‘You feel guilty that you are not there for your kids’ – RTÉ presenter Jacqui Hurley on why she stepped away from a job she loved
This day last week, Jacqui Hurley celebrated her 39th birthday. Not alone was it her birthday, but it was the first Sunday in years that she hadn’t been at work.
he week before, Hurley signed off on her last ever Sunday Sport show on RTÉ Radio 1. Like Claire Byrne before her, the broadcaster made the difficult decision to scale back on her work commitments as the cost to her family was just too great.
“My eight-year-old said to me when I was going out the previous weekend for my last show, ‘Mom, you’re really going to miss the matches’. I said, ‘yeah, but Luke, I really miss you too.’”
Her son laughed, she adds.
“He loves my job. I think he must think I’m absolutely mad to not want to be in Croke Park every weekend. But as I said to him, ‘yeah, but I get to be with you.’”
Instead of her working, the family spent Hurley’s birthday together in Dublin city centre. She thinks her children, Luke and Lily (5), will come to notice her increased presence more over the coming months, in the small, everyday family moments.
“They constantly ask, ‘Mom can you come, can you come,’” she says of her children’s request for her to be at their Sunday morning games and training. “You keep having to say no, you do feel bad. You feel guilty that you’re not there. Now I actually get to say, ‘yes, I will be there.’”
She will still be working a lot of Saturdays, but she has scaled back. “It just won’t be as relentless as it has been.”
Hurley has been co-hosting Sunday Sport for 14 years. Last year was the most professionally rewarding period of her career, she says, but it was also hard. In September 2021 she was also handed the role of RTÉ rugby anchor.
At the time she chose not to drop anything else, deciding to give it a year, continuing with an already full work schedule of news reporting shifts, Sunday Sport presenter, and other presenting duties.
While the new job was a dream, with two small children at home her working week became difficult to navigate.
“I’d always said to my bosses, can we examine what this looks like at the end of the year,” says Hurley. The family have also just finished renovating their home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which involved having to move out for a period, which added to the general air of busyness.
Getting the rugby job was really exciting, she adds. But quickly she realised what it would cost her in family time when added to her existing commitments.
“You actually look at it in real terms, sit down and go through it with your family, and you realise, ‘oh I’m not around that weekend, that weekend I’m working Friday in Belfast, Saturday in Limerick, and then Sunday on the radio.’”
Working Sunday meant that technically she was working Saturday as well, keeping an eye on sports events, making sure she was prepped ahead of the four-hour live broadcast the next day. In the end, something had to give.
Her husband Shane McMahon works long hours in finance, but generally Monday to Friday. At the weekend, she says, he was effectively a single parent and Jacqui’s work schedule last year meant the couple had very little downtime together.
“He’s delighted to have me around on the weekends, not to share the load, but because he missed me,” she says.
Shane and Jacqui met when she was 21.
“He has always been very supportive. But I knew the pressure it was putting on him at weekends, he was basically single parenting. We met when I was in my final year of college, so this wasn’t just my dream, it was his dream for me too.
“He’s been there for all of this. He’s never going to say no to me, he’s always going to say let’s try and find a way to make it work. That’s grand for a sustained period of time. But there was no let-up.”
When her RTÉ colleague Claire Byrne left her TV show, it resonated with Hurley. “I think people thought, ‘God, how could somebody who’s that successful want to do that?’ And I totally understood it, because we were going through the same thing at the same time.
“I opened the paper and I saw Claire saying it, and I thought, ‘that’s exactly how I feel’. Like I’m not off, even when I’m with my kids. I need to be present with them. There is a balance to be struck.”
Like many others, the pandemic made Hurley reassess her priorities. And she realised that her kids were only going to be small for a short period of time. “Previously, I might have gone, ‘ah yeah, sure it’ll be grand, now I’m actually like, ‘no it won’t be. I don’t want to miss these years.’”
Everyone sacrifices things to get what they want, Hurley, who is also the author of children’s book Girls Play Too, observes. And the sacrifices associated with working at RTÉ have been worth it.
“To me, it’s absolutely worth it because it’s my dream job,” she says. But age, experience, and confidence allowed her to make this change. “I never would have been able to do this 10 years ago, to step away. Because I would have been worried about, ‘well what’s next for me then?’”
“I’ve worked really, really hard to get where I am,” she says, adding there is a confidence that comes with that.
“I’m just in such a content phase of my life that I’m not worried about the ramifications of stepping away from something like Sunday Sport, in the way that I might have been 10 years ago.”
It’s about juggling the balls, all at the same time, she says, when we discuss notions such as having it all.
“Sometimes one thing gets prioritised and something else doesn’t. You just have to make sure that you are constantly watching the balls, that they’re all moving in the same direction at the same time.”
When she was born, the Hurley family were living in the small Cork village of Ballinhassig. Aged three, she moved to Australia, with her older sister Triona and younger brother Sean.
