Thursday 23 January 2020

Kate Shanahan: 'Each step forward was a rebuke to forces that held back earlier generations of women'

Marian Finucane
Marian Finucane
A career in radio: Marian Finucane in her early days with RTÉ

Kate Shanahan

Marian Finucane was the first presenter I produced live as a young trainee in RTÉ Radio 1.

Then presenting 'Liveline', she had made the programme her own, its mixture of the personal and the political made for a then rare combination.

Marian was the slightly sceptical friend you were telling your best story to. If she believed a caller, then so did everyone else.

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If she didn't, her probing questions highlighted the fault-lines in a particular take or set of opinions.

A career in radio: Marian Finucane in her early days with RTÉ
A career in radio: Marian Finucane in her early days with RTÉ
Ground-breaking: Marian Finucane in her element, the radio studio from where she helped to change attitudes
Broadcaster Marian Finucane with husband John Clarke and son Jack after she was conferred with an honorary doctorate by DIT in 2002. Photo: Tom Burke
Pictured: RTÉ broadcaster Marian Finucane and Nuala O'Faolain in Nairobi, Kenya where they were covering the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference for RTÉ.
Marian Finucane
Marian Finucane
‘Zeal for breaking new ground’: Marian Finucane was a household name with thousands of listeners tuning in to her RTÉ shows. Photo: Tony Gavin
Marian Finucane on the Late Late in 1991
Marian Finucane with husband John Clarke after they were married in 2015. Photo: Frank McGrath
Marian Finucane with Maeve Binchy at an Irish Hospice Foundation event. Photo: Jim O'Kelly
Marian visting an orphanage in South Africa
Voice of reason: Marian Finucane smiles after receiving the PPI Outstanding Achievement Award in 2008. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
15/11/11 Marian Finucane at the launch of her book The Saturday Interviews 2005-2011 . Pictures:Arthur Carron/Collins
Finucane M 8.4.10 0011 Marian Finucane
Taoiseach Enda Kenny,TD and broadcaster Marian Finucane at the launch the Irish Hospice Foundation's 2016 Commemorative and 30th anniversary programme held in the Stephens Green Club yesterday. Pic Tom Burke 3/12/2015
Former Irish International footballer Niall Quinn and boadcaster Marian Finucane who were conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) at their annual conferring of Honorary degrees at a ceremony held in the Royal hospital,Kilmainham yesterday...Pic Tom Burke 26/11/02
Marian Finucane
Marian Finucane

As a young student I'd attended a live broadcast of her iconic 'Women Today' programme. It was full of the kind of women Éamon de Valera had described as making for the "most unmanageable revolutionaries".

To be sitting in the hot seat telling the doyenne of Irish broadcasting what calls to go to next felt surreal.

The series producer had warned me about the 'ten-tos', the zinger questions Marian would ask of her producer 10 minutes before air, the most obvious being "why are we doing this item", or the even scarier "do we know this to be a fact". In her talk to trainee producers she had issued one warning, "don't lie to me, I have to be able to trust you", a mantra I often used years later when leading research teams myself.

The old adage of being careful when you meet your heroes did not apply in Marian's case. Her warmth towards, and support of, younger women was shown by the fact so many of them loved working with her.

Her endless curiosity about people extended to the people around her. She was great company, witty, convivial and loyal. The sharp intellect was softened by a humanity that came from personal experience. The loss of her daughter at a young age made her particularly sensitive to grief in others.

Current affairs presenters have to ask tough questions, but she never lost sight of the fact the person in front of her was, if flawed, still human.

As her path into broadcasting was a circuitous one - she had initially studied to be an architect - she had an appetite for intellectual stimulation that went beyond the daily grind of programme-making. Being challenged was something she relished. The strictures of public service broadcasting meant she had to be careful of expressing bias, but she did have strong opinions.

As a woman on air, and a mould-breaker, she was subject to a much more critical gaze. If it fazed her, you would never have guessed so. Hers was a generation of women who had grown to adulthood in a State which had denied women many basic rights. In many ways she had been so weathered in earlier activism that each step forward was a rebuke to the forces that had held back earlier generations of women.

Her authority came from lived experience. It is still really difficult for women to progress in broadcasting, to survive and thrive, especially in current affairs. Marian Finucane believed she should have a place at the top table.

Kate Shanahan is head of Journalism and Communications at TU Dublin School of Media

Irish Independent

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