The Corkman who brought Madonna, Bowie, U2 and the World Cup to Boston
As event coordinator for Foxboro Stadium, Brian O'Donovan attracted many big names. Now he presents an Irish radio show
Brian O’Donovan was born in 1957 in Clonakilty,West Cork, and now works as a broadcaster for Boston Public Radio. He presents a show that explores “traditional and contemporary music from around the Celtic world”
Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas.
Brian O’Donovan is the second youngest of nine children, born in 1957 in Clonakilty,West Cork. O’Donovan studied at UCC in the 1970s but now lives in Boston, where he works as a broadcaster for WGBH, a public radio station. He presents a show that explores “traditional and contemporary music from around the Celtic world”.
When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?
I first came to the US in 1976. It was the end of my first year at UCC and the US was celebrating its bicentennary. I fell in love with the States that year. It really suited my sense of adventure. I came back several more summers and then in 1980, after working in London for a while, I went back to the US intending to stay for maybe a year. I went to Boston for the first time. It had a sense of the London I had just left with the scale and European feel of Dublin. I made friends easily here and the music scene really attracted me.
I fell in love with the city and at a traditional music session three weeks later, fell in love with my wife, Lindsay. Thirty eight years later we live here in Harvard Square, Cambridge, have four grown children and our first grandchild.
Did you study in Ireland?
I went to University College Cork and did my BA in 1978. I went to graduate school to do a Master’s in Mass Communication at Emerson College in Boston from 1982 to 1984.
Tell us about your life there.
Since I arrived in the US as part of a work-exchange programme in 1976, I have been drawn to its work ethic, the sense of anything’s possible, and culture of openness and optimism. In 1984, I was hired as the event co-ordinator for Foxboro Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. I took over as general manger in 1987. I helped to build the the stadium into one of the busiest facilities of its size in the country.
Between 1986 and 1997, artists performing shows at the 60,000 seat facility included The Grateful Dead, U2, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Madonna, Elton John, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Guns n’Roses, Metallica, New Kids on the Block, Phil Collins, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and many others. I became vice-president of the New England Patriots in 1994 under the then new ownership of Robert Kraft.
Having helped with the US’s 1994 World Cup bid, I oversaw the Boston segment and was then involved in the founding of Major League Soccer here in 1996, becoming chief operating officer of the New England Revolution Soccer. From 1998 through to 2001, I was also part of the team that helped develop the new Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots.
Sport and music then?
I also continued to host a weekly programme, A Celtic Sojourn on Boston Pubic Radio. The show has been continuously on the air since 1986. It explores the vibrant and vital genre of music from around the Celtic world and now has a three-hour slot on Saturday afternoons. You can also catch it on the web (wgbh.org/music/celtic/a-celtic-soujourn). Over the past few years, it has become one of the most popular and financially well-supported programmes on the station.
From 2001 to today, I have produced festivals, concerts and radio and TV programmes for the Public Brodcasting Service (PBS). One of the brands, the Christmas Celtic Sojourn series of concerts, is now entering its 16th year. I have also been the artistic director of Summer Arts Weekend, an outdoor summer festival presented by WGBH and The Boston Globe in downtown Boston.
Boston Public Radio says you “explore traditional and contemporary music from around the Celtic world, connecting emerging artists to their deep musical roots”. Can you tell us more?
I always had a passion for traditional Irish music. Actually, I tell a lie. I didn’t have any interest in it when growing up in West Cork during the 1960s, until I saw Planxty play in a Marquee at the Festival of West Cork in Clonakilty around 1970 or 1971. That opened up my ears and my mind, and since then my interest deepened rapidly. During my time at Emerson College where I was concentrating on broadcasting, I got a chance to host a weekly radio programme on traditional music. I loved it, and having that show allowed me to explore other “roots” based music such as blues, bluegrass, Cajun, Appalachian, Quebecois etc. It also opened me to what was happening around the rest of the “Celtic” world - Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cape Breton, Galicia. It was - and is - an exiting time for all of that music. I like to use the term “roots and branches”. That’s what I explore and the genres are vibrant and fresh, from t Planxty, The Bothy Band, and the Chieftains to The Pogues, Karan Casey, Solas, Danu, The Gloaming, and the late Micheal O’Suilleabhain.
What is it like living in Boston? Does being from Ireland give you kudos?
Boston is just lovely. It is wonderfully livable, scaled nicely, safe, and increasingly diverse. The seasons here are markedly contrasting. And while crusted, dirty city snow in late February can be challenging - physically and mentally - the weather is generally good and conducive to being outdoors.
Yes, being Irish in Boston is certainly a boon. Our diaspora - as is almost now the stuff of caricature - has certainly put its stamp on the city. But even those with no ethnic connections to Ireland are generally interested in and maybe even sometimes a little bemused by us.
We are in a period of economic growth, but even during the recession, desirable places to live are expensive. Boston and particularly Cambridge, where I live, are absurdly expensive. But then again I look at prices in Dublin, London and Paris, and I scratch my head. In terms of social life, diversity in arts, outdoor activities, close access to the sea, and the mountains, the Boston area is second to none.
Public transport: ugh, we are sorely challenged. We have starved our infrastructure for years focusing on the private car, and we are beginning the toll it has taken. As more and more young folks are staying urban, the concept of “inner city” of course as a substitute for “poor,” has changed. So transport, schools, parks and recreation are receiving new attention. (Money talks, and wields political power!) We are doing better with bike lanes, but our underground and bus systems are antiquated, overcrowded, and subject to malfunction daily. It is a huge issue as the city grows and gentrifies. Airbnb is also not a positive force for this city, and there is a battle going on as I write on its contribution to our housing crises.
Would you ever come and work in Ireland? Or live here?
That is a huge question. You know, it’s funny but I have been lucky enough - so far - to never have really left Ireland. Since the late 1980s, I would say I’m in Ireland anywhere from four to six times a year, and am close to family and friends, and feel connected in very visceral ways. We had a house in Ardfield for many years, where my family would spend summers and I would travel back and forth a few times, and my siblings all live in Ireland (except one sister who lives in the Bahamas.) Having said that, with my kids grown, and still energised by that sense of the possible, my wife and I often talk about welcoming an opportunity for new adventure, and Ireland has certainly come up in that context. Such interesting developments there now!
I am always just amazed at the quality of life in my home town of Clonakilty and the number of clubs, societies and opportunities to get involved in causes that exist and thrive there. Its jaw dropping, and wonderful. So I guess, yeah, having just written that, I do miss the idea of living there.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?
Go for it. There are no road maps and don’t be fooled into thinking there are. Find your own way, and keep all possibilities open. The world is changing so rapidly, no one can predict the future, but you can claim a piece of it. You just need that undeviating dedication to the task. And you need to have built in or to acquire, that most undefinable of Irish terms, neck.
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