Elaine Crowley on overcoming depression, and life without Emma Hannigan

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Growing up in the quirkily named Newtwopothouse near Mallow, a young Elaine Crowley dreamed of one day becoming an actor and filmmaker. A stint of work experience with Cork-based broadcaster Patricia Messinger switched her focus.

“I had no notion of it,” she says of a broadcasting career. “I did film and broadcasting because I wanted to actually work in film and be an actor and maybe then a director.

"I used to do creative writing and short plays and stuff like that when I was in school. I wanted to go down that road and then I went to work experience with Patricia Messinger in County Sound, now C103 and that was the end of that - I was bitten by the broadcasting bug.

"Broadcasting is like The Hotel California - you can never leave once you get into it.”

Newtwopothouse as a child was a contented environment for Crowley. Her late dad was principal in the school across the road from her family home. She says the small village has changed greatly since her childhood.

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“We used to have a pub there and a dance hall and a shop and a post office. They're all gone now, the post office actually only closed down recently which is kind of sad.

"Rural Ireland is very much being left behind now. Everyone's trying to urbanise everything which isn't working out either.

“It's kind of sad when you go home and see but there's still the school there and there's a creche there. It's sad to see the landscape of my childhood gone.

"I try and get down home every few months and they come up to visit me which is good.”

She studied Communications in Dublin before returning home to County Sound, where she gained valuable broadcasting experience before joining TV3 in 1999, a year and a half after it had been established.

The Co Cork woman has gone on to become one of our best-known broadcasters, joining TV3 (now Virgin Media One) first as a reporter and then as a presenter. Working her way through the ranks, she’s now one of the station’s most-popular stars.

“I was freelancing for three or four years and then I got a full time job as Ireland AM news anchor. I was kind of being trained up as a presenter so you'd fill in on Ireland AM in the morning show and bits and pieces like that. And then I filled in on Midday for maternity, and then I took over as presenter and producer.

“That was a panel show and it was quite news driven. But because the recession hit, everybody needed cheering up a bit. Then a couple of years ago they decided to move the time to three o'clock in the afternoon and call it Elaine.”

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It was a good move for the station and the show has enjoyed growth and continued success.

“Now it’s absolutely flying. Last year was an amazing year workwise. The market share we have and the viewership we're after getting is huge compared to the slot we used to have. I am the series producer. There's myself and Sinead and Kelly who are absolutely amazing.

“There are three of us to do the five hours (of live programming) a week. It's a small but very close team and I think it works well.”

Her move to presenting was partly prompted by a desire to get out of news. At the time Ireland had been plunged into a deep and lengthy recession and the news, Elaine recalls, was “all doom and gloom”.

After 12 years at the coalface, she felt it was impacting on her. Three days in Omagh covering a fire tragedy in which an entire family had died made her ponder her future.

“I came back and said: ‘I don't think I can do news anymore’. I really couldn’t, and I'd been offered a job outside of work, in PR, and I was just about to take it.

“But then the Midday role came up and I did love television and I didn't want to leave it. I'm lucky in the fact that I do love what I do, but it hasn't been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Years ago I wouldn't have had the confidence to do what I do.

"That comes with age and I think by the time I took over Midday, which was the show before this one, I'd had a rough few years anyway and I'd gone through a lot. And I suppose it was like: take me or leave me.

“If you are a TV presenter you can't really put on too much of a mask for too long. If you're on it every day, you're either yourself or you're not. And I suppose once you have that sort of level of acceptance that you can accept yourself, flaws and all, it's a lot easier to do.”

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Crowley has good reason to be conscious of her mental health. For years, she battled with depression before coming around to the difficult acceptance that she had a chronic illness and needed help.

“I suppose for years I tried to fight it with alternative methods. I put all of my eggs into work and you forget about the rest your life and that's what I did. And at some point you kind of break.

"You either climb out of the hole or you keep going in. And it's hard to accept the fact that you have a chronic illness, that has a stigma surrounding it.

"But when I was in my mid-thirties, I went: ‘You know what? It's not the end of the world’.

And you do accept that it does come and go. It ebbs and flows.” Coming around to the realisation that she could no longer manage her illness and needed intervention was challenging, she says now.

“You have to get over that hurdle of: ‘Actually, no I need a proper diagnosis. I need to know what the hell is wrong with me’. And to do that was terrifying.

“It was realising this is gonna be a thing that I need to deal with because I wasn't getting any better and it wasn't going to get any better.

"I've struggled since my teens and I tried my best. Exercise, going for meditation, I tried all that.

“It's very difficult to come to the realisation that you do need that sort of help but then with that comes: ‘You know what? There's plenty more people in that boat than me’.”

While workwise it’s been a terrific year, personally it’s been a sad one. She recently marked the first anniversary of the loss of her close friend, popular author Emma Hannigan, from breast cancer.

“I cried a lot. But I think the fact that her book was at number one and I was in contact with her family a bit as well…

I mean she was my friend but they lost their mother, they lost their wife, they lost their daughter.

"It's not the first time I've lost somebody but I think to lose someone so young and so vivacious, it's tough.”

For years, Emma worked with Breast Cancer Ireland to raise funding for research into the disease. Her wish was to fund research into new and more effective therapies, making breast cancer a long-term illness that could be managed.

“We're putting lots of cunning plans in place for fundraising as that was her wish - to make cancer a chronic illness rather than a death sentence,” says Elaine.

Next weekend, she’ll be a judge on Breast Cancer Ireland’s Battle of the Stars.

The annual celebrity dance-off in Dublin’s Clayton Hotel Burlington Road has become a hugely popular annual fundraiser and this year’s participants include Sybil Mulcahy, Fair City actor Ryan Andrews and TV presenter James Patrice. Emma Hannigan and Elaine Crowley have both donned their dancing shoes in the past.

“I'm a judge. I danced a couple of years ago and that was enough for me! It's great old fun, it's a great night and it will earn money and people give up their time and put so much effort into it.

“The money is going into research and it's going directly into helping people. They asked me to be an ambassador for them and I didn't even hesitate. It's actually quite an empowering, positive night.”

For more information about Battle of the Stars and how you can get tickets, log on to www.breastcancerireland.com

Elaine is an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland and she will join fellow judges, Dancing with the Stars head judge, Julian Benson, broadcaster, Lisa Cannon and First Dates Ireland, maître d', Mateo Saina at Battle of the Stars supported by the Joe Duffy Group taking place tonight, April 13th in the Clayton Hotel, Burlington Road, Dublin to raise funds to support the charity’s pioneering research and awareness programmes nationwide.

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