I loved that a girl from Cork could be a world champion

Cork woman Jacqui Hurley is hoping to inspire young girls to play sport with her new book. COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with her to talk about her childhood, career development and life as a mother.
I loved that a girl from Cork could be a world champion

RTÉ Sport broadcaster Jacqui Hurley, with her new book, Girls Play Too.

RTÉ Radio 1 presenter on Sunday Sport, Jacqui Hurley, has recently published a book called Girls Play Too. The Cork-born mother of two is aiming it at girls aged 8-14.

Featuring 25 top Irish sports women, the book is something she has wanted to write for a while and what gave her the impetus to start it was a comment made by a young girl last year.

“I was at the zoo with my son, Luke, aged six, and his pals. His little friend, Evanna, and him were having a conversation about whether boys are better than girls. I heard Evanna saying that boys are better because their matches are on the TV. My heart kind of broke a small bit. I realised that society had taught kids that this is the norm. I want to change perceptions.”

Dublin-based Jacqui, originally from Ballinhassig in Cork, also has a three-year-old daughter, Lily.

“Lily loves kicking a ball. The nature/nurture thing is amazing. We treat both children the same but Lily still loves dolls and painting her nails. All she wanted for her birthday was make-up. It’s funny how things work. She still loves kicking a football. Hopefully, there’ll be enough room in her life for all of those things.”

With a fairytale touch, Jacqui’s new book tells the real-life stories of women who have proved that gender is not a barrier to success.

Jacqui Hurley's new book, Girls Play Too.
Jacqui Hurley's new book, Girls Play Too.

Jacqui has always wanted to work in a sports-related field. She enjoyed the outdoor sports-filled life in Australia from the age of three to ten. With her sister, Catriona, her late brother, Sean (who died tragically in a car accident in 2011) and her parents, Jacqui loved living in Australia.

Her father, an electrician and her mother, a nurse, made the move in the ’80s as there was much demand for their areas of expertise in Australia.

The family lived in Canberra. Jacqui’s father built a swimming pool in the back garden and there were constant barbecues in the sun. Life was good.

“The only reason we came home was because my mom’s parents were getting on and she didn’t want to be coming home for a funeral.”

Netball was big in Australia, Jacqui explained: “Myself and my sister played it a lot at a competitive level. It’s why we started playing basketball when we came back to Cork. There was no netball here.”

Jacqui Hurley. Picture: Kieran Harnett
Jacqui Hurley. Picture: Kieran Harnett

Jacqui admits that coming back to Ireland and starting school here was daunting. But she had an advantage. A fan of the Australian soap, Home and Away, Jacqui was ahead of her classmates by six months in terms of watching the soap. So she was able to feed the class little snippets of what was to come. That made her popular.

There was a basketball team at the Presentation Convent secondary school in Bandon that Jacqui attended.

“It so happened that my sister and all her six friends started first year at the same time. They were all about six feet tall. As a result, the basketball team got to be so good. I joined it. (Jacqui is also suited to the game as she is five feet, ten inches in height.) We won about five all Irelands during our time at school.

“Then my sister and myself got picked for the Irish team. So we spent all our teenage years and some of our twenties playing basketball. Camogie was big in the school as well so I played that too and got the opportunity to play for Cork. My whole life revolved around sport.”

Jacqui Hurley speaking at The Echo Ladies Sports Star of the Year Award in recent years.
Jacqui Hurley speaking at The Echo Ladies Sports Star of the Year Award in recent years.

Since having her children, Jacqui has gone back to basketball.

“I had really missed it in my life. I think it’s important for people for stay active.”

Jacqui also goes to the gym at least three times a week.

Growing up, her parents used to say that she “walked around with a TV in front of my face, telling them what was going on in sports.

“It was probably destiny that I got into sports for my career. I thought I’d be a PE teacher or work in the media, covering sport. The idea of broadcasting really appealed to me. I like the immediacy of it. Something happens and you’re there to tell people about it. It’s like storytelling.”

Jacqui did a degree in English and media at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.

“I decided that if media didn’t work out, I’d go back and do a diploma in PE and teach English. Thankfully, things worked out.”

As part of her course, Jacqui had to complete an internship, studying or working abroad. She did her internship at CBS in Mississippi.

Presenter Jacqui Hurley.
Presenter Jacqui Hurley.

“I worked really hard over there and told them I’d do anything. Even on my days off, I worked so I could learn more. I had experience of broadcasting over there, I had run an autocue and had done copy-writing in the news room so I was equipped to work anywhere.

“When I came back, I got a job in local radio, Limerick Live 95fm. I stayed there for a year. I sent a tape into RTÉ and got picked from a talent pool to start doing a five-minute slot, talking about sport. It spiralled from there. I started co-presenting Sunday Sport in 2009.”

Jacqui also presents the sports news on RTÉ television.

It never dawned on her that she was the first woman to present on Sunday Sport.

“I just never strove for those things. A journalist rang me and asked me how I felt about being the first woman doing that job and I was like ‘Oh God, I hadn’t really thought about it.’ At 25, I was more daunted by the fact that I was very young and green. Thankfully, 11 years later, it all worked out.”

While Jacqui was a little intimidated by the calibre of sports presenters such as Michael O Hehir, Michéal Ó Mhuircheartaigh and Jimmy Magee in whose steps she was following, they were hugely supportive of her.

“Jimmy Magee was brilliant to me. There was such an age gap between us. I didn’t initially know what he thought of someone so young coming in to do the show. We went for tea one day and had a great chat about sport. Once he realised I was really into it and that I knew my sport, we had a great relationship. I had unbelievable craic with him.”

Des Cahill and Jacqui Hurley. Picture: Kinlan Photography.
Des Cahill and Jacqui Hurley. Picture: Kinlan Photography.

Bill O’Herlihy, “a good Cork man, was a great mentor to me. These men really took me under their wing. They were teaching the next generation. I really enjoyed their company.

“Jimmy’s advice to me was to not forget to laugh. I asked him what did he mean. He said I was going to make so many mistakes. Some people are going to hate me. But I must be able to get on knowing that. And be able to laugh it off with my colleagues when I make a mistake. That always stuck with me. I try at times to make sure that my personality comes through as well.”

Asked if she has encountered gender discrimination in sport, Jacqui says: “I haven’t come across it. I suppose having a woman presenting Sunday Sport involved changing the mindset.

“I’m sure there were an awful lot of people who thought it was insane that a girl was going to be on that programme. But I found the more I spoke to people, the more people started listening to it.”

While Jacqui plays down the gender issue in sports, she would like to see our multicultural society reflected more in sport and current affairs.

“I do think the national broadcaster needs to be aware of that. I think in the next five or ten years, we are going to see people who move to this country for a better life, taking part in Irish athletic circles.”

Jacqui met her husband, Shane McMahon, in Limerick. He was living next door to her student accommodation. Shane, who plays rugby, played football for Limerick when he was younger.

“We are both into fitness. I think it’s a good lifestyle to show to your kids. It’s important for us that our kids stay fit.”

The inspirational sports women that Jacqui has written about in her book include Maeve Kyle, Ireland’s first female Olympian, rally driver, Rosemary Smith, Derval O’Rourke, Olive Loughnane, Katie Taylor, Kellie Harrington, Annalise Murphy, and of course, Sonia O’Sullivan.

“Sonia O’Sullivan was my hero growing up. I just loved that a girl from Cork could be a world champion. She was a true inspiration to all of us.

“The next generation see that and realise they too could do it. Sonia is an inspiration in a way that no other athlete could be.”

Girls Play Too is on sale now, €14.95.

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