Local friends and longtime collaborators of Brian O’Donovan shared their memories of the beloved host of GBH radio show A Celtic Sojourn following his death Friday.
O’Donovan, who also hosted holiday favorite “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” died Friday at his home after a long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. He was 66.
O’Donovan was a fixture in Boston's Irish music scene. The Burren, an Irish bar and music venue in Somerville, was a mainstay for O’Donovan and where he championed fellow musicians. He hosted The Burren Backroom Series on Wednesday nights, featuring live performances and conversations with Irish performers.
Tommy McCarthy, co-owner of The Burren, knew O’Donovan since he first came to Boston in the mid-1980s. One of O'Donovan's longtime collaborators — they worked on the Backroom Series for more than 13 years — McCarthy said the radio host was incredibly supportive of young musicians, giving them a platform at the pub.
In 1986, when McCarthy opened The Burren with co-owner Louise Costello, he recalls O’Donovan standing in the crowded bar and saying, “This reminds me of the days when I got out of college in London at my favorite pub. You really captured it well.” This was a turning point for O’Donovan, McCarthy said, as he connected with local musicians and got to see traditional Irish music performed in Boston.
Tom Bianchi, who manages The Burren Backroom Series, said O’Donovan was a mentor to him, encouraging Bianchi to follow through with an idea for organizing his own music series at the pub.
“He's a huge reason why me and my wife and my son have had a better life in the last ten years,” Bianchi said. “I was kind of a ragtag musician, kind of dollar-to-dollar, day-to-day, just kind of struggling through four years, you know? I owe a lot to Bryan; he just got a magical touch and such a gentle force and (was) a gentleman.”
Bianchi said O’Donovan truly cared about the music and paid attention to the small details that made for engaging live music events, emceeing at The Burren “right up until the moment he couldn’t."
O’Donovan was a “warm presence,” Bianchi said. “When you heard his voice and when you saw him in public or you heard his voice on the radio, you knew it was going to be okay.”
Michael Quinlin, co-founder of the Boston Irish Tourism Association, knew O’Donovan from when they both arrived in Boston in the 1980s, O’Donovan from Ireland, Quinlin from New York.
They met at the now shuttered The Village Coach House, a traditional Irish music bar in Brookline Village. It was also where O’Donovan met his wife, Lindsay. Quinlin and his wife Colette went on to found the Boston Irish Tourism Association and shared a similar mission with O’Donovan for promoting Irish culture and heritage.
“He was just an inspiration to everybody,” Quinlin said. “One of the things that stands out was his ability to reach beyond just Irish communities and to provide the music to a much larger audience, to a general audience or a mainstream audience. And that's what he did on his radio shows.”
Quinlin said O’Donovan was committed to making Irish music inclusive and enjoyable for all and leaves behind a "stellar legacy."
“At various times in our city's history, the Irish have been misunderstood or miscast,” Quinlin said. “I think Brian was aware of that. I think his ability to include everybody in the conversation really helped to kind of replenish and make positive the notion of the Boston Irish to a larger community.”
Quinlin remembers O'Donovan as an observer and listener, but also a strong organizer who forged deep connections between people. “He was able to keep friendships over his life, make new friends every step of the way,” Quinlin said. “And he had that Irish wry sense of humor that would come out whenever he felt like it.”
O'Donovan also had a laid-back view on life, Quinlin said, including one instance from the 2000s when it rained at a music series in Copley Square. O’Donovan was undeterred. “Whenever it rained, you know, he would just sort of shrug and look at everybody and say, 'Well, you know, I'm used to this being from Ireland,'” Quinlin said.
Frank Kennedy is the vice chairperson of the Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a nonprofit committed to the preservation of Irish culture. He said O’Donovan was a giant in the promotion of Irish culture and music who will be deeply missed by the local community.
“He always remained anchored to his love of Ireland, that was a driving force. Its culture, its language, its music," Kennedy said. "His work with GBH over the past three decades or more maybe — that’s legend.”
O’Donovan was inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Northeast Regional Hall of Fame in 2017.
“That was an honor that expressed our deep-felt appreciation of all that Brian contributed to Irish culture, and of course his support of our organization throughout these many many years,” Kennedy said. “A very special man and a man that will be dearly missed.”
This is a developing story.