John Downing: 'Tenacity, wit and mischief were the trademarks of great broadcaster Marian Finucane'
Marian Finucane will be remembered as a trailblazer who created 'Liveline' and turned weekend radio into a ratings winner.
Her sudden death yesterday at the age of 69 has caused shock within RTÉ but also nationally.
One of the country's best-known figures in radio and television, she worked for the national broadcaster in a wide variety of roles since 1974. For the past 14 years Finucane hosted a popular two-hour chat show on Saturdays and Sundays on RTÉ Radio 1 which had a huge audience.
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Throughout her long career she became known for her uniquely tenacious interview style, which mingled wit and mischief with a determination that never degenerated into abrasiveness or bad manners.
Many of her interviews had a profound impact on the public, most notably her conversation in 2008 with her long-time friend, the writer, Nuala Ó Faoláin, about her impending death from cancer.
Before her weekend show she presented a morning radio show five days a week, in a slot she took over from the late Gay Byrne, and she also presented a whole range of frontline television shows including 'Crimeline' and 'Consumer Choice'.
Her work brought her widespread recognition including a Jacobs' Award for 'Women Today in 1979, and in 1980 she won the Prix Italia for a documentary programme on abortion. She was named Radio Journalist of the Year in 1988.
In 2008 she was honoured with the PPI Radio Award for her outstanding contribution to broadcasting. She also received an honorary degree from NUI Galway, in part for her media work, but also for fundraising, along with partner and future husband, John Clarke, for an Aids hospice and orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa.
Finucane was on leave over the Christmas period and went to visit her son, Jack Clarke, in India. She had recently returned home and passed away in her sleep at her home in Co Kildare yesterday afternoon.
Marian Finucane was born in Dublin, in May 1950, and educated at Scoil Chaitríona. She went on to study architecture in the College of Technology, in Bolton Street, Dublin. After two years working as an architect, she took an unusual career move to join RTÉ as a continuity announcer in 1974.
As an architectural student in 1970 she was among a number of protesters who occupied Georgian buildings at Hume Street, and St Stephen's Green in the centre of Dublin. They were objecting to controversial redevelopments in the area.
Archive RTÉ footage shows a recorded interview with the then-19-year-old saying he felt it was her responsibility as an architectural student and native Dubliner to help protect the buildings.
She was recruited into RTÉ by now 'Sunday Independent' columnist Eoghan Harris who was then a senior RTÉ executive. After two years she moved into programme presentation, first on the radio books programme 'Paper Chase', while she also worked as a reporter on the morning current affairs radio show 'Day By Day' which was anchored by John Bowman.
In 1979 she began presenting 'Women Today' a radio programme which broached many of the social issues facing women. In 1985 she became the first presenter of the popular afternoon phone-in, 'Liveline,' which has for many years now been presented by Joe Duffy.
Mr Duffy described Marian Finucane as "the voice of reason".
"She invented 'Liveline'. It grew out of 'Women Today'.
"That's my sense of Marian Finucane. She asked everything you would ask before you made your mind up," Mr Duffy said.
She was long identified as a champion of women's rights and her Prix Italia award in 1980 was for a radio documentary which included interviewing a woman who was about to have an abortion in England.
She travelled with the woman, documented her experience, and interviewed her after the operation.
Finucane separated from her first husband and formed a relationship with her partner John Clarke, with whom she had two children. Sadly, their daughter Sinéad died of leukaemia in 1990 at the age of eight. In January 2015, she and John Clarke married in a private ceremony at a Dublin Registry Office.
Although she was one of the country's best-known broadcasters, she had always been fiercely protective of her family's privacy. "I did a deal with myself that I chose a job in the public eye and my family didn't. So I actually rarely ever talk about them," she said in a rare interview around the time of her marriage.
After Gay Byrne retired in 1999, she took over his early morning radio slot with 'The Marian Finucane Show', while Joe Duffy, took over her 'Liveline' afternoon programme. In June 2005 she moved from the morning time-slot, and was replaced by Ryan Tubridy, moving herself to the show on Saturdays and Sundays.
Finucane had been trying to move to the weekend programme times for quite a few years as she disliked the daily programme. "I never had a plan, but the nearest thing I ever had to one was the weekend show. It was one I'd hatched a long, long time earlier - and had intended to implement around then," she said in a newspaper interview some five years after her successful transfer to the weekend slot.
For the change she had been struck by the prediction of an old RTÉ mentor, Michael Littleton. He had noted listenership patterns were changing as more women went to work outside the home, making fewer available to listen to the radio.
He predicted that weekend radio was going to have to be developed. Over the years, she and her team worked on making the Saturday and Sunday programmes quite different, with the Sunday being a panel discussion around the current news agenda nationally and internationally.
Her long interviews regularly set the national agenda such as in 2001 when junior minister Joe Jacob claimed Ireland could deal with a nuclear disaster.
The more Finucane probed the country's preparedness, the less assured the politician sounded.
Ultimately he told listeners there would be iodine tablets for everybody in the event of a nuclear fallout.
Just as the recession hit Ireland in October 2008, Finucane did a notably interview with former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick. He denied the bank had been reckless in making too many big loans to property developers as Ireland's property bubble grew.
While saying he was grateful for the State's help, he refused to offer taxpayers an apology, saying: "The cause of our problems are global, so I can't say sorry with any degree of sincerity and decency. But I can say thank you."
The interview with Nuala Ó Faoláin, who was the godmother of her daughter, Sinéad, took a big emotional toll and she debated with long-time producer, Anne Farrell, about whether it should go ahead. Later, Finucane narrated a documentary film about the remarkable writer and journalist.
She was among RTÉ's top paid presenters but defended her salary, saying the job is virtually seven days: "You are constantly on, listening to radio, and keeping up with the news."
Last night, RTÉ director general Dee Forbes said Finucane "was first and foremost a tenacious journalist with a zeal for breaking new ground".
"From 'Women Today' to 'Liveline' to her weekday radio show on Radio 1 and, latterly, her enormously popular Saturday and Sunday radio programme, she tackled the big social issues of the day with command and insight," Ms Forbes continued.
Tom McGuire, head of RTÉ One, said Finucane was a defining voice for that station and for the nation. He said her work on 'Liveline' was without parallel as she had merged an unsurpassed journalistic vigour with a flair for debate and discussion.