‘The abuse I get on social media is worse than ever, more violent’, says Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh

‘The abuse I get on social media is worse than ever, more violent’, says Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh
Cork’s Saoirse Noonan is interviewed by Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh for OffTheBall.com last year. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

One of my first experiences of sports broadcasting was last year standing on a sun-drenched Cusack Park pitch after a Division Two league game between Roscommon and Clare. 

The Roscommon team selector, Liam McHale, was in the centre of a small media scrum wrapping up his analysis of his winning team’s performance. 

“Thanks lads,” he said, as he made his way past the barrier of dictaphones before he noticed me hovering on the periphery. 

“Oh, and ladies,” he politely smiled at me.

Earlier this month, a study from Liberty Insurance found that 65% of adults surveyed in Ireland and the UK felt that female sports broadcasters were “a beacon of light” for younger women. 

Ireland’s first MA in sports journalism gets underway in the University of Limerick this year, with RTÉ sports broadcaster Jacqui Hurley as a senior lecturer.

The Sunday Game — on air since 1979 — announced Joanne Cantwell as its first female anchor in February last year.

‘The abuse I get on social media is worse than ever, more violent’, says Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh

Undoubtedly, these shifts in a traditionally male dominated area of media are all encouraging to read but in reality, what is it really like for a female working in a man’s world?

Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh, or “MT” as she refers to herself, is confidence personified. 

She chats with me like I’m an old friend. Her honest and feisty personality is on full display. 

As well as being a regular contributor to Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme this year, her national status was boosted when she was announced as a host on eir Sport’s Allianz Leagues.

She’s a Pilates instructor, a fluent Irish speaker, a sport, exercise and performance psychologist and is currently studying a degree in medicine.

“People will say ‘oh, she’s come out of nowhere’ and I think ‘fuck you!’ I spent 10 years doing the donkey work,” she quips at her new-found recognition. 

“What I’m doing now is just very visible to people.” 

She admits a decade of working in journalism has taught her the act of confidence, “You go into a press box full of men and it takes a bit of courage to walk in and say, ‘hey lads who’s got the WiFi code?’”

Behind the scenes

Ní Cheallaigh has witnessed the rise of social media and the noise that comes with it first-hand saying that, “the abuse I get now is worse than ever.”

Working on recent projects she’s had experiences of receiving messages of a violent sexual nature and her qualifications on sporting programmes have been questioned due to her gender.

She shows me a tweet on her phone she received last week and invites me to read it aloud. 

In the middle of a busy coffee shop, I begin reading. With each word I lower my voice, becoming more embarrassed and aware of the horrendous things I’m saying in public.

“They’ve gotten more violent, which is scary,” she says as I look up at her wide-eyed.

To my surprise, she tells me she feels more exposed working on the radio. 

There’s a real camaraderie in TV. I might have Tommy Walsh or Andy Dunne with me and that means I have a sidekick, which is great. Whereas when you’re on your own in radio, you’re on your own.

“Radio obviously takes away the bullshit of hair and makeup, so that’s a positive. Particularly as one is getting older and more tired.”

One could forgive Wonder Woman for feeling tired every now and then.

Growing up in the barren lands of Carraroe, TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta were on her doorstep and media is something she fell into. 

“I never thought about what I wanted to be when I grow up until I was about 28/29.”

She covered her first football game during her work experience with RnG over a mobile phone, far removed from the landscape of sports journalism today.

In 2007, she got a permanent RTÉ Nuacht contract before taking on a job as a GAA reporter as well.

Like most in the media industry, she has an addiction to being busy. She is “one- eighth of a doctor” currently switching between hospital wards and recording studios.

“This may sound very ‘Rose of Tralee’ but after being stuck in a job that I wasn’t really enjoying I decided I wanted to be useful and what’s more useful than a doctor?” she says.

“I did a whole 180 and decided to leave media to study medicine. Since that, I’ve never done as much media work in my life,” she laughs.

On the job

Retired female sports stars have become a welcome addition to sports broadcasting recently but she says there is a “sports snobbery” toward female sports journalists who are not ex-players.

“Nobody expects political correspondents to be politicians. I just don’t deal with that bullshit anymore. Of course I still get nervous, it’s just another act you have to master,” she says sipping an iced caffeine drink.

Her oversized straw leaks a little as she smiles, “See I’m in my thirties now and I’m still spilling drinks over myself.” 

Dabbing herself down she says: “You just have to fake it ‘til you make it and even then, I don’t think you ever really make it. If you think you have, then I think that’s when you’re in trouble.”

Given her colourful resumé I feel obliged to ask her if she enjoys working in sports journalism. 

“It’s hard work. There’s hours spent on the road and being in a job where you can never switch off is really tough on your mental health. But I like doing it when I’m there.”

I see the psychologist in her coming through. 

It is a privileged position to be in. There are so many people around the country that would want that job, and I’m doing it. I like the guys I work with and I hope they like me.

"I like talking about the ins and outs of sport but I’m very glad it’s not my living.”

Her work has taken her everywhere from the White House to Syria but one of her most memorable days on the job came from Páirc Tailteann after the controversial Meath and Tyrone qualifier last summer.

“Andy McEntee was livid afterwards,” she recalls. “I let the lads ask the usual questions and I just said, ‘it’s quite clear you’re very emotional’ and he began to cry.”

She shakes her head sympathetically. 

“You could just tell he was heartbroken and you could see that’s what it means to people. A man probably wouldn’t have asked that unless they were very metro.”

‘The abuse I get on social media is worse than ever, more violent’, says Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh

It’s clear the Galway woman is not one to follow the crowd. I ask her about the current 20x20 campaign for women in sport, intrigued with her take on it. 

“20x20 has got people talking. Is it tokenistic? Probably. But, that’s the state we’re in. We have to bang on doors to be heard.

“Men mostly don’t like these kinds of movements because they see it as a criticism of them, but it’s not. It’s a societal thing. 

"Then, if they’re not comfortable enough in themselves they get angry with you and send you tweets like that.

“I think the media are doing their bit but it’s up to people like us to go out and watch games that we’re not being paid to watch. 

It’s about women supporting women, men supporting women. We need to stop boxing off women’s sport, it should just be sport. That change is happening.

For International Women’s Day last month, she made a public pledge to help any aspiring journalists and today she honoured that. 

They say you should never meet your heroes because you’ll only be disappointed. They lied.

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