Irish Times and RedFM Sports Journalist, Joanne O’Riordan talks about taking on the government, winning an All Star, travelling the world and becoming one of Ireland’s most recognised faces all whilst living as a young woman with no limbs. 

The more people told me that I couldn’t do journalism, the more I wanted to do it.

I remember Weeshie Fogarty saying to me that my asset was my voice and to use it despite the fact that I have no limbs. The likes of Weeshie and Mícháel Ó Muircheartaigh – who would have been huge idols of mine – started out in sports journalism.

I always thought it would be cool if I could use my voice to give others a voice. Whether that be the person that dishes out the water at half time or the cones at training; they all have stories, and I’d like to open that up and give people a chance to express themselves.

In every sports club across the world, no matter what sport it is, there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

I want to be the Louis Theroux of sports, going around doing documentaries and telling their stories.

 

Joanne O’Riordan speaking at the Sport for Business Women in Sport Conference.<br /> Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Joanne O’Riordan speaking at the Sport for Business Women in Sport Conference.
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Total Amelia is a condition where you’re born without your limbs. I’m only one of seven in the world as far as I’m aware. There’s no medical or scientific reason as to why it happens.

My parents found out nine weeks before I was born. At the time, no one knew anything about the condition. At the end of the day, it was the 90’s and disability wasn’t something that people really talked about.

We live across the road from a graveyard in Millstreet, and my parents went and picked out a grave for me before I was born. It was just something that they had to do in case I wasn’t going to make it. Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way in the end.

None of us in the family knew that until the documentary, No Limbs No Limits came out. Steven, my brother, directed the film, so he conducted the sit-down interview with my parents with his director hat on. I think he kind of forgot that it was his mother that he was interviewing.

Whenever my mother and I have a fight now, she’ll point across and say, “I’ll put you in that grave before you know it!”

Joanne (8), Stephanie McMahon, Danny O'Riordan and WWE wrestler Triple H © Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne (8), Stephanie McMahon, Danny O’Riordan and WWE wrestler Triple H © Joanne O’Riordan

I’m Paddy Last in the family. I’ve three older brothers and one older sister. The gap between me and the eldest would be 15 years, so my siblings were kind of raised by the time I came about.

They never treated me any differently though. They were all absolutely mad into sport growing up. Two days after I was born, my sister Gillian was out running in a county final. My brothers played with the club. My eldest brother Denis and I were mad into wrestling and WWE. He’d put me in the Walls of Jericho move and the likes to, “toughen me up for the future” as he would say.

Danny would kick his football at me to practice his shooting, as a defender he was pretty useless at that. Myself and Steven would have done more fun things together like concerts and events. The first time I was ever in Fitzgerald Stadium was with Steven at a Westlife concert. Which is bizarre now looking back given my chosen career.

I was made to be competitive from them. I actually still hold the record in Fifa for getting sent off in a power chaired soccer tournament.

I went because my parents were sick of me getting hit in the head by my siblings with a soccer ball, so they signed me up for the tournament in Tralee. I was buzzed.

I wanted to be the limbless Ronaldihno.

They put a paralysed kid in goals, and he let in six goals. I went mad and roared at this kid who was paralysed from the neck down and told him he was effing useless and got sent off. I was ten, which is even more embarrassing.

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That’s probably when I decided that I was going to be a sports journalist, because I knew that being an athlete wasn’t for me. My father would always say, “Thank God you were born without limbs” because he couldn’t handle the shame of me getting sent off in a club final.

We live five miles from the Kerry border, but I’m a Cork rebel to the bone. We did all our socialising in Kerry, as much as we hate to admit that. Killarney is only half an hour away, but we always say that we’re the right side of the border, that’s what counts.

Both my parents are from Cork, but my mother is actually second cousins with Aidan O’Mahony so we mock her relentlessly. We take the mick out of one another a lot in our house so; naturally, I take the mick out of myself.

Inspired by “Bran the Broken” in Game of Thrones, I once christened myself “Joanne the Broken”. My housemates were horrified. They were like, “You can’t put that up!”. I had Instagram up on the phone and said, “Watch me.”

One thing I do enjoy reminding my siblings about is that while I may be “Joanne the Broken”, I’m still the only one in the house with an All-Star over the range in the kitchen.

It was the Ladies Football All-Stars in 2014, and they invited me to attend and give a talk. Of course, I was delighted to go and meet the girls. I was conscious it was a party and the speech can’t be too intense, so I got up, did my thing and I was about to leave when Marty Morrisey called me back. I was presented with an honorary All-Star in front of Geraldine Flynn, Rena Buckley, Julliette Flynn and all these people I looked up to. It was such an honour. I was standing beside these heroes with an honorary All-Star after literally having done feck all! I loved it!

