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'It didn’t matter to her that the establishment might be upset': How Marian Finucane brought women's stories to the fore

The broadcaster used her platform to discuss topics that were rarely if ever spoken about in a public forum in Ireland.

Marian Finucane pictured in studio in 1996.
Marian Finucane pictured in studio in 1996.
Image: Kate Horgan/RollingNews.ie

TRAILBLAZER. PIONEER. FEMINIST. Those are some of the words being used to describe Marian Finucane today.

Tributes to the broadcaster have been pouring in since her sudden death was announced yesterday evening.

Finucane, who was 69, started her career at RTÉ in the 1970s and became a household name over the years, presenting radio programmes such as Women Today, Liveline and The Marian Finucane Show. Her TV work included The Women’s Programme, Consumer Choice and Crime Line.

Finucane covered many topics over her career but one of the things she is best known for is paving the way for female broadcasters in a very male-dominated industry as well as covering issues that affected many people, particularly women, but which were rarely if ever spoken about in a public forum in Ireland.

Women Today and The Women’s Programme were groundbreaking shows in the late 1970s and 1980s, bringing women’s issues and feminism to the fore in primetime slots on national radio and television at a time when the Catholic Church still exerted huge influence and certain subjects were swept under the carpet.

The programmes discussed issues such as violence against women, rape, contraception, marriage breakdown, women’s right to inherit land, women being paid less than men for the same work, and the fact that many women had to give up their jobs when they got married.

‘Getting in trouble all the time’ 

Doireann Ní Bhriain worked with Finucane on both shows and the pair remained lifelong friends.

Reflecting on working with Finucane on women-focused programmes, Ní Bhriain said: “The Ireland of the 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s was a very conservative place. Women were confined in the main to being at home, looking after children. Until the marriage bar was lifted in 1973, any woman who had a State job had to give it up when they got married.

“People had a kind of simmering discontent, but they made the best of things, there were many happy women out there despite all the difficulties.”

Ní Bhriain told TheJournal.ie it was “really important” to her, Finucane and their colleagues “to open the door” and start conversations on such topics. She recalled that the US women’s liberation movement of the 1960s had made its way to Ireland by the early 1970s but it “wasn’t fully reflected in the media until [Women Today and The Women’s Programme] came along”.

“Marian, myself and the great producers we had opened the door to all of that and gave women a voice. You couldn’t go on the air the way you can now over the phone, you had to go out and meet people which was great. Journalists often don’t have the chance to do that today.

“Marian had a great empathy for and understanding of people, and she had no airs and graces at all. Celebrity culture didn’t interest her in the slightest and she railed against that. She knew her job and that was to get to the truth.

Women’s issues had been purely swept under the carpet for so many years. Our job was to go out and explore that. It wasn’t journalists who were highlighting these issues at the time, it was activists on the ground and people who weren’t activists at all. We’d read out a letter on air and then a bunch of other letters would come in because women who were going through the same thing would identify with it. We facilitated the conversation.

Ní Bhriain said she and her colleagues were aware of how groundbreaking the programmes were at the time.

If you’re getting in trouble all the time you know you’re doing something right. There were certain people who didn’t approve at all of what we were doing, they thought we were rabid feminists and used other dreadful language like that – of course some people still use that sort of language. We were left in no doubt that we were going a bit over the top, but that egged us on all the time.

‘It didn’t matter to her that the establishment might be upset’

Women Today was first broadcast in 1979, the same year the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) was founded to much resistance. At the time, it wasn’t a crime for a man to rape his wife (something that only became illegal in 1990).

On 10 August 1979, Women Today broadcast an interview Finucane carried out with Mary Doran, a volunteer who was helping to run the DRCC.

Finucane asked Doran about the type of people who called the centre and the advice they sought.

Doran said callers ranged “from the case of a woman, say, taking a lift home with a man after a dance, where the man didn’t see it as rape, but she did, but she was afraid to go to the police because they might doubt her story, they might think that she consented and then decided afterwards that it was rape”.

“That she led him on, as it were?,” Finucane interjected. Doran agreed, replying: “Women still do have a guilt complex about that.”

Giving another example, Doran continued: “There was the situation of a young girl who was attacked by a number of boys, or a woman being attacked in a fairly public place walking home at night.”

She said parents would also contact the centre after their daughter had been raped.

“We’ve had a couple of cases where a parent actually rang us worried about the young girl. Either the girl came home and told the parents immediately and they reported it to the police and then were worried about her and came to talk to us about it, or a situation where they didn’t go to the police. Some parents are very worried about the fact of the child going to court and the effect it’ll have on them.

“Also, in some situations they’re very worried that in a neighbourhood where a lot of people know each other that somebody might try to take it out on her, the girl herself. If not now, maybe in a few years’ time, that they will always remember her, that if the fella gets put away, that he’ll always have it in for her, or some of his friends will try to get her again,” Doran explained. 

“Is there ever a fear that if [the woman or girl] takes it to court and if she isn’t successful in her efforts to have him prosecuted or whatever that he’ll come and get her and beat her up or that his friends will come and get her, does that ever enter into it?,” Finucane asked.

Doran replied: “It is a problem. Normally even after the first charge is made in the district court and the fella is out on bail – they will always give bail unless there’s a chance he’ll interfere with the witness or skip the country – there is a chance if the girl sees the fella around on the streets, and obviously free, that she will be intimidated.”

Noeline Blackwell, the current CEO of the DRCC, said the coverage given to the centre by Women Today was very significant, saying the fact such a conversation took place on RTÉ, the national broadcaster, was “huge”.

