Wednesday 22 January 2020

Ciara Kelly: 'Marian became such an institution that we forget just what a trailblazer she was in male-dominated Ireland'

Marian Finucane owned the airwaves as few other broadcasters have managed

Marian Finucane in 2008 after receiving the PPI Annual Radio “Outstanding Achievement Award’
Marian Finucane in 2008 after receiving the PPI Annual Radio “Outstanding Achievement Award’

Ciara Kelly

There's something slightly surreal about writing about the death of Marian Finucane - someone who has always been there and who I looked up to personally as an inspiration. And about trying to do justice to the life and career of the single greatest woman in the history of Irish broadcasting, with a career spanning five decades. Especially when you know that most weeks she'd be reading it and possibly commenting on it in her review of the papers that morning. It was always a thrill if you got a shout out from her of a Sunday for something you'd written. But sadly, not this morning because Marian passed away at home last Thursday afternoon at the age of 69.

I remember the first time I saw her. She was a guest on The Late Late Show. She was sporting a hairdo that Lady Diana would later claim as her own and she was pretty and mischievous. It was the 1970s and I was in primary school and didn't know who she was but my parents were discussing her and both agreed she was the next Gay Byrne and heir to his throne.

Which in many ways she was, owning the airwaves of Radio One in a way I think few other broadcasters have managed. But the fact that a woman was seen in that way, in the Ireland of that time, was testimony to her impressive skills, her likeability, her intellect, her empathy and her wit.

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We forget now, such was the measure of her status as an icon and an institution just what a trailblazer she was. She started working as a continuity announcer in RTE in 1974, within two years she was a programme presenter - no mean feat - and by 1979 she had her own radio show called Women Today at the age of 29. This was at a time when contraception, abortion and divorce were all still illegal in Ireland and a mere six years after the marriage bar had been lifted.

At the time Magill magazine reported that reaction within RTE was 'mixed' to the arrival of a woman talking about women's issues into male-dominated radio - indeed into male-dominated Ireland. And while it was recognised that the team was "professional and accomplished" that recognition was "tinged with unease". It was said that men were 'worried' that this was the results of "15 years of women pushing and pushing". Plus ca change there then.

In 1980 when an RTE report said "Marian Finucane will never present The Late Late Show", Gay Byrne vacated his seat to her one night and allowed her to interview his guests. In 1985 she became the first presenter of Liveline which she presented until 1999 and then for almost two decades she presented The Marian Finucane show - where "Hello there" became a catchphrase so comfortingly predictable you could set your clocks by it.

She was immensely private, almost shy on occasion - despite her huge charm and great sense of humour. And #Marian may have trended on social media every weekend but Marian herself was not a presence online. It was rare you heard a thing about her personal life. She quietly married John Clarke, her partner of over 30 years, in 2015 and they had a son and a daughter, Jack and Sinead, but tragically Sinead died aged eight in 1990 from leukaemia. Marian didn't discuss that loss but it led her to become involved in hospice charities in South Africa, in Sinead's name.

I first met her nearly a decade ago, on her radio show. She interviewed me many times over the years as a panellist, paper reviewer and health journalist and then later as a presenter on various health series on RTE television.

She was firm, she was fair, she was still mischievous but you knew you might be filleted at any moment should the mood take her. Her producer rang me after one of my first times on the show and said Marian wanted to say: "She thinks you're good and you could have a future in broadcasting. If you ever want any advice, just get in touch." To be honest the magnitude of that was too big to take in. But she thought I might be a broadcaster before I ever thought it myself.

And she was the yardstick so many of us - particularly female broadcasters - measured ourselves by, which was a mistake by male broadcasters, because she was that good she transcended sex. When I did my first longish stint on daytime radio - a month on Newstalk Breakfast - I interviewed Jason Corbett's mother-in-law from his first marriage after his second wife, Molly Martens, was convicted of his murder. I asked her how did she feel when her son-in-law remarried? My editor at the time told me it was too personal a question. But one of the other presenters stepped in and said: "It was a very personal question and I wouldn't have asked it myself. But do you know who would? Marian Finucane."

It still possibly the best compliment I've ever been paid.

The last time she interviewed me was in September 2017 when we did a one-to-one for half-an hour in the wake of George Hook being suspended from Newstalk. Being caught in Marian's gaze for that length of time with no buffers was intimidating. And I felt I was in a fencing match with her as she grilled me about Newstalk and asked me if I wanted George's job. But I also felt she was on my side, rooting for me in some way. As she closed the interview she grinned at me and said "Actually I hear it's my job you're really after" as I squirmed in my chair. "To be honest, I don't blame you," she said, laughing. "I have a great job."

I fell out of the studio, punch-drunk. The last thing she said to me was: "I'm watching you with interest, kiddo."

But no one will ever take Marian's place because she's irreplaceable. A one-off. A lifelong broadcaster who with immense skill - just like Gay - pushed the establishment moving towards social change, while never alienating them. She brought the people with her. I think she was his natural heir on The Late Late - and I suspect the only reason she did not become its host was because that was a step too far for the misogynist Ireland of old, despite her abilities.

I think many of us today feel a little bit lost that someone who played such a dependable role in all our lives has gone.

She was formidable. She was brilliant. She was brave. She was clever, funny, kind and insightful. And the likes of her will not be seen again.

#Marian, Rest in peace.

@ciarakellydoc

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