My Dream Of Marian

5th January 2020

It was my mother who got the news to me. Ear eternally to the radio, she is a 21st Century watchman-of-the-Martello-Tower, keen eye to sea in search of Napoleon’s rumoured advance.

Instead of lighting a fire, she penned a text with her thumbs. It was a finely drawn message, as she could not know if the report was already with me, or not. I was, after all, bed-bound with the damned flu. 

‘I know you will be heartbroken to hear about the loss of Marian Finucane’, she said. 

My mother knows me. I was. 

For much of my school years, when our Mum was a closet feminist, educationalist and socialist, Finucane presided as the voice of Ireland’s afternoons – a radio presenter who spent her life listening, parsing and interrogating. Every so often, if told something preposterous on-air, she would call her correspondent to reason:

‘Ah, would you go on out of that!’

There was just enough mirth and censure in that phrase to keep the boat afloat, the speaker from losing face, and the discussion in good progress. 

Born in 1950, Finucane was part of a bridge-generation. She emerged into early adulthood in the 70s, citizen of a nation which ritually patronised her as a woman, instructed her on how she should think and behave, and poo poo-ed her and her fellow activists’ demands to bring agency to women’s lives. 

While the titan men were busy managing us further into the economic tributary-of-a-tributary which was Ireland’s wailing fate, Finucane found soft power in airing and sharing. 

She was not to know it, but those pre-internet years were the last in which a national radio programme could become a warrior-architect of culture. 

In the fray, her quiver was composed almost entirely of interrogation points, aimed to perfection. Marian asked questions – of ordinary women, ordinary men and extraordinary mandarins – the band of collars, scholars and ne’er-do-wells which presumed to know the soul of the Irish people. 

I suspect she desired to go further and faster than most Irish women, but Finucane was a judicious broadcaster. Her job was to allow people make up their own minds, not to tell them what to think. She was not one to repeat the mistakes of the past.

And so, her growly voice, laden with years and nicotine, became part of Ireland, as native as the coconut-gorse of May, or the crackling wood-fires of January. 

It has been a tough Irish winter, all told. In November 2019 we lost Gay Byrne, after a long goodbye from life and the broadcasting stage he once dominated. Although his tone was different, he shared with Marian the core insight that Irish women were the protean axis of progress. 

But Marian was almost two decades Gay’s junior, and, up to December, remained at the heart of the radio conversation. Her sudden passing, on January 2nd 2020, came two days before her return to the airwaves; one month before the birth of her first grandchild…

I see her now, in that strange fever-vision which visited me last Thursday, gently sitting down at a kerbside, on a turn in the road. 

It is an odd sight, an elegant woman sitting low, in such a posture. 

As I stare backwards, we, her fellow Irishwomen and men, continue to advance along the route. 

My neck becomes strained as I seek not to lose the sight of her. I am beckoning Marian Finucane to hurry and catch up. I want her to stand again. There is no time to lose. 

‘Marian’, I want to say. ‘Marian, come on! We need your company’.

But the dead insist on death. They will not be cajoled into bargaining. 

My mother, from her watchman’s perch, is deeply sad too. She follows her first text with another. 

‘All my educators are gone’, she writes, in plaintive tone. 

I ponder her observation and the emptiness that lies within it, until, at length, the fever breaks. 

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