“At a time where nobody could speak about these issues at all, you couldn’t even mention the word ‘rape’, [Finucane] spread the word that there was help out there for people, that was really important.

“She just spoke so calmly. It really was important, a whole lot of people listened to that, they heard that information and could store it away or use it.

She saw the importance of it and she just told people about it. She had a lack of concern for how the establishment would react, she saw the need to get the information out there and it didn’t matter to her that the establishment might be upset about it. To put it out on RTÉ was huge.

Blackwell described the interview as “a massive thing”, noting that many of the volunteers who helped run the DRCC in its early days were at odds with their own families over their involvement, adding “very often they would not give their names when doing publicity because they would get in so much trouble”.

To mark the centre’s 40th anniversary, its founders and early volunteers recently spoke about how difficult it was to set up and run the facility, leading to arguments with their own families.

Blackwell said Finucane answered questions “that were important for people to know”, adding: “It was people, but particularly women, that she focused on at the time.”

She stated that in terms of sexual assault and rape, victim blaming is still a big issue today but it is now discussed more openly. “Back then, when there was no alternative, it must have been so liberating for people to have that sense that they were not on their own, that these things happen but should not happen, that they were not normal.

“The establishment will often tell you that certain things are normal, but because [Finucane] was able to talk about things that mattered in the context of institutions at that time, she was a very important voice of truth to power,” Blackwell said.

‘Progress? Some, but not enough’

On International Women’s Day 1991, Finucane reflected on the Late Late Show on the progress made in terms of women’s rights in Ireland over the previous 20 years.

She told presenter Gay Byrne and the audience: “My mother was widowed when I was 12 and she had five kids and she was a teacher – well, she’s a retired teacher. And at that stage there was one rate of pay for married men, there was one rate of pay for single men and there was one rate of pay for women, all women.

And the rate of pay for all women was less than the rate of pay for the single man. She had five kids, she had to feed us, educate us – she did it and she did it very well indeed. That sounds neanderthal nowadays, you know, so that’s progress.

“Another member of my family worked in the civil service, when she got married she had to quit her job. That sounds neanderthal, that’s gone.”

‘Fed up to the teeth with condoms’

Finucane went on to say that one of the first interviews she did for RTÉ was with “a smashing woman” in Co Carlow who was “a very religious person”.

“I was talking to her about contraception, I thought I’d be run out of the place, you know. And she said to me, ‘Well, I know the Church doesn’t like it and I know they give out about it’ but she said, ‘It’s like this, when I was a single woman I read Cinderella and I thought of happily ever after.’

“And then she said ‘I got married and I couldn’t buy a suit of clothes for the next I-don’t-know-how-long because I didn’t know what shape I was going to be next year’ and she said it caused great problems in her marriage when she said she didn’t want another child next year, this was after a certain number of children … now that’s gone,” she said, referencing the fact people could now access contraception. 

Finucane continued: “I don’t want to talk about condoms, I’m fed up to the teeth with condoms,” she said, to applause from the audience. “But in the matter of grown men and women saying ‘We would like one, two, three, 10, call it what you will, children’, that’s been sorted out.”

mf Marian Finance on the Late Late Show in 1991. Source: The Late Late Show/RTÉ Archive

Turning to the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, she said: “In the matter of the Church, what can I say?” She told a story she said she heard from one of her friends, either Nell McCafferty or Nuala O’Faolain. 

She said the story was “about a kid in a class and the priest came in, and the teacher swears that this was an original from the child, and the priest came in and he was asking her how many sacraments there were and she said, ‘Six for girls and seven for boys.’”

“I had never thought of it that way and then I thought to myself, well, people have great respect for the senior clergy and all that, essentially there’s a crowd of blokes sitting around in lovely surroundings in smashing gear saying, ‘No, we better keep it to ourselves, you know, they’re (women) not up to it.’

“Now, nothing has changed there and I don’t know if it’s ever going to change, and I don’t want to be a priest, but there are some people who do and who feel alienated in their religion.”

Finucane also said the gender pay gap was “thunderingly awful”, noting the average industrial wage for a man at the time was in the region of £258 per week while the average industrial wage for a woman was about £140 per week. “So, progress? Some, but not enough,” she said. 

‘A journalist to her fingernails’

Ní Bhriain said Finucane will be remembered not only for highlighting women’s issues but as a broadcaster in general.

“She was a fine journalist, she was very committed to social justice and making sure that there was equality of opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they came from or the level of education they had received.

“She was a journalist to her fingernails and she knew you needed a good story to make a good radio programme. Her own personal interest and commitment showed, she wasn’t frothy in any way, she had a fantastic sense of humour and she was great fun.

“She would ask the question that was on the top of the listener’s tongue and was never embarrassed about admitting if she didn’t know something – journalists today often feel pressure to appear as they know everything.”

Ní Bhriain said Finucane was also “an extremely curious person”, “very well read” and “passionate about politics, both Irish and international”. “She was well travelled and read widely about other countries. She was never in any way preoccupied about Ireland, she always saw the bigger picture.”

Blackwell added that Finucane will be remembered for “giving people a voice”.

“She’ll be remembered as a reformer. She understood what a reformed and better Ireland could look like as she went after it.

“She used her voice in the most effective way and made a permanent contribution. Some people come and go, but she made a permanent contribution – her contribution is like a piece of cement, it will always be there, she made change happen.”

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Órla Ryan

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