Friday 17 January 2020

Kim Bielenberg: ''You couldn't mention 'orgasm', you'd get slaughtered by the Church' - how Marian broke the mould by tackling taboo subjects'

'We were always in trouble': Marian Finucane in the studio at RTÉ
'We were always in trouble': Marian Finucane in the studio at RTÉ
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Early on in her career, Marian Finucane ruffled feathers by broaching topics that were taboo among a large section of the RTÉ listenership, but these were subjects uppermost in the minds of many others and could not be hidden forever.

When Marian came of age as a broadcaster, contraception was illegal in Ireland, divorce was decades away, and the children of single women were regarded as "illegitimate".

Sex education, in so much as it existed at all, mostly involved guidance on how to avoid the sins of the flesh.

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People signed a book of condolence for the broadcaster at the RTÉ Radio Centre yesterday. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
People signed a book of condolence for the broadcaster at the RTÉ Radio Centre yesterday. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

The law and the Church may have harked back to the 1950s, but Marian saw that many of these rules and strictures were being observed in the breach.

Couples were using contraception, they were having sex outside marriage, and women were travelling to Britain for abortions.

Marian, on her pioneering show 'Women Today', a precursor of 'Liveline', was determined to broach these hidden subjects and reflect what was really happening in homes across Ireland.

In the autumn of 1979, soon after 'Women Today' went on air, a Catholic priest, Fr Patrick Walsh, wrote indignantly to RTÉ's director-general to complain about the frequently "indelicate" contents of the programme.

He complained: "Today's programme concerned itself with orgasm in the female partner to sexual intercourse.

"The presenter appears to be what one might call a practitioner of audio voyeurism. She seems never content until she is, not so much the fly on the wall of the marriage chamber, but the flea in the bed who is a witness to every intimacy between man and wife…"

In the same year, she was also condemned at a meeting of the National Council of Priests for having the temerity to ask a nun: "Do you still think that sex outside marriage is wrong?"

From early on, she may have had her critics, but at the same time her empathetic line of questioning won plenty of supporters and she found a huge audience of listeners who went on to stay with her throughout her career.

Back in 1979, the feminist campaigner Anne O'Donnell said: "In my opinion, Marian Finucane is the most sympathetic and genuinely interested interviewer I have heard on RTÉ radio or television."

The radio critic of the 'Irish Press' said Marian's calm approach had made 'Women Today' "authoritative rather than strident". And that seemed to be her approach - from her time on 'Women Today', on to her role as the first presenter of 'Liveline' from the mid-1980s, through to her weekend programmes.

Marian might have given her own take on certain issues, but it was usually expressed in a most understated way.

"We had a ball. We were always in trouble," she said in a newspaper interview of her work on 'Women Today'.

"It sounds almost medieval now, but if you did anything on reproduction or marriage that wasn't exactly in tune with the Roman Catholic Church's line, you'd get slaughtered. You couldn't mention the word 'orgasm'. As for anything that would even remotely suggest homosexuality - I remember one senior manager at RTÉ saying to me after one programme that he couldn't eat his dinner, and that he didn't know how far we were going to go. Perhaps the next thing we were going to deal with was bestiality? There were people constantly ringing up, saying, 'take them off the air, this is an absolute disgrace, it's not part of what we are'."

While her views could be described as broadly liberal, she did not allow herself to show direct leanings towards any party or cause.

In 1980, she won the Prix Italia for her radio documentary 'Abortion: The Lonely Crisis'. It followed a woman from the moment her pregnancy test showed up as positive, to when she went to England for an abortion. Marian stood in the clinic while the abortion happened and followed up with an interview six weeks later.

What is often not realised is that, like the majority of the population, she was opposed to abortion at the time she made the documentary.

Although she usually kept opinions to herself in public, she said her views on abortion later changed with the X case - when the State moved to stop a 14-year-old pregnant girl who had been raped from having a termination in the UK.

Marian came closest to becoming the first female presenter of the 'Late Late Show' in 1980, when Gay Byrne handed over the chair for the last section of one of his programmes. She was invited to be in charge for this segment after a report into women broadcasting suggested that "Marian Finucane will never take the 'Late Late Show' chair."

With her face beaming, she stepped gingerly into the role and Nell McCafferty stood next to her, cheering as she said: "At last, free at last... thank God we're free at last."

Attracting male as well as female listeners to the late-lunch afternoon slot on 'Women Today', Marian seized the opportunity to broaden her appeal with 'Liveline', and the number of listeners frequently soared to more than 400,000.

Having started as a presenter prepared to ruffle feathers, by the early 1990s Marian was first seen as a national treasure.

A survey carried out among women to find Ireland's most admired women showed Marian in the top three alongside President Mary Robinson and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

She did not conceal her ambition to be the next Gay Byrne in some capacity, and got her opportunity when she replaced him in the time slot of his morning radio show in 1999. Sandwiched between the hard news of 'Morning Ireland' and Pat Kenny in the schedule, Marian had one of the more difficult periods of her career. She was never a purveyor of light-hearted banter and seemed awkward in the slot, even though audience numbers were still healthy at 370,000.

With a growing number of women working on weekdays, Marian saw an opportunity to build a new audience at weekends, and that is where she settled for the final successful stint of her long career.

In her memoir 'Inside RTÉ', producer Betty Purcell highlighted Marian's ability to make the most intimate conversations happen over the airwaves: "Her particular skill was to make radio presentation seem easy and casual and listeners were happy to share their lives with her in a deep and personal way."

Irish Independent

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