Brian O’Donovan, the longtime host of GBH’s radio show A Celtic Sojourn and the creative force and host of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” which has been a holiday tradition for New Englanders for over 20 years, died on Friday at his home after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.
The cause of death was complications from glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer.
“His passion for music and his sheer joy in sharing it was abundantly clear to GBH listeners, whether of his weekly show or of his spirited live events,” Susan Goldberg, GBH’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “In more than 35 years with our organization, Brian never met a stranger. His warmth to his colleagues, and his deep commitment to the mission of GBH, will be greatly missed.”
During his productions of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” — an annual mix of live music, dancing and storytelling — O’Donovan transported the audience to the Christmases of his childhood in Ireland. He recounted the rituals that were sacred to his family, even if they applied to “fairly mundane things,” such as who got to light the Christmas candle on Christmas Eve, or who got the first cup of “Van Houten’s” hot cocoa.
“Christmas was just full of always, an important time for the always things in life, the things that you expect to happen every year,” he said.
Brian O’Donovan was an “always” in his own right. You always expected to hear him on the radio on Saturday afternoons. You always expected him to take to the stage around the holidays.
Born in 1957, O’Donovan grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. He was the second youngest in a family of nine children. His father was a butcher and his mother was a full-time homemaker. It took leaving Ireland, however, for O’Donovan to truly appreciate the music of his homeland.
After graduating from the University College Cork in 1978, he moved to London and found a music scene, which O’Donovan described on his website as “teeming with Irish emigrants. The traditional Irish music scene was thriving there, and I found myself very drawn to the music.”
O’Donovan’s interest in Irish music ended up changing the course of his life.
In 1980, he traveled to Boston for what was intended to be a three-week vacation. Instead, it became his new home. He met singer Lindsay Henes at a live Irish music session at a Brookline pub, The Village Coach House. They were married for 42 years.
O’Donovan’s road to radio also started in Boston at Emerson College, where he went to graduate school to get a master's degree in mass communication in 1982. It was there that he worked on the college radio station WERS, producing music festivals and fundraisers.
O’Donovan’s experience in producing events sent him on another unexpected trajectory: the world of professional sports. In 1984, O’Donovan was hired as a consultant on an Irish music festival that was being produced at Gillette Stadium, which was then known as Sullivan Stadium. Impressed by his work, the Sullivans — who founded and owned the Patriots at the time — offered O’Donovan a full-time job to develop an events program for the stadium. He accepted, and over the years, he booked blockbuster acts such as Aerosmith, Madonna, David Bowie and U2.
By 1987, Brian O’Donovan was general manager of the newly renamed Foxboro Stadium. Within two years, Robert Kraft came on board.
In 1994, after the Kraft family acquired the New England Patriots, O'Donovan became the operation’s vice president, in charge of facilities management. From football he then entered the world of what a native of Ireland might call real football: Soccer.
Having helped to secure the United States’ 1994 World Cup bid, he went on to manage the World Cup matches that were played at Foxboro Stadium and subsequently helped to facilitate the creation of Major League Soccer. When that league launched, he took on the role of general manager and chief operating officer of the New England Revolution.
While ascending the ranks of professional sports, O’Donovan never forgot his connection to Irish music. In 1986 he joined GBH to host a weekly radio show: A Celtic Sojourn. In a 2019 interview with GBH News, O’Donovan reflected on his life at that time.
“While I was leading events management at Gillette Stadium, people would often say to me, ‘There’s a guy on radio who has your same name.' They couldn’t reconcile the two worlds: professional sports and an esoteric sub-stream music genre program on public broadcast,” O’Donovan said.
What might have been “a sub-stream music genre program” in the early ’90s became a fixture on Saturdays, expanded to a three-hour weekly show. It also spawned another fixture in New England: the annual onstage production, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
O’Donovan’s work in celebrating and raising awareness about Irish music and the local immigrant network earned him special appreciation from the city of Boston. In 2017, then-Mayor Marty Walsh declared December 14 Brian O’Donovan Day “in recognition of his contributions to immigrant communities in Greater Boston.”
Beyond his contributions to the Irish community in Greater Boston, O’Donovan was also a voice of wisdom, comfort and inspiration for anyone enduring hardship. Not long after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer he went on GBH’s Boston Public Radio, hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, to talk about his prognosis. Eagan asked Brian if he was angry, or if his attitude was “why me?”
O’Donovan replied: “My kind of attitude generally has been to take every piece of life and every experience as the gold nugget that it is. When you get a diagnosis like this, you need to really think about making the most of whatever time you have left.”
When Eagan pressed O’Donovan on why he wanted to go public with his diagnosis, he said it was to remind people that there is goodness. “The amount of kindness that has come to me through this dark diagnosis really strikes me — the goodness of people. Please think of that, that there are people out there that are ready to help you,” he said.
To underscore O’Donovan’s generosity of spirit, he might not have ever been fully aware or entirely grasped what he has meant to Boston. During that Boston Public Radio interview, a listener named Julie from Amesbury texted the show: “I walk by Brian O'Donovan several times a week as he graces the wall of The Palm restaurant. Everyone on that wall is considered family. And he is certainly a family member.”
That wall of caricatures at The Palm is a visual representation of the local “who’s who,” featuring political icons such as Tip O’Neil to cultural institutions such as Fenway Park. And O’Donovan’s response to that text was telling: “I did not know that I was on the wall of that pub.”
After his diagnosis, O’Donovan said that he was reading more poetry, and reading it differently with an emphasis on life. Seamus Heaney’s poetry had particular resonance, especially the epitaph on his gravestone. It reads, “Walk on air against your better judgment” — a line from Heaney’s poem, “The Gravel Walks.”
O’Donovan quoted that epitaph on Boston Public Radio.
“What a beautiful sentiment that is,” he said. “When I read things like that, I hold them in my heart and in a deeper way than I ever would have before.”
O’Donovan is survived by his wife, Lindsay O’Donovan, his four grown children: Aoife, Ciaran, Aidan, and Nuala and three grandchildren.
"Beyond his professional accomplishments, Brian was known for his generous spirit, kindness, and mentorship," O'Donovan's family said in a statement. "He touched the lives of many in the music industry, offering guidance and encouragement to emerging talent. His commitment to preserving and sharing the beauty of Celtic culture was not just a job—it was an integral part of his being."
This is a developing story.