by Evanne Ni Chuilinn.
You never really know what’s going on in the lives of others.
I did an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan a few months ago. The master of making people cry live on air. She’s just so good at gently pushing the right buttons. We were talking about my brother Cormac’s suicide in October 2013 but somehow I didn’t well up. I’m still amazed, especially when she read out the text messages.
Cormac was two years younger than me so we did everything together growing up. Poor fella didn’t have the same hunger for competitive sport as his sister who was mad keen for tennis, swimming, camogie, football, athletics… you name it, I was always raring to go.
But we were really close. My sister Áine is six years younger, so she was stuck to Mammy’s leg while we were blackguarding about the place, climbing trees or bales of hay.
It was a lovely childhood but Cormac got very unhappy very young. We tried to help him, we really did and being in the cocoon of our family brought him out of his own head but once substance abuse became a factor it became increasingly difficult to save him.
Drugs ravaged his personality. From the age of 15 until his death at 29 he was on a downward spiral. It was slow process, agonising to watch.
I’ll never forget my first week in DCU. Like any teenager I wanted freedom – I escaped up to Dublin yet every Wednesday I had to return home to Kilkenny for family therapy. I resented this constant interruption of my new life – having to go home to talk about my feelings because my brother wasn’t well.
It’s okay to feel that way.
There was turmoil at home throughout the early years of my career in RTÉ, horrific scenes at times, but how do you talk about this? To do so publicly would only have upset Cormac. When I did finally speak about everything, after he died, people can’t have realised there is 15 years of silent suffering that must be addressed in order to heal.
Cormac came from the same upbringing as me – same loving parents who created a fairly middle of the road family, both teachers down in Kilkenny, living in comfortable suburbia.
Yet Cormac died of a heroin overdose.
How do you explain that?
But talking about it helps. It really does.
I’d have a fairly good understanding of addiction without ever suffering from substance abuse. Every family member of a drug addict is affected.
Sometimes I meet people who do not know they are addicts, they do not realise they have that type of personality or how susceptible they are to spiralling out of control. You can sense the insecurity. That makes me really sad as I’d see a part of Cormac in them. There is very little you can do but wish them well.
That’s why I spoke out about this. I didn’t have to. I didn’t particularly want to because it’s not my story, it’s Cormac’s story.
A few years after he died Pieta House asked me to get involved and I wasn’t ready. His five year anniversary is coming up soon. I’m able to get involved now, able to help out whatever way I can.
It’s still a little weird – like, why am I being photographed for a magazine? Is it because my brother committed suicide?
You never fully heal.
He was a great fella, a big softy, a gentle giant who wasn’t able for this harsh world.
I am from Kilkenny, just outside the city, Kells road, grew up there with my family. When I was 19 I only went and discovered I’m really from Tipperary stock! The town of Ballyporeen.
I always knew I was adopted. It wasn’t a secret. Mary was 19 when she had me. We knew she would want to meet me as she always sent birthday cards and Dad would write her a letter every January letting her know how I was getting on in school, basketball, camogie, dancing.
So, after my leaving cert, I sought her out.
I’ve been very fortunate on a few levels. Other people born in a mother and baby home have not been so blessed in life. For starters, Mary and I have a good relationship – another babysitter! – but equally important was the fact my parents weren’t upset by the decision to trace my birth mother.
They understood the curiosity. Little things. Turns out Mary, like me, was really sporty and she’s tall.
As we know now, 1981 wasn’t a great time to be having a child in rural Ireland outside of wedlock.
This sounds like ancient history to people living in “modern Ireland” but I’m only 36. It’s been enormously traumatic for young girls and women, of my generation, of our generation.
It really hit home when I had Séimí, my son, because I don’t know where I was or who I was with for the first four months of my life. I get upset just thinking about Séimí or Peigi ever being alone. Thankfully we have family around all the time. Including Mary.
Really, I appreciate the selfless actions of my parents to let me investigate my past, or my beginnings I suppose. They would be forgiven for not letting me do that but that’s just the sort of people they are. Like, when I was working at the recent European championships in Glasgow, Mum took the kids for a few days in Kilkenny before driving them over to stay with Mary.
It’s a very cohesive family!
Before RTÉ, modern dance nearly became my career choice. I was good. Well, I was flexible and could express myself as a dancer. What swung a move to England towards a Communications degree was a teacher pulling me aside, “Evanne, ‘Cats’ on Broadway is a realistic dream but know that it takes about 10 years serving your time on a cruise ship – earning tips and eating nothing – before that opportunity comes around”.
Ah here. Eating and modern dance don’t really mix, especially for tall people.
