It was a moment when memories were made, beautifully, poignantly, publicly. Brian O’Donovan, celebrating the 20thyear of his annual live show “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” stood onstage at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater with his wife and two of his daughters, along with the rest of the cast. As the audience joined in, they sang the traditional English carol, “The Wassail Song,” which concludes, “God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.”
Fans who have followed O’Donovan’s two decades as the face of Celtic music in Boston know the O’Donovan family may not have a happy new year. Brian O’Donovan has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, terminal brain cancer.
Facing that reality, O’Donovan said on this week’s Codcast that those moments of song with his family meant an awful lot. “The fact that they were there on stage singing Christmas songs with the audience, with everybody who was gathered on stage, I don’t take that type of thing for granted,” O’Donovan said. “I take it as a special golden moment. And it came through to me very, very poignantly.”
O’Donovan, the long-time host of GBH’s weekly show “A Celtic Sojourn,” faces his dire prognosis with optimism and grace. O’Donovan says he has no choice. “I can’t go back and take door B,” he said.
When he talks publicly about his diagnosis, O’Donovan focuses on the good. “I’m a people person, and even under such bleak circumstances and prognosis, there are opportunities to see kindness coming through, and I have seen that,” he said. “I’m a big fan of poetry, and I see poetry almost like prayer these days. And people send me poems and send me prayers… ‘I’m Jewish and I’m praying for you. I’m Muslim and I’m praying for you. I have no faith-based beliefs and I’m praying for you.’ And I take those prayers as any sort of positive vibes.”
O’Donovan said on the advice of his medical team, he is taking life one day at a time. “I will continue in my life until I can’t,” he said.
Most of the Codcast focused on O’Donovan’s passion: Celtic music, a folk style that originated in the areas around Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
O’Donovan, a native of Clonakilty West Cork in Ireland, was raised in a musical family, with a father and siblings who would sing as they worked or walked to school. He grew up in the 1970s, at a time when traditional Celtic music was being redefined with different instruments and harmonies.
O’Donovan has since sought out music that takes traditional Celtic music and builds upon it, incorporating artistic styles from diverse cultures. His Christmas show this year included a nod to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah with a performance by singer-songwriter Lily Henley, who sang in Ladino, celebrating the Judeo-Spanish tradition. O’Donovan credits the famous show Riverdance for bringing Irish dance and music into modern culture – and for encouraging the mingling of dance styles, like Irish steps, American tap, and African American dance.
“I keep saying that Celtic music is a living thing,” he said. “It’s not just something to be pulled out of a dusty drawer. It lives and is vital and vibrant in the communities and also seeks to collaborate with other forms of music and has been successful in doing that.”
O’Donovan believes music has a vital role in today’s divided society. “If you talk politics, if you talk history, even if you talk literature, at times they seem to have that division built into them,” he said. “I think that music and songs and dancing seem to eliminate that and invite people in on their own recognizance. And I think that’s a golden opportunity for us to use what we know, in our access to musicians and dancers and singers, to use that access to bring people together.”
While one critique of arts organizations has been that high prices make art the province of the elite, O’Donovan is hopeful that will change with more state and federal government financial support, as policymakers increasingly recognize that arts access is a human rights issue. “In the past, the value of arts to creating community and to community-building has been undervalued. And I think that’s changing,” O’Donovan said. “With the pandemic not allowing us to gather with like-minded people to enjoy the art, I don’t think anybody wants that to happen again, whether it’s to a pandemic, to a virus, or to lack of funding or lack of attention on the arts.”
As he faces his illness, O’Donovan turns to the arts for guidance. He often quotes the epitaph written on Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s grave, a line from one of Heaney’s poems: “Walk on air against your better judgment.”
“I really take that as a kind of a philosophy, almost, at this particular point, that I want to be as optimistic as I possibly can, knowing the bleakness of my situation as a reality, but also to walk on air, meaning, I think, take chances that you might have put off at other times in your life,” O’Donovan said.
“I’m saying this to all of the audience out there, do what you do and do it best and do it with a hunger and a desire for it, because you never know what’s coming down the road,” O’Donovan said. “And that’s certainly true in my case. But I’m going to walk on air. Maybe against my better judgment, but to heck with it. I’m still going to walk on air.”
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Power politics: Despite delays caused by a transmission line dispute in Maine, Hydro-Quebec says it is ready to honor its contract to supply a massive amount of hydroelectricity to Massachusetts. The company is offering reassurances even as Quebec’s own bid to address climate change is putting a squeeze on its once plentiful power reserves and political leaders in the province are exploring new ways to promote economic development with electricity. Read more.
The never-ending elections: Two Republicans blame human error in an unusual election challenge being hosted by a three-member House committee charged with determining who won two races in November that ended with vote margins of one and seven votes.
– Republican Rep. Leonard Mirra of Georgetown raises questions about several ballots in his one-vote loss to Democrat Kristin Kassner of Hamilton. Meanwhile, Republican Andrew Shepherd of Townsend says his seven-vote loss to Margaret Scarsdale of Pepperell should be tossed out and a new election held.
– Mirra is remaining in his job, filing bills and applying for committee posts, until the situation is resolved. He says he would file bills on behalf of Kassner if she wants. Read more.
Democratic dysfunction: Political consultant Gregory Maynard says the dysfunction of the Massachusetts Republican Party has garnered a lot of attention over the last couple years, but he says the quiet collapse of the Democratic Party should be equally concerning.
– “This year, the winners at the convention in the races for attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor all lost quite badly in their state-wide primaries,” Maynard points out. “To be really clear about what that means, the candidates chosen by the Democratic Party’s activist class were rejected by the Democratic Party’s primary voters. This is not a one-off event either, but an increasingly common occurrence in state-wide races and even in local races.” Read more.
Curbing regulatory overkill: R.J. Lyman, a politically active attorney, outlines what needs to be done for the state to streamline state regulations. Read more.
Equitable climate action: Paula Garcia of the Union of Concerned Scientists outlines three steps for equitable climate action. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
WGBH teases six issues to watch on Beacon Hill this session.
The much-anticipated unveiling of “The Embrace,” a bronze tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King placed on Boston Common, took place on Friday to great fanfare. (Boston Globe) It got a rave review from the Globe’s art critic, who called it “a game-changing work of monumental public art.” But not everyone was embracing “The Embrace.” Boston radio host Notorious VOG panned it for not including Black faces (Boston Herald), while Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah said it conveys a “whitewashed” message that the Kings overcame structural racism with love.
A Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Lynn is disrupted by protesters. (Daily Item)
A second library is closed in Colorado after officials said it was contaminated with methamphetamine. (New York Times)
Retailers say they experienced sluggish sales over the holiday season. (Salem News)
Mary Tamer of Democrats for Education Reform says the Boston Public Schools need to modernize facilities – and close schools – in a district with facilities for nearly 7,000 more students than are now enrolled. (Boston Globe)
Educators debate the impact of artificial intelligence apps like ChatGPT on students. (Telegram & Gazette)
Cannabis Control Commissioners are in sharp disagreement over a new driver’s education curriculum related to driving under the influence. (State House News Service)
New state septic regulations have municipal leaders in Dartmouth up in arms. (New Bedford Light)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has promised big reform of the Boston Police Department – but winning those changes through contract negotiations will be no easy task. (Boston Globe)
The Boston Globe’s printing plant in Taunton loses a contract to print the New York Times and prepares to lay off 30 employees, an indicator that the plant’s days may be numbered. (Media Nation).