Diarmaid Ferriter: Marian Finucane a studio voice of profound searching

Broadcaster’s empathy and humanity explored society for mixed Irish audience

Marian Finucane in January 1980: rarely lost her inquisitiveness of instinct for what would generate an emotional charge. Photograph: Pat Langan

There were always women on Irish radio and there were always strong views on what was acceptable for them to speak about. When she composed a Thomas Davis lecture on this subject in 2001, broadcaster Doireann Ní Bhriain noted that women's voices had been heard from Radio Éireann's inception and "the pattern of women's presence in radio more or less mirrored that of their presence in Irish public life generally".

On joining the new 2RN in 1926, Máiréad Ní Ghráda was given the title “Woman Organiser and Relief Announcer”. The job required the organisation of programmes for women and children and, as Ní Bhriain noted, Ní Ghráda “was expected to work as an announcer, to translate news at sight into Irish, and to present live gramophone concerts”. In the early years, broadcasts aimed specifically at women were talks lasting 10 or 15 minutes, a few times weekly.

The 1939 annual broadcasting report described these as dealing with “all the subjects dear to the homemaker, including home crafts, dieting, gardening, cooking, laundry work, care of babies, first aid, etc.”

Marian Finucane in the RTÉ radio studios in January 1980. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

Picture a very different scene 40 years later when Marian Finucane was presenting the Women Today radio programme. This newspaper's radio critic, Mary Leland, was conscious that in discussing intimate details of women's lives, those involved would face criticism from not just the outside, but from "those people inside Radio Éireann who cringe at words like vagina"; or that they would face the accusation that they were catering for an audience described by one of Leland's correspondents as "sophisticated deviates in Dublin".


Finucane did not blow her own feminist trumpet – what she maintained a year after Women Today began was firm but understated: “I think that traditional people may have had their minds opened on matters on which they would have had entrenched views before.”

One of her signal achievements over the decades was to appeal to a very mixed audience and she did that by allowing personal testimony to breathe, which was one of the great successes of the women’s movement of which she was a part, and which allowed previously taboo subjects to be aired. Consider, for example, the letter she read on air in 1979 from a woman who had been committed to a psychiatric institution against her will by her husband and an alcoholic doctor: “Finucane read the letter without inflexion”, noted Leland, “ but you could almost feel the temperature of her voice rising with indignation. There was an appalled silence at the end.”

‘Very complex matter’

Finucane's great skill was to strip back the verbiage to allow the essence of the personal experience to predominate, slowly and deeply. Her documentary on abortion, The Lonely Crisis, produced by Dick Warner, and which was awarded the Italian Press Association prize for a radio documentary at the Prix Italia in 1980, was deeply affecting for the simple reason that it centred on the testimony of the woman travelling to England for an abortion. It was noted in 1983 in Magill magazine "the programme offered no opinions as to whether abortion was right or wrong. The woman herself didn't know. The listener, any listener, was made to sense that this was a very complex matter."

Therein lay Finucane’s skill; enabling the listener to appreciate nuance in relation to societal change and personal and moral dilemmas. It is no coincidence that her abortion documentary was being cited approvingly by some during the 1983 abortion referendum campaign, when such complexity was drowned out by crude polarisation and when the voices of the relevant women were not considered. Finucane nudged us on in this manner over five decades and enveloped her presentation with empathy, insight and humanity while developing a deep trust between herself and listeners.

Powerful memory

She had a powerful memory and a deep curiosity, and experience and wisdom combined to give her an authority and sometimes sternness and steel that served her and her audiences well in what she described as “the most ageist industry in Ireland”. She also adroitly positioned herself to catch the waves that were generated by multiple revelations about abuses of power by State, church and society.

As she said in 2010 in an interview with Kathy Sheridan, "all of the pillars are gone". The crisis of credibility for those pillars allowed her studio to become a space for profound searching as she grilled politicians, bankers and bishops, never forgetting that her listeners were entitled to answers.

That type of broadcasting cannot be done in a hurry; if she made it sound effortless and natural, it was because she had honed her communications skills so carefully and because she rarely lost her inquisitiveness or instinct for what would generate an emotional charge. She carried the weight of experience and her 1970s formation deftly to represent the antithesis of the crude, accusatory, soundbite communications culture we are too often surrounded by today.