I also played clarinet. Again, it was the beginning of something special until I had my head turned by broadcast news.
The initial plan was to do sports journalism through Irish. The Underdogs reality TV show was just starting and I got work placement with Adare Productions from my postgraduate in journalism.
Right place, right time I guess.
It was 2004, the Olympics was about to start in Athens, so I wrote letters to RTÉ seeking a researcher job.
I was helping out behind the scenes the day Wexford beat Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final, when Brian Cody collapsed behind the goal – yes, he was standing beside the umpires at the Canal End and he just flopped onto the pitch in pure anguish when Michael Jacob stole that goal.
I must have made similar a noise to Cody because Glen Killane – then head of sport – turned to me,
”You have to not care when something like that happens
I understood what he meant.
The Underdogs was great fun – it was the team that discovered Kieran Donaghy, Pearse O’Neill and Tyrone’s Eoin Bradley.
Donaghy and O’Neill in midfield ensured they beat Kerry after extra time in Austin Stacks Park in Tralee. That was the accumulation of six months filming (and training) so you’d get to know the boys really well. They all had a back story, it being a TV show, with Donaghy speaking so well about his family and Tyrone father.
The production staff got to witness a real bond develop that still exists today.
Donaghy was more basketballer than footballer at the time but The Underdogs catapulted him into the Kerry panel. He really did have star quality. Mickey Ned O’Sullivan was coaching the team and even he was impressed.
That wasn’t my break in sports journalism. It was more of a gradual progression. Luckily, I never left RTÉ after my first day shot-listing Olympic weight lifting so the sub editor could cut it into a highlights package. Eventually I became the sub editor, the Sunday Game being my bread and butter for about three years before I got near a microphone.
I’d sit in the Outside Broadcast truck putting the analysis and post match interviews together. There were plenty of opportunities as we had live Heineken Cup, Premier League, the Champions League, Formula 1, boxing and all the GAA – we had so much sport and each show needed sub editors. I was flat out, working every day, every weekend, getting loads of experience behind the scenes.
I became a sponge. It never felt like a job. Non stop but loved it.
Eventually I was told to get out of the truck and speak to supporters – the vox pop – before and after matches. Put a bit of colour on the screen.
RTÉ looked like a male dominated environment from the viewers perspective but behind the scenes a lot of producers, directors and BCOs were women – Margaret Bennett was directing, Cliona O’Leary was a programme editor (now deputy head of sport), and so was Paula Fahy. In fact all the BCO broadcast co-ordinators were women. It was at least 50/50 in the office.
I eventually got comfortable presenting News on Two. It never had a massive audience so it was a really safe place to make mistakes and learn but that’s when I realised I’m not just filling in for someone else, this is my job and I have enough experience to become good at it.
Nowadays – by no grand design – I’ve found a niche with the so called “minority sports.” It’s been fascinating to watch the boxers, rowers and gymnasts climb onto European and world podiums.
Gymnastics Ireland were telling me about Rhys McClenaghan five years ago. And a few others. Rio was never the target, Tokyo 2020 and beyond has always been the plan.
Gymnastics can become the new boxing in Ireland by how successful we can be at world and Olympic level. The talent is there so hopefully the necessary funding follows. Currently, Gymnastics Ireland fund 80 percent of their own high performance budget. If they are getting medals that needs to change. The indoor arena in Abbotstown is hugely beneficial because to put on even one of the spectacular gymnastics shows I’ve seen elsewhere in Dublin would grow the sport to a whole new level. We have the facility to do this, and we have Rhys:
My son – a sports nut already – does gymnastics but it took a full year to start him because of waiting lists. There’s not enough coaches for six and seven years olds (like hurling, the key age to start any future Olympian), there aren’t enough clubs to meet demand and there is definitely not enough time slots in the clubs that do exist.
I did gymnastics when I was really young and I can tell you it is the best grounding for every other sport.
I gave up my Olympic dream for a shot at Cats on Broadway. Never mind.
We can’t call ourselves a sporting nation with the current levels of funding and political support. We just can’t.
As both a mother and a journalist, I see Ireland getting a lot more out of sport than sports people get from their country – especially in terms or mental health, physical health and just the joy of watching the hockey girls win the penalty shootouts this summer.
If I was a politician I’d make a beeline for the Sports Ministry. Notwithstanding the work that’s done in policy writing (I hope), imagine travelling to watch Irish teams and athletes whenever they are on the cusp of monumental achievements, announcing new funding plans, and cutting ribbons on shiny new stadia. But the role is not what it should be – our funding for sports is nowhere near enough when we consider what sport gives back to the Irish economy.
