Friday nights aren’t going to be the same from now on with the disappearance of Seó Spóirt. Sean Ó Cualain was the programme’s series producer and his brother Eamon was director and producer. When it began, they saw it as a general sports preview show with a leaning towards Gaelic games.
“At the start Ireland were doing quite well in rugby, this was around 2005/6,” says Sean Ó Cualain.
“It was always intended to be a GAA programme but we brought in rugby as well. We were into GAA ourselves and that was a natural focus.
“There was then — and there is now — a gap in the market. TG4 had live games but there were few if any documentaries being made about the GAA, so there was room there for a chat show.”
The chat being as Gaeilge meant tilting it further towards the GAA.
“We were conscious of the Irish, and apart from the GAA there were few enough figures in sport, authoritative figures, who could speak as Gaeilge.
“Current GAA players and managers, former players and managers, many of them had Irish. In politics and music you might find Irish speakers, but not in every area. There were a few in rugby as well, Luke Fitzgerald was good, and other lads made an attempt at Irish at least, but it built up after years of the programme.
“That was always a chance you might lose people because of the Irish, we’d record on a Friday and send it live to Telegael for the subtitles, and the subtitles helped it to break out of the cloak of just being in Irish.
“People would try to follow the Irish but the subtitles made it instantly accessible. You could go into a pub in Cork or Kildare or Tyrone on a Friday evening and you’d see Seó Spóirt on with the volume down but the subtitles on. They made it a more national programme than just a programme as Gaeilge.”
Micheál Ó Domhnaill was the first presenter of the show, and Ó Cualain has high praise for him. “Micheál was excellent, you won’t find a better presenter than MOD, but TG4 felt after a few years that we needed to build another personality, to use another face in our programming. Dara Ó Cinnéide had just finished his own playing career, and when TG4 asked us to look at footballers, he was top of the list.
“It’s a different programme when you have a player. He’s been in the dressing rooms, he’s won it as a player — and the guests know that.
“People know he writes for the Examiner so they know he’s keeping up with developments in the game... there’s an added authority there, which isn’t to take from any other presenter, but there’s more to the package when it’s a former player.”
For his part, Ó Cinnéide recognised kindred spirits in the Ó Cualains immediately.
“Seán and Eamon are involved in their own clubs, they’re Carna Caiseal,” says Ó Cinnéide.
“I’d be saying ‘how’s your club lotto going, how many lads do ye have heading to America this summer’ — all issues and challenges we’d be familiar with back in An Ghaeltacht ourselves. We got each other from the start.”
Ciaran Kilkenny, Mícheál and Gary Brennan to feature in final episode as TG4's Seó Spóirt to end after 11 years https://t.co/znbka0GJvd— Seó Spóirt (@SeoSpoirtTG4) April 26, 2017
Ó Cualain chips in: “A lot of the ladies were very happy we had Dara on screen, that was good for a younger female audience, and he also appealed to the people who wanted to listen to his Irish. Two Venn diagrams which don’t overlap too often, maybe.”
The Friday night slot was vital to the show’s success. “From the start, we knew we wanted to be a preview show, The Sunday Game was always a show reacting to games,” says Ó Cualain.
“When you’re a preview show, you’re looking forward rather than over-analysing on a Sunday or a Monday night, looking back. All you can do then is look back on that particular game, or games, but Friday or Thursday works very well as a GAA slot.
“Access to GAA players is far harder now compared to 10 years ago, even. That’s not the players, it’s managers trying to control the message, and as a club manager myself for years, I understand that completely. I wouldn’t let a camera into the dressing room if you paid me a fortune. I understand the restrictions on players.
“That preview programme is needed. It’s not on RTÉ or TG4 now, and I think it’s needed because you can’t get into the realm of the GAA just by looking at games — or by documentaries alone either, by the way, because you can’t get access to high-profile players.