Sonia O’Sullivan asked me what I got it for, and I couldn’t answer. It was actually so embarrassing. In front of the Sonia O’Sullivan, I couldn’t tell her what my All-Star was for. My brother then thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

Joanne and her father, Pat O'Riordan. © Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne and her father, Pat O’Riordan. © Joanne O’Riordan

It all started with Enda Kenny on the campaign trail in 2011.

Enda was down in Millstreet ahead of the General Election that year. I was 15 at the time. I was mad into Enda. I don’t really know why. I always say it was the hair, I was obsessed with the hair.

Dad took time off work and met me in the square, and we waited for Enda Kenny to come. There were local radio and TV cameras there. All I really wanted was to ask a question typical of my 15-year-old self, “How’d ya get the hair in such perfect condition?” My dad told me to ask a proper question, and that he didn’t take the afternoon off work to be embarrassed on national television.

So, I asked him, “What will you do to protect people living with disabilities?” He replied assuredly that he would do everything within his power.

He got elected, became Taoiseach, and in the December budget that year his government made a cut to the domiciliary payment which is the payment you get if you’re under 18 and living with a disability.

I’d a friend in the Irish Examiner who said, “Why don’t you write something to show what kind of effect this decision will have on someone like you?”

I decided to write about how the cut was going to affect, not just me, but everyone like me in similar positions. I had three hours to write the piece, so I was under a bit of pressure, but I let the emotion out, and it was raw enough.

The following morning it was the front page of the Irish Examiner and started a series of events that led to the cut being overturned. That was my introduction to journalism.

It was surprising the amount of attention I got from it. I never thought I’d be on the front of the Irish Examiner, especially during Budget 2012. There would have been a lot more issues that the media would have deemed more important at the time. But my little old letter made the front page. I think my aunt bought six copies of the paper that morning just in case someone in the family would miss it.

Despite the fact that all my mam’s side were mad Fine Gael-ers, I wouldn’t have been particularly politically minded. That innocence kind of helped me in a way.

I didn’t really know if journalism was my calling, but it was great of The Irish Examiner to give me a voice, never mind the front page. It set me on my path. I was determined to become a journalist.

Whether it be athletes, criminals, or someone on the side of the road, I’ve always been interested in what makes people do what they do.

I spent two years studying Criminology and living in Cork City. I went up and down home every weekend like every other student. It was an exciting time. I had the full college experience.

We were guilty of a few “Thirsty Thursdays” in UCC I won’t lie!

I spent my third year studying abroad. Well, in England. When I moved to York, that was my real test as to how I was going to survive by myself.

For the first time, that was when I was totally in charge of my life and everything I did.

It was the basic day to day stuff. Like, what time am I going to get up? What am I going to have for dinner? Who’s going to cook my dinner? Will I bother getting to class? So, that brought a huge sense of independence for me.

I remember the first two months I was a little bit homesick. I found myself watching TG4 for no reason other than I missed the culture.

In a good way, my parents did not care that I was going off on my own. Their attitude was always, “She’ll be grand.” My mother still won’t admit that she missed me. It was a big change for both of us. Our poor little Shih Tzu, Sally was getting the legs walked off her from Mam trying to fill her time.

Aside from an academic aspect, the move definitely stood to me. Now, I know how to be in control of my life. Even though I live at home now, I’m completely independent.

It set me up to give journalism my best shot.

Killarney Legion and Kerry footballer James O'Donoghue pictured with Joanne after the 2019 East Kerry Final. © Joanne O'Riordan

Killarney Legion and Kerry footballer James O’Donoghue pictured with Joanne after the 2019 East Kerry Final. © Joanne O’Riordan

Sports journalism held a natural fascination for me.

I was always curious as to why an athlete was so driven. Why they might risk everything and take performance-enhancing drugs. And how we care for our sports, like why would we elect certain people to certain roles in sport that could potentially do damage to the game?

I sent an email off to Malachy Logan, Sports Editor at the Irish Times, asking if they’d anything going, I’d be happy to help out in any way that I can. I didn’t really think that he’d email back because at the time I was transitioning from what everyone perceived as the political activist Joanne to sports hack Joanne.

I was concerned about two things:

One, would they appreciate me getting a column for the sake of my name? I’d never want that. As a sports nut myself, if I saw someone getting a sports column just because of their name, I’d be sceptical.

Two, the players, athletes, and sports community. I didn’t know how they were going to react to me.