Take the extra €500,000 for the Irish Hockey. That’s a drop in the ocean for a nation that just finished second in the world because the podium at Tokyo 2020 is the only logical target for them.
While pregnant with Peigi and working in RTÉ and minding Séimí I took on a two year Masters in Sports Management in UCD. It was madness but I had been on autopilot, same routine every day for two years. I needed to challenge myself, get outside my comfort zone and I’d always been interested in the governance of sport in Ireland and wanted to know how good or bad it’s run behind the scenes.
My thesis was on “trust restoration in sports governance” using three specific cases:
Bloodgate at Harlequins (Conor O’Shea was a brilliant source).
Swim Ireland after the sexual abuse scandals.
Basketball Ireland after they mismanaged funding.
I received fascinating buy-in from Sarah Keane, Bernard O’Byrne and O’Shea. I’m working on publishing it as an academic article this year because the findings are strong. I hope it is the start of something, as the knowledge I gained is vast while I’m unsure where sports broadcasting is going; what I am seeing is an influx of former athletes interviewing current athletes – which has its advantages and draw backs – so I don’t know what that means for the journalist.
I’ve been lucky to interview some of the great Irish athletes and as the rights holders we tend to get them while the adrenaline is still rushing through their bodies.
This always leads to fascinating insight, none more so than the 81 seconds with Michael Conlan after he was controversially beaten at the Rio Olympics by the Russian Vladimir Nikitin – a ruling by judges who were subsequently suspended.
Watching the fight I was thinking Michael has the gold medal in the bag.
I could tell from his behaviour in the ring after the decision – flipping his finger to the judges – that he was raging and the first live interview would be explosive. The entire stadium went ballistic. Pure outrage. I spoke to Ireland’s coach Zaur Antia about an hour later and he told me word had come through the night before from his Russian boxing friends that the fix was in, and that he should protect his boxer because the decision was already made.
So, a fuming Mick Conlan was walking towards me.
BBC were the primary rights holders which meant I was second to interview him. Belfast boxer loses in highly controversial circumstances – I presumed the Brits would be as hungry as me to put the microphone under his nose. I chanced my arm anyway: “Mind if we have him first? It’s going straight to our live show on RTÉ?”
I couldn’t believe what the BBC guy replied, “Go for it, he’s not going on our live broadcast until he calms down.”
Wow, I couldn’t believe it. “Ok, thanks.”
He seemed terrified but I suppose a few years dealing with Cody (win or lose) has you bullet proof to whoever comes along post match/fight.
I kept it simple.
”Michael, you have a lot to get off your chest...
The response was astonishing, and without a word of a lie:
“AIBA are cheats… They are f**king paying everyone… I don’t give a f**k that I am cursing on TV. I came for gold, my dreams have been shattered. I’ve a big career ahead of me. See these ones, they are known for being cheats.”
And the quote of quotes: “Amateur boxing stinks, from the core right to the top.”
There is a mix zone rule that you only get 90 seconds before they literally drag you away from the athlete. On 30 seconds I felt a tug on my arm. Even before time ran out there was a woman trying to stop the interview. I presumed we had gone over time but still got a second question off.
Again, Michael’s response was stunning, angry, composed, intelligent and vicious all in the same few sentences.
He’s a great boxer and such a impressive man, I think he gave an impressive account of himself despite the feeling of total injustice. That usually makes people say regrettable things. Not Michael. I bet he’ll always stand over that interview. Sure, he’s been proved correct even if Nikitin has a bronze medal at home despite the Russian withdrawing from the semi-final bout due to injuries sustained from Conlan’s fists.
There was even self assessment as he refused to feel sorry for himself, “I wanted to go back to Ireland with a gold medal. Now I feel like I’m going back a loser. I’m not a loser, I’m a winner and today just showed how corrupt this organisation is”.
Cut. Back to studio with Joanne Cantwell, Bernard Dunne, Michael Carruth, and Mick Dowling. Twitter instantly attacked RTÉ for cutting the interview short, when we didn’t.
You can’t win.
Rio also gave me the coolest moment of my career. Paul and Gary O’Donovan, with silver medals around their necks, agreed to sit on a studio roof top until the Nine O’Clock news started – all in exchange for some pizza.
Yes, they are even funnier off camera but also acutely aware there’s a brand to build by just being themselves.
I’ll need them to win gold or be sunk by the Norwegians boat to match Michael’s electrifying good live television!
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with The End is Really The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this story you can contact Pieta House at 1800 247 247, Samaritans Ireland at 116 123 or Aware at 1800 80 48 48.
The Pieta House Wren Run takes place in Woodford, Co. Galway on December 26th, 2019, you can find more information here.