Sports broadcaster Jacqui Hurley has an enviably upbeat attitude to life. She chats to Janice Butler about seizing every opportunity, remembering her brother Sean, her hopes for summer sport and why she'd never rule out a move to Oz.

"I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard in such a long time," says a gleeful Jacqui Hurley. She’s talking about her recent 37th birthday. As a big fan of birthdays and since she couldn’t have a big party this year, she decided to set herself 37 challenges to do in the day. From a sea swim, to eating raw eggs to trying to fit 37 Malteasers in her mouth, the list was drawn up and fully completed.

"For one day, it gave us a completely different focus," she adds. From my limited experience with the sports broadcaster, this story sums her up: fun, innovative, adaptable and up-for-a laugh.

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Key events happen in life that change you fundamentally and for Jacqui and her family, that moment was when her younger brother Sean, was killed in a road accident at age 25. This year is the tenth anniversary of his death and the Cork native remarks that going through that experience gave her a perspective on life that helps her deal with obstacles and challenges, including this last year of pandemic.

"Look, it could be worse; it could be a lot better, but it could be worse," she says. "I think when you’ve had tragedy in your life, it does give you perspective and I know since my brother died in 2011, it was a horrendous year, but once we got past that first year, I think our family made a commitment to each other that we were going to make life as bright as possible, because we knew how fragile it is.

"That sounds really clichéd, but my 25-year-old brother died with a bucket list that you could only dream about and making the decision as a family to go about and fulfil all his wishes and doing those things, is what has given me perspective on life, because I don’t want to be leaving a list like that. It gave us all a good kick up the arse, to say if you want to do something, just do it."

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This attitude has filtered into her own family, her two children, Luke (7) and Lily (4) and her husband, Shane. "We booked a holiday for the end of the year; if we can’t go, we can’t go. I would like for us to look at life as an opportunity rather than something that is holding us back."

She adapts this philosophy to her work as well, saying yes to most opportunities that come her way. "My gut instinct would be to say yes to things, unless it feels wrong to me or I’d be making a holy show of myself," she laughs. "But generally speaking, my optimistic side would say 'yes, let’s go for it’."

It hasn’t steered her wrong yet. From a very young age, she knew what she wanted to do; and that was to combine her two loves, sport and media. She completed an English degree in Limerick with a stint in Columbus, Mississippi where she interned in a newsroom. She went on to work in Live 95 FM back in Limerick, where she met her now husband Shane McMahon, who works in finance, or as she puts it, "a proper grown-up job."

The two moved to Dublin in 2006 after only nine months of dating; a typically Jacqui leap of faith. "It was a risk at the time, but I kind of knew this is the guy for me and the life I want," she says. Her career led her to RTÉ, where she has notched up an impressive list of achievements, including reporting from the Olympics, the Euros, the World Cup, more GAA games than she can remember and she’s been part of the 20x20 initiative which aims to change the way we look and report on women’s sports. Last year, she penned a best-seller, Girls Play Too with the same aim of promoting Irish female sports stars.

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Her can-do attitude to life was imbibed at home at a young age, she tells me. Her parents Dave and Mairead, encouraged all of theirchildren’s dreams; hers to be on TV, her brother’s to be a motor bike racer and her sister’s to be a pilot. "So we were three children with totally random career choices and you’d think our parents would be saying, will any of you do something normal, but they were so encouraging; there was never a sense of ‘no’ in our house."

In the ’80s, when Jacqui was only three, the family moved from Ballinhassig, County Cork to the Australia capital Canberra, in search of a better lifestyle.

"My parents decided to try and give their children a better life over there. They were risk-takers and I think that’s probably why they’ve never told us no, when it came to our careers. I was never afraid that my job wouldn’t work out. I had a back-up plan in my head, but I was never afraid to go for it. They didn’t want to be the type of parents that put limits on us and I see that in my own parenting style now."

The family returned home when she was ten as her mother wanted them to be nearer to their grandparents. Jacqui in particular took a long time to adjust back to an Irish childhood and she remarks that her dad would have gone back: "He misses the outdoor life that it offers."

Does she ever consider emigrating there with her own family? "We’ve often had conversations about going and showing our kids that life. I’d never write it off, I know how good it was for us as children so I can see the value of life out there. And the experience of living in another country for a while and what it does to open a child’s eyes to the world; I’d never rule it out."

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The death of Sean brought the family even closer together. Her older sister, Triona, who did go on to become a pilot, lives in the UK and the pandemic has meant that Jacqui hasn’t been able to see her or her niece since 2019. "It’s been very hard not seeing her. She’s so close but yet so far away," she remarks. They hope to mark Sean’s ten year anniversary in some way, restrictions allowing. In the past, they’ve done a 5K walk or run to remember him.

"I can’t believe he’ll be gone ten years this November, it’s crazy. The first year is like the longest year ever because you have all those first year milestones; his birthday, Christmas, all the occasions that are really difficult for a family to overcome. But since the first year, I feel like all the other years have flown."

Life at home is akin to everyone else, adapting to the blended world of working, home schooling and staying sane. She works from home much of the time, going into the RTÉ studios for her sports bulletins on the Six One News and the Sunday Sport radio show she presents with Darren Frehill. She and Shane have converted their conservatory into a home gym in a bid to stay fit.

"It was one of those spaces that we just weren’t using so it’s been great now having it as a gym. It’s given me a focus. Last year I got really back into getting fit. It was the first time in a couple of years that I had my mornings back, with Lily going to Montessori so I could focus on doing something for myself. I had probably struggled a little bit post babies in terms of putting on a bit of weight, not doing as much sport as I had been doing. Sport has been such a key part of my life, so I’ve tried to use lockdown as an opportunity to get fitter; maybe I’ve bucked the trend there," she laughs.

Her son is back in school, in first class, and her daughter is back in Montessori in the mornings. "He’s like a different boy. There was a lot of focus on the Leaving Cert group but I really felt for the smallies too; they’re lost those crucial years where they’re learning the fundamentals that will stay with them for life."

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Jacqui wrote her first book, Girls Play Too, during lockdown 2020. It tells the life stories of top Irish sportswomen, and she tells me she is working on a second edition, to be released in September.

"We went with 25 the last time – I wanted 100 but the publishers said it was too much. There were so many stories I wanted to tell but I had to see how the first one went. Rachael Blackmore was in the first book and it made me so happy to see boys and girls reading about her in the book and seeing her on the TV recently at Cheltenham – this is what it is, you have to show them what you can be, that’s the power of it."

She’s hoping to travel to Japan in the summer for the Olympics, but of course that’s all dependent on the pandemic. "As it stands, I’m due to travel but who knows what will happen? Nothing has been confirmed. Some of it isn’t up to RTÉ, so if I can’t go, I’ll be disappointed but I’ll still be glad to see them happen for the athletes."

She stills loves sport as much as she did at the start of her career; "when you get to do your dream job, it’s very hard to say I don’t want to do this any more. The same buzz is still there as it was the first day."
Her stand-out moment is Katie Taylor winning the Olympic gold medal in London in 2012. "It was one of those moments where you’re watching history unfold in front of your eyes. I don’t know how many other events would live up to that one."

She believes in the importance of sport in society, now more than ever, to lift our mood. "We forget how much people enjoy conversations about sport; like when Ireland beat England recently in the rugby, you could feel the lift it gave people, or when Rachel Blackmore wrote herself into the Cheltenham history books, it was all anyone was talking about," she says.

"Sport makes people feel good and we shouldn’t apologise for that, we should embrace it."