Marian Finucane: A fun, fearless and unflappable radio voice

‘Her death has robbed RTÉ – and Ireland – of a protean talent who had enduring charisma’

Marian Finucane, who has died at age 69, was so established in later years as one of the biggest names in RTÉ that it was easy to forget that she started out as a trailblazer responsible for some of the most groundbreaking shows in Irish radio.

That she went from being a pioneering and indeed provocative tyro on shows such as Women Today and Liveline to become a consistently popular host and one of the most famous public figures in Ireland, known instantly by her first name, is a testament to her formidable gifts as a broadcaster.

Finucane’s on-air persona – by turns personable, curious and, when necessary, authoritative – combined with an unflappable professionalism that not only underlined her versatility but also carried her through tough personal times. For the past 14 years, her platform had been her eponymous weekend shows.

She presided over the programme’s sometimes raucous, sometimes uneven panel discussions with an air that veered from indulgent bemusement to urgent engagement, depending on the subject under discussion.

But it was in longer interviews that Finucane excelled. It's no coincidence that she hosted some of Irish radio's most memorable moments, such as the extraordinary 2008 conversation in which her friend Nuala O'Faolain candidly discussed her terminal illness under Finucane's empathetic but probing questioning.

It was an ability Finucane never lost, as was heard in her similarly compelling interview last year with Michelle Ryan, daughter of murdered DJ Bobby Ryan.

Such talents did not guarantee success when Finucane started out in the 1970s. At the time, opportunities for women in Irish broadcasting were extremely limited: that one of her first jobs was as a continuity announcer is indicative of constricted career paths then available to her.

She cut her teeth as a current affairs reporter, but her real breakthrough was as presenter of pioneering show Women Today. Hosting an afternoon show devoted to women’s issues at a time when contraception, abortion and divorce were all illegal, Finucane was unflinching in her coverage of matters from sexual assault to orgasms, with predictably outraged reaction often following.

She later described the show as “fun”, but her on-air persona was professional and inquisitive, while retaining a knowing solidarity with her audience as she invited them to get in touch on the phonelines.

Successor to Byrne

Finucane took this easy connection with listeners to its logical conclusion when she took up the job as host of a new phone-in show, Liveline, in 1985. With a wider brief that ran from social issues and consumer affairs to quirky subjects such as witchcraft, the programme showcased her affable side without sacrificing her on-air authority. Her 14-year stint on the show also made her one of RTÉ radio’s most popular presenters, underlined by the fact that she took over the late Gay Byrne’s weekday morning slot when he retired in 1999.

Finucane’s style changed over these years, her voice more chatty in tone and deeper in timbre. Even being transferred to the ostensibly less prestigious weekend slot in 2006 only confirmed her popularity, with her show attracting larger listenerships than her predecessors.

In later years, she could sometimes sound distracted and detached as she helmed the weekend programme. But if her performance and indeed pay occasionally attracted criticism (including from this writer), she never showed any trace of pique or flappability as she continued to herd unruly panellists through the Sunday papers or quiz guests about the issues of the day.

No matter what the topic, Finucane was a reassuring presence and a friendly guide, who could still be passionate when occasion demanded: her scarcely concealed irritation when Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson equated chaos with the feminine in a 2018 interview was joy to hear.

Her sudden passing has robbed RTÉ – and Ireland – of a broadcaster who forged a path for herself and many other women with her protean talent and enduring charisma.