Sunday 19 January 2020

Deirdre Purcell: 'I can't believe she's gone - but I feel blessed to have had Marian as a friend'


Memories: Marian Finucane, who died suddenly last week at the age of 69.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Memories: Marian Finucane, who died suddenly last week at the age of 69. Photo: Tony Gavin
SENSE OF FUN: Marian and husband John Clarke in 2014. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
EMPATHY: Marian Finucane. Photo: Damien Eagers
Marian Finucane in 2008 after receiving the PPI Annual Radio “Outstanding Achievement Award’
Marian in the RTE studio in the Eighties
MANY FACES, ONE VOICE: A young Marian Finucane starting out in RTE
FUNERAL: Iconic broadcaster Marian Finucane will be laid to rest on Tuesday in Kill, Co Kildare. Photo: Mick Carolan
National treasure: The death of Marian Finucane is a ‘deep and personal loss’. Photo: Collins
Broadcaster Marian Finucane died suddenly on Thursday. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Friends: Marian Finucane and Nuala O'Faolain in Kenya covering the 1985 UN Decade for Women Conference for RTÉ
'I look like the Mafia': Miriam Donohoe with Marian Finucane at Avoca, Rathcoole, Co Wicklow. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

Deirdre Purcell

I will go to Marian's funeral. The notion is preposterous. Marian's funeral? After the tribute segment to her last Friday night on 'The Late Late Show', the interlocking circles of her friends and colleagues stayed in the Green Room to talk about her.

There was little overt grief on show, it was too early for that, and I believe that only when we see her coffin will the unthinkable become semi-real. For me, though, I will not fully 'get' it. It could not be her in there. Not her.

But then some day soon I will pick up the phone to query her about something, she won't answer and then I will have to face the conundrum: that while Marian cannot be dead, she is.

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A lot has been said over the past few days about her gift for friendship. Although our paths diverged after our early stumblings together into broadcasting in 1974, we became friends at that time and stayed friends however rarely we saw each other in later years.

My favourite memory blazes from the time she and John Clarke (as she usually referred to him) moved to a farm in the midlands, where they stocked their private carp lake to attract 'the few bob' from coarse anglers whom they lodged in faded splendour in the gorgeous house. He had bred Red Setters: ('do you know, Deirdre Purcell, that a Red Setter can run from here to Athlone without stopping? That's why they're a bit mad!')

They ran sheep and sheepdogs and us, the friends, who travelled down to take lunches, dinners and tea from Marian's antique silver tea service: "I believe in not keeping this stuff for 'good'."

Then, standing a little back from the massive drawing room fireplace to avoid sparks from logs while drinking wine and figuring out who had the Solpadeine for the next morning, we argued about world and local politics and vented our differing world views.

That drawing room was my first experience of the Salon I'd read about in literature, with contributions from the Mary Hollands, Nells, Nualas - and the rest of us around that fire - invariably leading to passionate arguments, Marian presiding, intervening (and presaging her handling of the final gig, the 'Marian Finucane Show') seeing all sides as agent provocateur.

He listening intently then lobbing in his latest theory about what was happening in the Middle East, outlining the ancestry of Haile Selassie or describing the astonishing lifestyles of pastoralists in a remote part of Africa or Ecuador. Posing teasers: 'Can you tell me, Deirdre Purcell, which is the smallest desert in the world?'

It was great to be part of it and I felt blessed.

My first impression of Marian in July 1974 when we met to start training as continuity announcers for Radio Éireann, as it was then, was of her carriage. It is probably a strange thing to say, given the avalanche of better and more incisive tributes to her journalism and character over the past few days, but even 46 years ago, Marian - who later confessed she had been as nervous as the rest of us that day - came into that room with the walk of a queen, an impression amplified by her height, head and shoulders above us Lilliputians gawking up at her.

It was only quite a while after we became friends she revealed that her mother, herself a teacher and thereby conscious of the hunch-over stance adopted by the tall poppies among her classroom brood, insisted that her daughter wear posture correctors over her shoulders and back to keep her straight. By doing so, she gave her daughter an asset for life.

When Marian walked into a restaurant, she cut through the cackle as people followed her progress.

When she "swept" into "her" studio to start her programme, she carried her own climate with her and no one already seated there could have any doubt as to whom they faced.

Yes, she fiercely guarded her personal privacy and that of her family. She was one of two (of hundreds of interviewees) who refused my request to interview her for the People Page of the erstwhile 'Sunday Tribune' - I was chancing my arm and she knew it. But on a friendship level there were few barriers, to the extent that no subject was taboo.

And as remarked many times over the weekend, while professionally warm on air, she was even warmer and empathic about personal difficulties, very open about her own. I felt utterly helpless, as did very many of her friends, when her beloved daughter Sinead became ill, not just once, but again after remission.

She continued to work through that awful period. I've heard people ask: 'How could she do that?'

She could do it because her upbringing with a teacher and a garda engendered a rock-solid work ethic and along with her own courageousness, stoicism and sense of duty, that ethic stood to her. You didn't shirk. You didn't let anyone down.

Work took her through, although it didn't lessen the pain and confusion, which is where her friends, her brilliant inner circle, stepped up, where John, who was hurting just as much, did too. They suffered together, stayed together, survived together.

Even in later years, when she was at the top of her game, she wobbled psychologically before each JNLR survey (tracking winners and losers in the media) was due, confessing that it brought her back to waiting for the results of the Leaving Cert. "It's just the same. But the Leaving Cert was only once in your life, this thing happens four times every year!"

She wobbled too every time she was asked to step up a notch, for instance when she was to move from 'Liveline' into the shoes of Gay Byrne when he vacated his morning slot.

I was present, with herself and John, when she expressed her fears. He, as ever, found the right words: 'For God's sake, Marian. You're at the top now. You're The Queen!'

RIP, Marian.

Irish Independent

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