How TG4 changed the sporting landscape in Ireland

Oisin Langan looks back at 20 years of sports coverage as Gaeilge

Cork, Ladies football, all-ireland,

Image: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

This time 20 years ago, even though I didn’t speak the language, a 15-year-old Oisin tuned in with excitement as TnaG launched with a flurry of fireworks.  

I’m not sure what had me so excited. Much like with the grainy pictures of S4C, I could see what was going on but I could not understand it. We watched a few minutes of the opening night, which almost predictably featured a trad session. I thought: "Oh, here we go. This new channel is going to be all shawls, sean nós songs, and people on bogs talking about how miserable they were, or how those with shoes were living a life of pure luxury."

I'm glad to say that I was completely wrong. It became apparent this was going to be more cutting-edge than that, something which blew away lazy stereo types about the Irish language with its shiny, new and vibrant station.  

Young me would have argued Irish was a dead language, and not worth pumping resources in to, so why would we financially back something like this. I’m writing this in retrospect, near my home place in County Waterford which is right beside the Gaeltacht. There was a time when, in my innocence (or perhaps, stupidity), the Gaeltacht in Waterford was as far away as the one in Donegal.

I thought that gaeilgeoirí were insular and uninterested in the outside world, and "their" dead language was something which had been forced on me in school. As it turns out, they weren’t insular, I was, and I was more than happy to fall back on a lazy excuse if it meant I could justify not putting any effort into our first language. 

TG4, with its imaginative sports broadcasts, documentaries and general programming, helped normalise the Irish language for us closed-minded individuals who had stupidly and lazily written it off.

Between Olé Olé (the Spanish soccer show that brought La Liga to us before those damn hipsters jumped on it), coverage of Celtic in the UEFA cup, live GAA club matches, Hector's travel documentaries and, of course, evil Tadhg in Ros na Rún, we realised it was a living, breathing, vibrant thing, and not just something that had to be learned under duress.

Image: The Leinster team celebrate with the Celtic League trophy in 2001. ©INPHO/Patrick Bolger

The Gaeltacht wasn’t just for summer, it was for life, and the language wasn’t just there to be learned, it was there to be enjoyed.

My main relationship with TG4 is through sport, and many sporting bodies owe a lot to the vision of the station. Would AIB have gotten behind the club game without live coverage? Would Ladies football have grown into a vibrant organisation with a major corporate sponsor without the exposure of nationally televised games? Would the provinces have benefited from everything that exposure on television brings if TG4 had not shown the vision to cover the Celtic league, as it was known then? 

All of the above must have been seen as gambles within the station, but for everyone involved they have paid off, an din particular for us viewers. The competition it provides has also forced RTÉ and TV3 to maintain high standards.

It makes me proud to be Irish that our current President was a driving force for TG4’s creation, and it makes me even prouder that a production company in Waterford has brought us the passion and entertainment of thousands of county finals, rugby matches, League of Ireland games, and many more events.

Image: Toasting the opening of Teilifis Na Gaeilge in 1996 were Briain Mac Aongusa, Chairman of TNaG (left), then-Labour Minister Michael D. Higgins TD (centre); and Prof. Farrel Carcoran, Chairman RTE authority (right) in the Connemara Coast Hotel, Galway. Kevin Clancy/Photocall Ireland

For its size, Ireland is sports mad, and much of TG4’s output has reflected this. The lazy part of me hopes that, at some stage, the red button option for English language commentary pops up for games shown on TG4, à la S4C in Wales. However that shouldn’t happen until every game on RTÉ is also available as Gaeilge. 

Has TG4 revived or even give the language a boost? To be honest, I don’t know, but I know I would not have tried to go back and learn Irish without it. I know it has opened the eyes of many to a cornerstone of our culture we had wrongly ignored and written off.  

Obviously, I’m more inclined to watch sport, but from what I can gather the station has also provided a great platform to the arts. Last year, I had my first experience of the Oireachtas na Gaeilge festival - think Electric Picnic, only with Irish as the spoken language and fewer hipsters - and I pretty much recognised most of the performers. The reason was not some in-depth knowledge of the arts, rather because I had seen them all on TG4.  

Keep making awesome and original TV, keep bidding for sports rights, and keep challenging those who choose to believe a major part of our culture and identity should be no more.

Happy birthday TG4 - Súil Eile