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GAEL FORCE 'It's about more than medals - it's about personal journeys'

Sean McGoldrick examines why the much-loved TG4 sport series Laochra Gael has endured for so many years

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Laochra Gael's highest ratings so far was the episode on Cormac McAnallen

Laochra Gael's highest ratings so far was the episode on Cormac McAnallen

Irial Mac Murchu is the man behind the brilliant Laochra Gael on TG4

Irial Mac Murchu is the man behind the brilliant Laochra Gael on TG4

Henry Shefflin when he appeared on Laochra Gael

Henry Shefflin when he appeared on Laochra Gael

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Laochra Gael's highest ratings so far was the episode on Cormac McAnallen

BORN out of economic necessity two decades ago, TG4's Laochra Gael documentary series has become essential viewing for all GAA fans.

Commissioned by the then fledgling Irish language station, County Clare's All-Ireland winning hurling manager and ex-player Ger Loughnane was the subject of the first Laochra Gael, broadcast in May 2001.

Irial Mac Murchú, founder of Nemeton, an independent television production company based in the Ring Gaeltacht in Waterford, first came up with the idea.

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Irial Mac Murchu is the man behind the brilliant Laochra Gael on TG4

Irial Mac Murchu is the man behind the brilliant Laochra Gael on TG4

Irial Mac Murchu is the man behind the brilliant Laochra Gael on TG4

"At the time it was mostly GAA club and league games we were covering," he tells, "which meant we had no work for our staff over the summer months. We wanted to provide full-time work for them, so I approached TG4 with the idea of a doing a documentary series on former players and managers."

By then, Nemeton and TG4 had already established a fruitful working relationship, stretching back to the station's launch in 1996.

Never in his wildest dreams did Mac Murchú imagine that two decades later the series would become one of the most watched programmes on the station, now in its 19th series. By the time the current series has completed its six-week run at the end of the month, 178 documentaries will have been broadcast since 2001.

"I will never forget the first discussion with TG4," he adds. "They were looking for a long-running GAA documentary series whereas I thought we might get 10 episodes out of it."

And the remit of the programme hasn't changed over the years, according to TG4's head of sport Rónán Ó Coisdealbha.

"We're interested in the subject's personal stories as much as what they did on the pitch. It's not just about winning All-Ireland medals. We've done an awful lot of people who never won an All-Ireland medal. It's about their journey from when they started playing until the present day."

The decision in 2018 to extend the show from 30 to 60 minutes helped solidify its reputation, continues Ó Coisdealbha: "Trying to fit a person's whole career into a half an hour was very difficult. The hour-long format is much better. We get a better picture and the audience prefer the longer format."

Trust, believes Mac Murchú, is the key to the programme's enduring success.

"We never once abused that trust," he says. "If somebody told us something and later had second thoughts about what they said, we whip it out straight away. Therefore, we can now attract the biggest ex-stars to the programme. They know what we are about."

He remembers, in particular, the episode featuring Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy, in which he spoke about the difficult relationship he had with his late father, as well as the ones with Kilkenny hurlers Jackie Tyrrell and Henry Shefflin.

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Henry Shefflin when he appeared on Laochra Gael

Henry Shefflin when he appeared on Laochra Gael

Henry Shefflin when he appeared on Laochra Gael

"Henry Shefflin spoke about his insecurities and three different times he mentioned about breaking down in tears."

But former Donegal footballer Kevin Cassidy, who featured in this year's series, insists he felt no pressure to discuss his father's battle with alcoholism and premature death.

"The conversation just flowed and we just stumbled on the topic," he says. "I was comfortable enough to talk about it. It did catch me on the hop but maybe that's the best way."

The sports star didn't know who the other guests on the show would be and didn't see the final version of the programme until it aired on the station.

He adds: "At the end I was a bit nervous because a few days before the programme went out, I got a couple of texts from journalists who had seen a press preview.

"I sat down with the rest of my family and we watched it together. We enjoyed it tremendously and the reaction I got afterwards was fantastic."

There have been amusing stories on the journey, as Mac Murchú reveals: "One participant did his interview over several hours. When we looked at the tape here in the studio it was obvious that there had been a glass of wine too many consumed during the interview.

"We had to find a diplomatic way of going back and saying we would have to reshoot the interview."

Attracting a peak audience of 287,000, the most watched programme in the series was the posthumous documentary on Tyrone GAA captain Cormac McAnallen which was broadcast on Christmas Day 2005, over a year after his sudden death.

Almost two decades on, working on Laochra Gael, produced by Wexford native Ronan O'Donoghue, remains a labour of love, according to Mac Murchú.

"It is very rewarding. We are all passionate about sport and we are particularly passionate about the GAA. They say your dream job is one which would get you got of bed on a Monday morning even if you weren't getting paid. That's how we feel about what we have been doing for the last 20 years."

Laochra Gael continues tonight and every Thursday on TG4 at 9.30pm with the last three episodes focusing on Bernard Flynn, Seán Cavanagh & Liam Griffin

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