Like many who became teenagers in the early 1970s, Brian O’Donovan had little taste for traditional music — those Irish tunes that always seemed to be performed in County Cork pubs by “guys with black-rimmed glasses, stuffed shirts, and black ties.”
Then one summer day he heard the youthful Irish folk band Planxty at an outdoor festival in Cork. “That was my first exposure to traditional music performed in a hip environment,” he told the Globe in 2000. “Here were these young guys on stage — long hair, jeans, beards.”
The concert altered his life’s course and a decade later, as an immigrant, he changed how traditional Irish music was perceived in Greater Boston — and soccer, too.
The longtime host of the beloved GBH radio show “A Celtic Sojourn” and its popular concert extravaganzas, including “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” Mr. O’Donovan died at his home in Cambridge Friday. He was 66 and announced last year that he had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor. He and his family previously lived for many years in Newton.
“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, president and chief executive of GBH, said in a statement the station posted on its website. “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.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, Mr. O’Donovan spent more than a dozen years pursuing dual careers managing Sullivan Stadium and then serving as the New England Revolution’s first general manager, as the team’s chief operating officer, and as a New England Patriots vice president, all while hosting “Celtic Sojourn” — sometimes taping radio shows in advance when he had to be on the road.
Working for the Sullivan and Kraft families, he helped lure 1994 World Cup matches to Massachusetts and launch Major League Soccer here, and he played a role in getting a new stadium built in Foxborough.
“I absolutely loved that experience,” he told the Globe, but while soccer executive roles brought national prominence, his heart lay elsewhere.
Professional sports “didn’t excite my passion,” he said. “If somebody was to say, ‘What were you put here to do?,’ I would not say it was to promote or manage a professional sport. I’d say it’s to share my passion for the arts, especially music.”
Mr. O’Donovan announced in 2000 that he would resign from the Revolution, and soon after he turned his full attention to music, a realm where he was becoming a household name across the country as radio stations added “Celtic Sojourn” to their schedules and would soon broadcast recordings of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
His shows featured interviews, his own recollections and readings, and a broad spectrum of recorded and live music that connected to Celtic traditions in various ways.
Along with music from Ireland, listeners heard tunes from “Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cape Breton, Galicia,” he told the Irish Times in 2018, and he explored “other ‘roots’ based music such as blues, bluegrass, Cajun, Appalachian, Quebecois.”
“It was — and is — an exciting time for all of that music,” he added. “I like to use the term ‘roots and branches.’ "
On stage during annual events such as “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” for two decades and “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” for nearly as long, those roots and branches were familial as well as musical.
Mr. O’Donovan’s wife, Lindsay, a talented pianist and singer, might play a tune, or their daughter Nuala would perform her father’s favorite rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The couple’s daughter Aoife O’Donovan, a Grammy Award-winning solo artist and cofounder of the bands Crooked Still and I’m With Her, has performed in Sojourn concerts as well.
Starting with a single performance in the Somerville Theatre two decades ago, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” grew into a multi-show run at Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, and then productions in multiple theaters and communities.
Musicians changed from year to year in shows that included singing, dancing, and Mr. O’Donovan himself seated in a leather chair, reading Christmas stories and reminiscing about childhood holiday memories.
“The thing that thrills me about it is that I’m the curator of the content,” Mr. O’Donovan told the Globe in 2010. “People now say, ‘We may not have heard of these musicians, but we trust O’Donovan.’ And that allows me to get these incredible musicians whom the vast majority of people have not heard of.”
The eighth of nine siblings, Brian O’Donovan was born in 1957 in Clonakilty and grew up in that County Cork village near Ireland’s southern tip.
“We’d be marched out to Mass,” he told the Globe in 2020, “and the Mass was always in Gaelic.”
His father, Jim, was a butcher, and his mother, Joan, “raised nine kids — she was a professional martyr,” he recalled with a laugh.
“My parents were musical in that they were naturally singing and encouraging music, not formally,” he said in a Globe interview. “Family gatherings would be sing-songs — meaning you’d gather and make your own entertainment by singing a party piece, or a poem.”
“A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” he told GBH, “really reflects the gatherings that I had growing up in my house.”
Mr. O’Donovan wanted to travel the world after graduating from University College Cork in 1978. He planned to stay three weeks when he visited Boston in 1980, “but my best-laid plans were shelved when I met singer Lindsay Henes at a session in a pub, the Village Coach House in Brookline Village,” he once wrote. “We got engaged after three days.”
They married in 1981 and had four children. “These have been the best 42 years of my life,” Lindsay said.
“If I had to pick a way to describe Brian, it is like he was the party — the ‘craic,’ as they say in Ireland,” she said. “He always put his family first and I felt like we had a great partnership, with me being at home and him doing his wonderful thing.”
Mr. O’Donovan leaves his wife; their children, Aoife of Orlando, Ciaran of Brooklyn, N.Y., Aidan of Denver, and Nuala of Cambridge; his eight siblings, Aileen Murphy, Millie Potter, Michael, Carmel O’Brien, James, Meg Hickey, Ann O’Brien, and Ray; and three grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, on Garden Street.
“So much of his professional identity and his familial identity is his Irish heritage, but he raised four American kids and he loved it here,” Nuala said. “He loved Boston. He believed in the immigrant story and his dream. He was so dedicated to us, and to that.”
At Emerson College in the early 1980s, he pursued graduate studies in broadcast journalism and started hosting a show on WERS-FM. That led to hosting Irish music shows on other stations.
In a way, traditional Irish music led to his inadvertent career in professional sports.
Mr. O’Donovan also produced Irish music festivals, a sideline that led Patrick Sullivan, then general manager of the Patriots, to hire him to stage a festival at what was then Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough. Sullivan then hired Mr. O’Donovan as the stadium’s events coordinator.
He founded GBH’s “Celtic Sojourn” in the mid-1980s and hosted it ever since, interviewing local performers and musicians passing through Boston.
“I try to lure people not just to my program, but into the art of the music,” he told the Globe in 1997. “And to do that I have to play something alluring.”
Listeners “knew instantly that his voice was magic,” Aoife said.
“And as the oldest of his kids,” she said, “I can say that he really was that magical of a person. He truly was some kind of leprechaun sprite” — delighting his children and grandchildren and all children who met him with stories effortlessly spun.
“I hope whenever anyone out there hears a beautiful tune or piece of poetry or sees a dad playing with his children, they will remember the Brian that we all knew and loved,” Lindsay said.
Mr. O’Donovan’s “Celtic Sojourn” show was always more than music. He also read on air the work of his favorite Irish writers, such as Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats.
“This is a music program,” he said, “but I love poetry and would like to do more of it.”
After his brain cancer diagnosis, poetry helped sustain him. “I see poetry almost like prayer these days,” he told CommonWealth magazine in January.
A particular favorite was Heaney’s “The Gravel Walks,” which includes a line that is etched into the Irish Nobel laureate’s gravestone: “Walk on air against your better judgment.”
“I’m going to walk on air. Maybe against my better judgment, but to heck with it,” Mr. O’Donovan told CommonWealth. “I’m still going to walk on air.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.