they looked into the first sports clubs that we could join. I think because my Mam and Dad were into it as well they recognised that sport is what helps kids to make friends and for us I think they were just trying to help us settle in to a new environment and they knew that we were sporty so they kind of thought that maybe if we can get them playing sport they’ll make friends with the local kids and it was definitely a good decision because I think that’s what mainly helped with the transition.

In rural Ireland GAA clubs care often the heart of the community and not just the kids but the social aspect for the parents too, do you find that is still prevalent today?

Oh absolutely, my parents are very outgoing and friendly people but having spent 7 years away, and this was in the 90’s in Ireland when people didn’t just fly in and out the way they do now, they really realised they needed to immerse themselves to make new friends. The GAA club was the most central point of their lives and still is today, they still regularly go to matches my father was involved as chairman of the club and we were always just really invested in the community in Ballinhassig. A lot of that was them realising that this was going to be our social outlet as well and it was a no brainer to them, it was who they are and exactly what they were going to do. I just think in every rural community yes, GAA is the heart and focal point.

Did you feel upon your return to Ireland that there were as much opportunities here for girls in sports in comparison to Australia?

It’s a funny one because our GAA club in Ballinhassig there was always a camogie team, we didn’t have a lady’s football team but there were teams for us to play on. I went to an all-girls school in Bandon and we had a huge sports program available, there was so many options. So we probably didn’t really see it in the same way that some of my friends did and their experiences might have been very different where they went to different schools and just didn’t have the same access. Whereas I think with our family, because my parents were into it they actively sought sports for girls and I’ve got an older sister and a younger brother, so because my sister was the first in the family she was the one that really found it. She was and still is really good at sport, she was very athletic and even made the Irish basketball team so then I wanted to play and I wanted to follow in her footsteps, so to me there was never a barrier.

Did you find your chosen career was always going to be in sports and media based?

Yes, it’s funny because probably in my head I always wanted to work in sport it was just about finding the right job and I was always fascinated with the media. My parents would have said when I was younger I walked around holding a pretend television screen doing the match reports so it probably was in some way destined for me. But there is a huge difference between wanting to do something and actually making it happen for yourself as well, when I went off and did my internship in America I was working in the newsroom and I was very open to working in news or entertainment. To me I think sport was always the biggest hobby I ever had and I felt if I could combine the two I’d have the perfect job but it’s not always straight forward. Getting there can take time and for me it was once I realised that it worked for me then I was focused on following through with it and just giving myself the best opportunity to get the job but I probably equally could have ended up in news and been just as happy but gladly sport kind of chose me in a way. Sometimes I think our paths are laid out for us? I had an opportunity when I started out in RTE, I used to do a sports round up on a show called TTV, at the time I had auditioned for the job I had sent in a tape because they were looking for contributors, Teresa Smith was the producer of the program she rang me for an audition, she said “Listen, we think you’re great, we would love you to do one of the contributor slots it’s your decision, so would you like to do the sports or the entertainment/celebrity”? I said I would take sport and she asked why I would choose sport? Even at the time, I was only 21, I remember saying I felt like there was a longevity in sport that I could do lots of different things. I still feel like that was the right decision for me, it was almost like a sliding doors moment.

Historically in Ireland progress has been slow to evolve, but in 2009 you made history by becoming the first ever Female presenter on Sunday Sport, how did that feel for you?

At the time I didn’t know I was the first woman until interviews when they were announcing my appointment, journalists started asking me how it felt to be the first Female presenter? I was like “Oh wow, really?” But of course I was because I had listened to that show when I was growing up and there were never any women on it but it just hadn’t dawned on me? But at the time it wasn’t actually that important to me, I was more worried that I would be the youngest presenter of the show and more worried I would make a mess of it! Being the first woman wasn’t daunting at all I just thought I had a job that I was going to really enjoy. But looking back now I understand how important it was and I think now I’m incredibly proud of it, being the first you hope there’ll be plenty more after you and they will say Jacqui was the first, it’s a lovely accolade to have. It gives me immense pride and I like to think in the time since then it has evolved even more, if you look around the landscape of Irish media even just within sport you’ve got Joanne Cantwell, Sinead Kissane, Marie Crowe all very visible on your screens on a regular basis. In addition to them you’ve also got Female pundits such as Ursula Jacob, Anna Geary, Aoife Sheehan so you see these women and it’s no longer beyond the realms of normality anymore to throw on your TV and see them doing that and its similar across the water in England where you see lots of Female pundits doing soccer now which I think is great but if you look at the landscape and see the likes of Sarah McInerney, Claire Byrne, Miriam O Callaghan, Mary Wilson there is loads of really prominent Females out there now in the mainstream media which I think it’s a really good thing. It seems to me, in particular the last 10 years, there’s been a realisation that the picture needs to reflect reality. My boss has a saying that if you’re watching the television and it doesn’t look like your living room then you’ve got a problem, and he’s right, your TV screen shouldn’t be all 60-year-old men, it should be a diverse society that looks like you’re walking down the street and see lots of different people.