It’s kind of obvious that I’ve never played at the highest level. It’s funny that I can’t really be targeted by that kind of ridicule at a press conference or mixed zone.

At the end of the day, there’s no one more critical of my writing than me. Sometimes, with something I’ve published on a Tuesday, I’ll get anxiety about it on the Thursday. I’m my own worst critic.

I just kind of figured that I’d be coming at it from a unique and different perspective. What was disappointing but expected was that I couldn’t access many of the press boxes. I knew I had to figure out my own way around that. Whilst that’s been a definite challenge, it’s one that I really, really enjoy.

Joanne pictured with fellow Barcelona FC fans at her first Champions League game. © Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne pictured with fellow Barcelona FC fans at her first Champions League game. © Joanne O’Riordan

It’s funny because I always say there’s two Joannes. There’s the one that people have seen on the Late Late, and there’s the sports journalist Joanne.

Plenty of people are curious about how I write, but I would prefer it if they cared about what I write.

It will take time for people to get used to the sports journalist Joanne. But, like anyone, I want my work to speak for itself and be taken seriously. Something like the RedExtra.ie podcast is something I’m so proud of because I started it from scratch. That was the sports Joanne’s chance to be heard.

Of course, I appreciate all the stuff I’ve had the chance to do. From getting to meet Lionel Messi for my 18th birthday and having a 30-second conversation with him, to going to the United Nations, meeting Michael D Higgins, these are all really cool achievements. But the achievements I really stand over are when someone looks at me and says, “Would you like to cover a game?”, and I smile and say “YES! I’d love to.”

For the likes of Malachy Clerkin, Keith Duggan, Tony Leen, Mary Hannigan or people like that to say, “I really like what you’re doing.” That’s huge for me because they showed me the power of literally putting pen to paper

My all-time favourite comment that I got from a player was in relation to the inter-county team media blackout when they said, “I really like you, and my mam really likes you, but my manager doesn’t trust you.”

I’m proud to be Irish. We’ve grown to acknowledge people with disabilities here. The only thing that I would be fearful of is that some people are being left behind. That’s purely down to access.

There are certain buildings that I just can’t get into, and as a journalist, that’s really frustrating.

I recently visited a ladies football team, and they were concerned about my chair going over the stones of the grounds. I assured them the stones aren’t an issue, but she never told me about the two steps going into the dressing room. I was just laughing saying, “Really? You thought the stones would be the problem?”

If you deny someone a purpose in life because of an access issue, whether it be financial, socioeconomic or physical reasons, then that’s not a country that I want to be a part of.

In order to move forward, we have to try and create equal access for everyone. We need access to education for those in disadvantaged areas. We need access to employment. Everyone wants to get up and have a purpose in life. We do have a bit to go in terms of that.

I always say when I have to give my talks, it’s up to everyone to be an activist. Whether that’s getting ramps put into your footpaths, putting up bollards so cars can’t park there, just making things a little bit easier for a friend with an intolerance or allergy or disability. People think we have to be outside burning our bras with placards, but we don’t. We can all make a change, bit by bit.

I’ve been to stadiums around the world, and I’ve seen so many levels of access. I remember visiting Dortmund and they were saying, “Sorry, this hasn’t the best facilities in the world.” Then he shows me to their one of four Wheelchair Units, their Blind Unit, Deaf Unit, Autistic Unit. I’d never seen anything like it.

Joanne in Páirc UÍ Chaoimh. © Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne in Páirc UÍ Chaoimh. © Joanne O’Riordan

Before I was born, my parents hadn’t been outside Millstreet. Then, two weeks after I came along, they were on a flight to London to meet another girl born without limbs. We’ve been really lucky, and we’ve travelled to Russia, Latvia, New York, South Africa and all these really cool places together. Their lives changed for the better, I hope. At least they got out of Millstreet for an hour!

My mother always says that when I was born, she didn’t know what I was going to do, but she hoped that whatever it was, I’d do it with a smile. She said that if I was cleaning the streets it didn’t matter. If I was proud of my job, then she would have been proud of me.

I’ve met so many people across the world from telling my story, and being the “other” Joanne. I really enjoy when a younger person says something to me about being inspiring.

At the end of the day, I just hope that people respect me for my work and that that doesn’t get overshadowed by just the “girl with no limbs” thing.

The activism thing is part of my everyday life. No matter what, that will always be part of what I do.

Until I can get into a press box lads, I won’t rest!

Joanne,

February 2020

If you enjoyed Joanne’s piece you might like to read Ashling Thompson’s – I Know Who I Am“.

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