Her father Dave is an electrician, her mother Mairead a nurse, it was 1980s Ireland and they wanted to give their family a better life. The outdoor lifestyle of the country she lived in until she was 10 fostered a lifelong love of sport, and when the family returned to Cork, Hurley and her sister went on to play basketball for Ireland.
Before it became a profession, sport was a way-in socially when she returned, something of an oddity.
“If I didn’t have sport I would have just been that girl who talked funny, sitting in the corner,” she says. “Once I started playing they realised there was a value to me.”
She says now that she didn’t push herself hard enough in sport. “I was somebody with a lot of natural talent, and I didn’t work hard enough. I’m the complete opposite in my professional career, because I know what failure looks like.”
It was in her final year in University of Limerick, where she studied media and communications, with English, that she met Shane. He was living in the house next door, so she literally fell in love with the boy next door, she laughs.
“When I brought him home for the first time my mum and dad said, ‘oh Jesus, there’s two of them’. His sense of having the craic, and living in the moment, is me all over.”
After college, they moved to Dublin. “We both knew that we had found our person.”
Initially she had a five-minute weekly slot on RTÉ’s TTV, reporting the sports news. She went to her boss, Ryle Nugent, then deputy head of sport, successfully asking for a job in production.
Aged 25, she was called into the office of Paddy Glackin, head of sport in radio.
“I genuinely thought he was saying ‘sorry, we don’t have any more work.’” In fact, Jacqui was being offered a role co-hosting Sunday Sport, the first woman to present the show. “It’s probably only all these years later that it really profoundly is something to be proud of.”
At the time, she was worried about being the youngest ever presenter, and her lack of experience.
Grief doesn’t go away, it just changes size
She was in RTÉ when she received the news that would change her family’s lives forever, on November 20, 2011. Her younger brother Sean had been killed in a road accident. “Your whole world falls apart. It’s actually like an out of body experience.” Hurley was 27 at the time, her brother 25.
She smiles as she describes him. “Big gregarious character, mad into sport, he was a motorbike racer. A big rogue, really loved by everybody. Was gonna do big things. And then, like that, he’s gone forever.”
She describes how grief can spring at the most unexpected of times, not just on big days like anniversaries and Christmas.
“There could be a random Wednesday when I’m doing the six o’clock news, and I’m sitting in that same chair, he just comes across my mind at the same time I got the phone call. Grief doesn’t go away, it just changes size.”
Two nights before Sean died, he and his mother did something that provided his family with what Hurley describes now as an initial path through their grief. It was a windy night and Sean, a plasterer, was heading out on a job. He said to their mother, “I don’t want to do this anymore”. He wanted to race.
Sean and his mother sat down and made a list of all the things he wanted to do with his life. In the aftermath of Sean’s death, his family worked their way through what became known as his bucket list, including running a marathon the day after Jacqui and Shane’s wedding six months later.
“Somebody gave us this list for us to be able to put our grief into something positive,” she says.
While her career now finds a focus around rugby, for years Jacqui had expected her job path to be in GAA or soccer.
“Years ago, The Sunday Game was where I thought I was going.” The job of presenting went to new hands in 2017, Joanne Cantwell.
“It was between the two of us and they had decided to go with her, which is absolutely fine, but it was crushing,” Jacqui explains, adding that she wants to be clear this is nothing to do with Joanne, who is a “brilliant presenter”.
“I’ve always been one of those people who is constantly chasing the next thing. I’m not very good at settling, and just sitting there.”
But she wasn’t sure what the next thing in RTÉ could be. She had been offered jobs elsewhere. “I was very close to leaving. I’d basically written my resignation letter.”
Her bosses asked her to stay, telling her they couldn’t promise anything specific, but they had big plans for her. She began to see that there were other opportunities, but the job offer to become RTÉ’s rugby anchor was a complete surprise.
“It was such a bolt out of the blue. I’ve been a rugby fan all my life, but never dreamed that I would be presenting it.”
Now, in this next phase, she is looking forward to enjoying the small things with her children. “In another couple of years, they’ll be gone, and maybe I’ll be back doing something else in work, who knows?”
It’s about getting a balance, between being there with them, but also doing the other things she wants to do.
“Work is still incredibly important to me, none of that has changed,” she says, adding that she will still have to work the occasional Sunday. “I’m still doing an awful lot of work. I don’t see this as a step back, or a risk in stepping away from my job. This is actually just a real direct conversation with my bosses, saying, ‘I cannot do all the things that you want me to do, let’s look at this together.’”
And for now, she is looking forward to being at her children’s training and matches on Sunday mornings. She trains the kids in GAA, Shane trains rugby.
“Yeah, so we’re that family now,” Jacqui laughs. “Fully committed.”
Jacqui presents RTÉ’s Guinness Six Nations rugby coverage from February 4 on RTÉ2, RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ Player
https://www.independent.ie/life/you-feel-guilty-that-you-are-not-there-for-your-kids-rte-presenter-jacqui-hurley-on-why-she-stepped-away-from-a-job-she-loved-42303043.html ‘You feel guilty that you are not there for your kids’ – RTÉ presenter Jacqui Hurley on why she stepped away from a job she loved