“I think TG4 has been good in its appreciation of the culture of the GAA — they’ve been opportunistic as well in terms of taking on what RTÉ isn’t interested in — but there has to be a realisation, too, that only so much can be done with amateur players, which you have in the GAA, and who are operating in a culture of ‘say nothing’.
“Is that over the top? It is. We’ve had players who were willing to come on and use Irish, then you have a communication from the manager or the county board that it shouldn’t happen and that the player has to toe the line.”
On the other hand, getting a player with cúpla focail is less of a struggle, he says: “There isn’t a county, really, which isn’t represented. It’s been a complete change there, maybe because of all the gaelscoileanna which have sprung up around the country, but it’s definitely easier now to get players with Irish than it was 10 years ago.”
That was a rewarding journey for Ó Cinnéide, encountering players he’d never met on the field: “Meeting the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny — the first time I’d have met him was on his crutches after his cruciate injury, coming onto the show, as impressive a man off the field as he is on it.
“Likewise Gary Brennan, all of these lads. Liam Ó Lionnain, another fine analyst. You might hear someone say ‘what has he won’, but he was as good an analyst as Darragh Ó Sé, who has six All-Irelands.
“There was a distinct policy after we found our feet of going after lads you wouldn’t get usually, but whose opinions were as valid as those of superstar All-Ireland medal-winners. That was a big part of it for me — having the banter with the lads during the ad breaks and so on. We even got Tomás Ó Sé to come out of his shell a bit on the show.”
Not the first Ó Sé to have an impact, says Ó Cualain: “There was one time we rang Páidi and I think there was an element of misinterpretation.
“I think he thought he was being offered the opportunity to present the show. And I can tell you he was rolling along with it. That wouldn’t have been a problem to him.
“I looked back on a few programmes earlier this week, and he’d come into the studio and be thrown across the couch with 10 seconds to air, and then, when the programme began, he’d switch on. He didn’t really turn into a different person for the show. He was how he was.”
His club man Ó Cinnéide was fond of the wide-ranging discussions which were an organic part of the show.
“We’d discuss what we’d deal with ahead of time, obviously, pick a few headlines,” Dara says, “but you might have someone like Alan Milton on the show from Croke Park, who might be uncomfortable with that kind of stuff, and we’d say, ‘look, it’s in the Examiner in black and white, we’re here to give ventilation to this kind of stuff’.
“We also gave guests a chance to develop their points if they wanted to — I wasn’t saying, ‘look, you only have a minute and a half on that’, if they wanted to go further with something. And some guests were introspective at the start but would warm up to make very strong points.
“Now, Eamon or Seán might be roaring in my earpiece, ‘we only have a minute left on this, we need to talk about Waterford next’, but my view was ‘forget that, we’ll get to it next week, this is very strong’ — I’d say it to them then during the break, that Ger Canning or Ger Loughnane or whoever it was was developing some strong points.
“People understand that so long as there’s balance over the course of a season. It was very comfortable. It was a good level of discussion, talking to genuine GAA people who were making genuine points.”
Ó Cualain says the Seó Spóirt team are moving on to new projects, including Puc na nGael, a documentary on ice hockey’s links to hurling, with Ger Loughnane, but the cancellation is still an open wound: “The reality is three lads are losing their jobs today. They’ll be laid off with the last show, so it’s still raw for us, there’s still a disappointment there.”
Does the sudden axe mean a sense of unfinished business? This is Ó Cualain discussing gender balance on the show: “We should have done more. Some of that was the reality of where we are — bringing people back west on a Friday evening, that didn’t suit a lot of people time-wise.
“The O’Connor sisters (Claire and Aoife) were very good, the Cork girls were very good always, but sometimes, for instance, we didn’t cover ladies football because we only had male guests who weren’t familiar with the games — and sometimes we had female guests who were focused on their own thing, naturally, and weren’t familiar with men’s games. We did a bit, but in fairness we should have done more.” They did their bit. And more.