Marian Finucane’s career in broadcasting was marked by a tenacity and humanity that few could equal. Donal O’Donoghue traces the path of a life less ordinary
It could have all been so different. In the beginning, Marian Finucane seemed destined for a career in architecture, having studied in Bolton Street College of Technology in Dublin and subsequently working as an architect until 1974.But that same year a meeting with RTÉ current affairs reporter, John O’Donoghue, changed everything. It was, she said, as if a light switch had been flicked. Years later, the broadcaster would quip that her dream was to be Gay Byrne when she grew up. In many ways, Finucane was the closest to that seminal broadcaster, a pioneering figure who carved out her own niche with a series of landmark radio shows paving the way for so many others to follow.
Marian grew up in Glasnevin on the northside of Dublin. After completing her Leaving Certificate at 16, she was packed off to boarding school in Monaghan. Her mother reckoned that young Marian needed to be toughened up. She was. She recalled boarding school was hellish. “I think that experience subsequently helped me to empathise with prisoners,” she said a few years back. “I can identify their loss of freedom and the loss of any decision-making in your own life. It was like that in boarding school back then.” Yet it also helped make her the tenacious and talented interrogator that she would become.
Ambition was never lacking. The year she joined RTÉ as a continuity announcer, her ascent – and output – was prolific. She worked on a books programme ( Paper Chase), was a reporter on the current affairs show, Day By Day, and made her reputation (and won a Jacobs’ Award in 1979) as the presenter of Women Today, a pioneering radio show dealing with issues affecting women at a time of crisis for many. There was also her Prix Italia award-winning documentary, Abortion: The Lonely Crisis, but it was her time in the frontline with Liveline that elevated her as the people’s champion. Long before people talked to Joe, they confided in Marian. That was 1985 when Marian hosted an innovative new radio show in which the great unwatched got to vent our views. Liveline evolved out of Women Today and three years after its debut, Finucane won the 1998 Radio Journalist of the Year Award. Liveline is still one of the top radio shows but as its current host, Joe Duffy, put it recently, Marian Finucane “invented” it. She was to remain in the hot seat until 1999 when Duffy took over. That was the year Gay Byrne retired and the baton was passed to Marian when Byrne’s morning radio slot was filled by The Marian Finucane Show.
This weekday programme eventually evolved into the flagship ratingstopping weekend radio shows. But the pressure to deliver and stay top of the heap was constant. “It’s like doing your Leaving in public every three months,” she said of the coverage that invariably followed the latest listenership figures. Yet her curiosity and humanity was undimmed, someone who could read a situation and person like few others. In 2005, on the occasion of her final weekday show, President Mary McAleese described her as the country’s top broadcaster (“that lovely voice of empathetic broadcasting”) and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sent her a bouquet of flowers.
Away from the microphone, there were the many charities Marian worked with or supported, including the Irish Hospice Foundation, Harcourt Street Hospital, the Rape Crisis Centre and Concern. In 2002, following an inspirational trip to South Africa, she and her husband, John, founded Friends in Ireland, a charity countering the devastating effects of HIV/Aids on children there. The NGO was run from their Kildare home. “It’s the old cliché,” she said. “It’s the most rewarding thing that you can do.” And she was involved with her charities right up until her passing at the beginning of the New Year.
Marian Finucane said that her career was a series of lucky accidents. But you make your own luck. Through it all Gay Byrne remained her broadcasting hero, the man whose work motto, ‘Keep her going, Patsy’ was very similar to Marian’s own world view, of putting one foot in front of the other. Like Byrne, she had an uncanny knack of tapping into the times, but also boldly going where few other broadcasters dared to tread. And I imagine that in the days since she left us, there are many young broadcasters dreaming of becoming the next Marian Finucane.