Can you tell us about your involvement in the 20×20 campaign?

I loved it, I have to say it was the first campaign that I really think captured the whole of society and not just the women in sports society. Sometimes there is a difficulty for the people who are shouting about trying to more access for women in sport that sometimes that voice can become marginalised, you can feel like you’re shouting and nobody is listening, whereas with the 20×20 campaign what they did was they turned it on its head. They put it out to society and allowed everybody in and I do think that that’s the best part about it, none of us want to be feeling like you’re forcing something on people that they don’t want. I think with 20×20 they tried to show that there is room for everybody at the table, all you have to do is make a small commitment to help and with your small actions it can create a very big difference. I thought the whole thing was overwhelmingly positive, first and foremost they managed to get big companies on board who agreed to back it, then big names that jumped into it such as Brian O Driscoll, Paul O Connell speaking so well about women in sport I think it makes a real difference and I know some people feel that the dads with their daughters are coming so late to this, I don’t care how late you come to the party it’s that you come. I really feel like if we are going to change the future it’s going to take a lot more people that just that one small voice of people who are interested in women’s sport because over the last 15 years the growth levels of female sports in general and those who follow them have grown on huge multiples. So hopefully those numbers will multiply and 20×20

has done that by bringing everybody in, giving everyone a voice and personally, in my opinion, its probably the most impactful campaign we’ve ever seen in Ireland.

With your books “Girls Play Too” were did the idea come from and how was it received in the publishing world?

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It’s funny now because no I can look back and see that it’s been so successful but at the time you have an idea and you think it’s a great idea but you’ve no idea what others will think? So I suppose with 20×20 one of the things they looked for was for people to make a pledge to help change the landscape and for me there was no point in pledging to go to more female matches because I already do that. I wanted to do something that was going to push me out of my comfort zone and do something tangible that might genuinely have an impact on the future generations. To me a book was always something that I had floated around in my head and when they asked people to make a pledged, I thought do you know what? I’m going to pledge to write this book and I’m going to do this because I really believe that this could be the book that’s going to give kids a real chance at learning about their icons in a sporting sense that we didn’t have growing up. I had a moment at the Zoo with my son Luke who was 5 and his friend Ivanna who was 7 and I overheard a conversation with them that genuinely broke my heart. The two of them were chatting and debating who was better, boys or girls? I heard Ivanna say to Luke “Do you know what? You’re right, boys are better than girls” I said Ivanna why do you think that? She said “Because their matches are on the television” I thought how has society thought a 7-year-old girl that this is how we judge who is better? And I tried to tell her that boys and girls are equal but there was a part of me that she’s kind of right, this is what she has learned so I thought we need to do something about this. So I wanted her to have a book in her hand with sports icons that she could aspire to be and the greatest thing is that the book isn’t just for girls, my son is 7 now and he loved reading it about the girls that had been recently successful such as Leona Maguire, Katie Taylor, Niamh McCrystal, Katie George Dunleavy and Ellen Keane. When Rachel Blackmore won the Cheltenham Gold cup, the amount of messages I got from parents, school teachers just saying thank you for making her accessible to kids and Rachel said that to me herself. It’s as simple as putting it in print and showing them what they can be and achieve. The success has just blown me away. I want to ensure my daughter Lily is given the same opportunities in life as her brother Luke because that’s how I was raised.

You talk with great pride about your family, can you tell us how the last 18 months has impacted your family life.

There were lots of positives with lots of family time, to all be at home together, plenty of laughs!

There were stresses such as my husband Shane working from home and I largely stayed working because we were doing the news. I worked some day at home but mostly in the office so the struggle for him was very much harder for him in terms of having the kids at home whilst he worked and that is very hard. The positives definitely outweighed the negatives. As a family we were happy to see them return to school in September and knowing we were coming out the other side of it. It makes you revaluate everything; the perspective it gives. We recognised we were really busy and needed to take a step back and enjoy the simple things. As adults sometimes we spend our time chasing our tales so its recognising when we need down time and taking it.

And finally, what are your hopes career wise over the next few years?

The book, in a way a three book series would be fabulous. Really it will see how the second book sells and the impact that it has. If I felt people wanted more of it then that would be lovely. The other thing that just gnaws away in the back of my mind is that I would like to do a boy’s book. My son asks all the time why there isn’t one and he’s right, if were trying to show kids equality it would be lovely to do Boys Play Too. The publishers have been amazing throughout the entire process and they would love for it to continue as would I. For the sports, RTE have just taken on the United Rugby Cup coverage and I will be doing that so it’s just been a dream come true, it’s been a really good year.

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