Saturday 20 January 2018

Veteran still on the crest of her radio wave with no plans to quit

The queen of Irish broadcasting talks to Miriam Donohoe about her passion for the job, RTÉ and Pat Kenny's bold move

Healthy appetite: Marian Finucane and Miriam Donohoe enjoy lunch at Avoca, in Rathcoole, Co Kildare.
Healthy appetite: Marian Finucane and Miriam Donohoe enjoy lunch at Avoca, in Rathcoole, Co Kildare.
A young Marian about to embark on her career in broadcasting with RTÉ

Okay let's get the retirement question out of the way first. Marian Finucane has no intention of hanging up her broadcasting boots anytime soon. Ambitious 'young guns', (or old), waiting in the wings to take over the 63-year-old RTÉ Radio One presenter's weekend slot can forget it.

"I have no plans to retire," says Finucane, the queen of Irish broadcasting. "RTÉ is so much a part of me and my life, and my identity internally. I really love doing radio programmes. Sometimes I think how lucky am I to be part of the national conversation, to be meeting all these extraordinarily interesting, (or boring, she chuckles), people and to engage with them.

"I have a friend who knows a professional who retired. My friend watches him go to Mass every morning. Then he buys the paper and goes home and closes the door. And that's it. Nothing. That would drive me around the bend. It's not the nature of the beast."

We meet in Egg Café on the first floor of the Avoca shop in Rathcoole, Co Kildare, on a gorgeous sunny October day. Marian is taller than I expected, slim and elegant. There is an initial wariness about Ireland's best-known broadcaster, but we quickly establish a rapport. Her instantly recognisable, gravelly voice is as rich as ever and it doesn't take long for a more relaxed side, and a lively sense of humour, to emerge.

Neither of us is very hungry and we both opt for healthy dishes. My lunch partner orders the Castletownbere crab on toasted Avoca multiseed bread while I go for the superfood salad of chargrilled asparagus, broccoli and blueberries with feta cheese. Both delicious.

Marian grew up in Glasnevin, Dublin, in the 1950s and 1960s and broadcasting was never on her radar as a young girl. The daughter of a garda and a teacher, both from Ballydesmond, in Co Cork, she has three sisters and two brothers and despite being the youngest was "very much NOT spoiled".

"I had a bog-standard upbringing. Second only to religion was education," says the veteran broadcaster, who went to Scoil Caitriona on Eccles Street. She was only 16 doing her Leaving Cert so her mother, worried she was getting wild, packed her off as a boarder to St Louis Convent in Monaghan to do it again.

"Even at that stage I was very interested in politics and debating and all of that kind of thing and I would be out late at night but sadly not cavorting. So I was sent off to the nuns. I hated that year."

It still never occurred to Marian to do broadcasting and after school, because she was good at maths and physics, she applied to do architecture in Bolton Street. "I knew I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted something a bit different."

And different it was. Only three of about 40 students in first year were female.

"It was very intimidating walking in the door first. I had never seen so many fellas in one room, but I got on like a house on fire socially. I got involved with inter-varsity debating and I spent a hell of a lot more time talking about politics than I did about architecture."

Before she finished her degree Marian met former RTÉ presenter John O'Donoghue at a party and he asked her to audition for a radio programme.

"I made an utter bags of it and didn't get the job, but a switch went off in my head and I thought I would really like this."

She was successful, though, in getting a role in television and radio continuity, and was asked by Eoghan Harris to present a newspaper and book review programme called Paperchase in 1976. There followed a stint working for a summer as a reporter on what was Pat Kenny's first presentation job on Radio One. Small world, as Pat had been her supervisor when she started in radio continuity.

"I was as high as a kite. I loved every minute. It was ground-breaking for RTÉ. We tackled all sorts of issues. I interviewed a woman who had been gang raped and left naked in the People's Park in Dún Laoghaire . . . and on another occasion I interviewed a bunch of prostitutes. As it happened one of them was on her first night on the game. RTÉ management at the time showed unbelievable courage and imagination."

Fast forward to the present and Marian admits she was surprised at her former mentor Kenny's move to Newstalk.

"People talked about Pat like he was a traitor. I am delighted for him even though it has made my life more complicated because I am flicking between stations to make sure I am missing nothing."

She believes he was "browned off" with RTÉ and that his move was not about money. "People talk about money but I wouldn't have thought it was that."

Marian reveals she almost moved to Newstalk too, just before she started her weekend programme in 2005.

"I had the details sorted out but then RTÉ offered me the weekend which had been at the back of my mind for a long time. Demographics had changed and the day housewives were listening to Gay were long gone. I had a gut feeling there was a weekend audience there so I stayed."

Marian has reservations about having quotas for women in jobs and has not joined the movement promoting more women on air. "This is a very thorny issue. On our programme we deal with issues of the week and invite people on that have authority or experience in a field. I think it is tokenism to just bring on somebody because they are a woman."

While she is open to having her mind changed about quotas, she points out that the production staff in RTÉ are predominantly female, including her own "wonderful" producer in charge, Anne Farrell. "At one stage I went to management and said on the next round of recruitment bring in a few fellas . . . the guy who was head of radio at the time nearly keeled over."

Marian and her husband, John Clarke, live in Punchestown, Co Kildare, and had two children, Jack, aged 26, and Sinead, who died aged eight in 1990 after developing leukaemia. That loss is clearly still very painful.

"It never goes away. I have the height of respect and admiration for people who have been bereaved and who can talk about it. I just blubber."

Sinead had home care in her final weeks of life. "We wanted to bring her home, although the hospital didn't particularly. But we did and it worked out very well."

That was the start of Marian's relationship with the hospice movement and she served on the board of the Irish Hospice Foundation for 15 years.

"I was on my knees with gratitude over home care and wanted every other human being in the country to have equal access to it. Home care should be an inherent part of our entire system and it is not – it is so patchy. The quality of the service depends on where you live. Nowadays it should not be based on geography.

"If home care was widely available it would mean that people who are acutely ill would be in a hospital bed, and people who were dying would be in a loving environment rather than have Coronation Street going on the TV in their last hours."

Thirteen years ago Marian and John set up Friends in Ireland, a South African charity that helps orphaned and vulnerable HIV children, after visiting the country and seeing children with AIDS.

"You looked at these gorgeous kids and death was inevitable. It was so sad. One of the sisters working with them, a Kerry woman, said they should be with their own people. She showed us a site they had for a hospice. We were very moved by it and on the flight home we said we would try to help."

Marian's passion for her job and broadcasting is clear. In advance of the interview she said she didn't want to talk about her salary as she is constantly being asked about it. It has been well documented that she, along with a host of other RTÉ stars, have taken sizeable reductions in six-figure wages in the past three years.

She does say that even though she is on air just two days a week, her job is virtually seven days. "You are constantly on, listening to radio, and keeping up with the news."

RTÉ, she says, has been "badly managed, well managed, excellently managed and disgracefully managed" in her 36 years with the organisation.

"It has changed, and changed and changed. The downside of my job is when you have to put up with a lot of shit . . . and from time to time I do. For me, it was always about programmes. The only thing I am interested in is the programme."

Is she valued? Several seconds pass before she answers. "I don't actually have that much to do with management. I don't know. You would have to ask them that."

So what was the high point of her career? "Getting my own programme in RTÉ, although you are only as good as your last programme."

And the low point? "Putting up with some of the shit!"

So is some of that still around? Another pause. "Ah we won't go there . . . I'm grand. I love the programme. I love my producers."

Irish Independent

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