Westmeath football star wows TikTok with Irish accent and sunny nature
Every Irish emigrant knows, there is an 11th commandment – written solely, it appears, for the Irish – that decrees ‘Thou shalt not change thine accent’.
Ten years on from her move from Mullingar to the UK, TikTok star Gemma Leahy can say her conscience is clear: her accent is intact. And that, it seems, is one of the features that have made her a hit on TikTok.
“I was surprised when I got my first 1000 followers. And now I am almost at 80,000. It’s crazy,” says the former Westmeath ladies goalkeeper in the velvety sonorous voice that has fans constantly pleading with her to read their name on video for them, or to do shoutouts to their children or grannies.
“I didn’t really think anything of my accent because I can’t hear my own accent, but living over in England for the last 10 years, people comment about my accent quite a lot, so I was probably more afraid that I wouldn’t sound like I am from Mullingar than anything and that I might have started picking up an English twang,” she told the Westmeath Examiner in a WhatsApp chat from the UK.
Gemma’s TikTok following isn’t solely about her accent, however: she is original; she is funny; deeply attached to family; she is genuine, open and warm and eminently likeable.
Her success on TikTok has come quite rapidly as it is only since the outbreak of the pandemic that Gemma began making TikToks: “I started during lockdown last year. I was on furlough over here in England for about eight months, and I was getting tagged and stuff from friends saying ‘Oh, you’d be great on this’ and I thought ‘Oh no: I couldn’t be bothered with that!’.”
The seed had been sown, however, and Gemma threw a couple of experimental videos up on Facebook: “All of a sudden, people were messaging me going ‘When is your next video?’ and it kind of went from there to be honest.”
She has lots of followers here at home – but way more abroad: “There’s loads of Americans, absolutely a tonne of Americans; people in Australia; but probably I’d say 65% of them are American.”
Gemma is a keen sportswoman and comes from a family with a strong GAA heritage: her father, Peter Leahy is a former manager of the Mayo and Westmeath senior ladies’ football teams, and a former physical trainer with the Westmeath hurlers. Gillian was a member of the Westmeath Ladies team that won the all-Ireland in 2011 and more or less straight after that, she headed for the UK.
“When I left Westmeath in 2011, it was just after we won the All-Ireland and then I came over here and I didn’t play. But I’m back now playing Gaelic football for a team in Coventry, and we won the All-Britain two years ago, so it’s nice to be back playing at a decent level.
“Don’t get me wrong: I miss the crack back home, but it’s kind of a home away from home here. I’ve been with them for three years now, and they’re just such a brilliant bunch of girls – all Irish.
“It just feels like home when you’re there.”
At home, Gemma had obtained a Business degree from AIT. In the UK she got into field marketing, and staff training and coaching with a number of big brands, especially in the mobile technologies sector, with brands such as Nokia and Huawei.
The pandemic brought a long pause to the training and coaching and development side, so Gemma’s period of furlough arose. Then she saw and applied for a job in Leicester in the Walker’s (crisps) factory, and nine months ago, started there as site trainer. Just the day of this interview, she received promotion to the role of head of training. “I’m doing okay, not too bad,” she says modestly.
A big focus for Gemma is on her forthcoming nuptials to fiancée Amie Chivers: “I am ‘longly’ engaged,” she says.
“We were due to be married – three times – but it was cancelled because we were doing it abroad.
“We’re actually going home to do the legal side of things now, in three weeks, so my granny can be there, and then we are going to do the ‘wedding wedding’ in Cyprus next year, in April.”
Gemma came out around a year before moving to England, at a time when Ireland’s marriage equality referendum was still four years into the future: “When I left Mullingar, there wasn’t a massive LGBT community anywhere. And as I go back more, I notice the younger generation – people who probably wouldn’t have come out in the day – are coming out, so it’s definitely changed since I left.”
When Gemma told her parents, Peter and Mary, she was gay they were “amazing” and when the marriage equality campaign began, they even actively campaigned in favour of the extension of marriage rights.
“My granny is so excited for us to get married and I would have thought 10 years ago, when I came out, ‘How am I going to tell my granny?’, so attitudes have definitely changed in the last 10 years.”
That same granny has featured on TikTok; so too have Peter and Mary and there was a tremendous reaction online to a reunion video Gemma shot showing her parents’ joy when surprised by her brother Owen’s unexpected arrival home from Australia.
Through her videos, Gemma lays her life bare: in a recent one she shared her excitement over the fact that her sister Lauren (of LL Nails in Mullingar) is shortly to become a mother. Another showed the progress being made on an inked tribute to her grandparents: “I didn’t really have a tattoo. But over the last year we didn’t have the smoothest year: all within 18 months we lost my grandmother, my best friend, my aunt, my uncle and my granddad. It was a rough year.”
That said, the tone is upbeat: sometimes Gemma answers questions about herself; other times questions about Ireland – and she should definitely be getting paid by someone for the positive PR she gives this country.
She is touched sometimes by how grateful people are when for example, she does a shoutout wishing their granny a happy birthday and they come back to let her know her message made their granny’s day – but then again, when she does shoutouts they are well-thought-out, meaningful and sincere, and always with her dimpled smile and expressive eyes amplifying the message spoken.
At one stage a company asked her to come on board and do shoutouts for a fee: “I slightly brushed it off because I thought I couldn’t justify charging someone something for me to just say hello to them – it just makes no sense,” she says.
Gemma reckons the reason for her success on TikTok is probably that she is an optimistic, cheerful person: “I try to see the funny side of life all the time. Like I said, for the last 18 months, on the other side of my life, it’s been hectic and manic, but I think my nature is always to make people happy and lift people up, make them smile and make sure everyone else is okay. I think that is just my nature.
“A lot of people ignore a lot of people who follow them. I try to interact with as many people as possible, because I am appreciative of the fact that people bothered to watch me.”