It’s a strange thing to speak with a different accent to your children. My daughter was born in London, my son in Amsterdam, and their father is French Moroccan.
I had always assumed my children would form their words and shape their sentences in the same way as I do. So far, that hasn’t been the case. My daughter delights at the narrow-vowelled way we Norn Irish have of saying ‘house’ or the exaggerated, double syllables of the ‘cows’ in the field. I love how we speak; it’s lyrical, and energetic somehow.
Given the industry I work in, despite the still relatively few Northern Irish accents you hear on TV or radio in the UK, I have never considered changing how I speak to better assimilate. I remember clearly one of the few pieces of advice I was given early in my broadcasting career, from none other than Eamonn Holmes.
I was walking into the Sky News building one morning, where we had both recently started working. I had just transferred across from being Ireland correspondent in Belfast to news correspondent based in London.
The fact that someone of Eamonn’s stature even spoke to me, never mind took the time to have a genuine friendly chat, was something of a big deal. I was starstruck, which isn’t something you go around admitting in a cut-throat international newsroom. After checking in on how I was finding the big move, I’ll never forget him advising me: “Don’t ever lose your accent, Orla. Whatever you do, stay true to where you’re from.”
It wasn’t really something I had thought of until then. I am Northern Irish, so how I speak is because of how my words have been shaped since birth. Over the course of my career, I’ve had cause to think of this advice more times than perhaps I would have liked.
First there were those colleagues, in the very same newsroom and beyond, who had noticeably shifted their Ulster accents to sound more generically English/British, and how they seemed to be treated ever-so-slightly differently as a result. I thought I was paranoid at the time.
But then there have been the occasions since, twice in only the last few years, when I was (mis)informed that my accent didn’t work on British TV.
The first time, it was stated as a matter of simple fact, an issue of regret even. A production company boss who worked in a sport I was specialising in, regretfully informed my agent that how I spoke was a shame, since in their opinion, I was one of the best in the field. It was as though this boss didn’t somehow help make the ‘rules’ they were seemingly complaining about. The second occasion came as recently as the first lockdown. I had embarked on a project that I dedicated a lot of my free time to, on the understanding that I was the first choice for the attached, upcoming television project.
At the 11th hour, the boss of the franchise declared my Northern Irishness to be a problem, asked me to do another half a day of work for free just to be sure (which I did), before he decided that no, he would rather have an estuary pronunciation after all.
I was truly flabbergasted. I couldn’t decide whether I was more shocked that my accent could be a problem, or that it was deemed OK to announce it.
I won’t allow anyone to tell us we’re ‘not good enough’ because of where we’re from, ‘not qualified enough’ because of how we speak, or ‘not anything enough’ for any job, whether that be on television or elsewhere.
All of which is why I was particularly delighted and, just a little shocked, to have made it onto the shortlist recently for UK sports presenter of the year. Up against such titans as Gary Lineker and Mark Chapman, I’m under no illusions as to my chances of winning the thing, but the honour itself is immense.
I’ve always been an outsider, I’ve never belonged, and all I’ve had to offer is hard work, a dedication to doing the best job possible, a deep love of sports and more hard work on the side. And for once, it has been deemed enough. I shouldn’t need validation from anyone else, and I don’t, not really.
But if the day has moved closer when we can be judged on the value of our work alone, that can only be a good thing. So it can.
Follow Orla on social media @SportsOrla