“The Legacy Series and “The Legacy Fund” aim to make sure that Brian O’Donovan’s work will endure

Brian and Lindsay O’Donovan in one of their favorite places: onstage at “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.” Vic Dvorak photo

By Sean Smith

BostonIrish Contributor

The passing of Brian O’Donovan last fall has been felt keenly by the Celtic music community in the Boston area and elsewhere – a community he had no small part in fostering.

O’Donovan died on Oct. 6 of glioblastoma; he chose Seamus Heaney’s phrase “walking on air against his better judgement” as his legacy to all his family, friends, acquaintances, and many fans and followers. He was a renowned broadcaster, promoter, organizer, and consummate emcee, through his GBH radio show “A Celtic Sojourn,” the annual Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day “Celtic Sojourn” stage productions, and many other recurring or special events and programs.

It’s an impressive legacy to say the least, and that word – “legacy” – is at the heart of two endeavors aimed at literally keeping his name, as well as his memory, in the community’s collective heart and mind.

One of these ventures is already quite familiar to local audiences: the Burren Backroom Series, now renamed as the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Series, which since 2011 has brought a variety of traditional and contemporary music performers from the Celtic world to the Somerville venue.

    The other is a more recently launched undertaking: the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Fund, which will provide opportunities for Celtic musicians to develop their music and careers, operated by Passim – the Harvard Square-based non-profit whose enterprises include Club Passim and a music school.

“The Legacy Series and the Legacy Fund both reflect what Brian strongly believed,” says Lindsay O’Donovan, his wife of 42 years. “First, that music – especially this kind of music – should be shared and enjoyed together in a public setting, rather than just through speakers and headphones. It was one of his favorite catchphrases: ‘Live music is where it’s at!’

“Brian also felt that Celtic musicians, particularly those young and starting out, should have a chance to cultivate their talents and bring their sound to wider audiences. That’s how this music lives on.”

The Legacy Series retains its most important qualities, says O’Donovan. The acts that perform represent a spectrum of styles and sounds, as well as names both familiar and unfamiliar. Over the years, the series has hosted Dervish, Lúnasa, Robbie O’Connell, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Tannahill Weavers, Karan Casey, Liz Carroll, Frankie Gavin and De Dannan, Sharon Shannon, Finbar Furey and many other bands and performers prominent in Celtic music. There also have been acts relatively less well known or established, at least at the time: The Jeremiahs, Còig, The Fretless, Socks in the Frying Pan, Connla, Vishten, the Friel Sisters and the Young Irelanders.

Many performers with ties to Greater Boston and New England have appeared in the series as well, among them Matt and Shannon Heaton; Flynn Cohen; Maeve Gilchrist; Keith Murphy; the trio of Sean Clohessy, Pauline Conneely and John Coyne; Hanneke Cassel; Fellswater; and Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman.

Whatever an artist’s home base, or their approach to Celtic music, says O’Donovan, the important question is, “Is this someone Brian would want to play in the Backroom?”

O’Donovan notes that, for acts outside the region or the US, the Backroom is most often a welcome add-on to a tour itinerary: “If someone is going to be performing in Massachusetts or elsewhere in the Northeast not too far from Boston, and they have a date they can fill, then playing in the Backroom works perfectly for them.”

The appeal goes deeper than that, however, she adds. “First of all, the Burren has such a great reputation throughout the Celtic music world that most anyone would like a chance to play there. Most of all, the Backroom has a special, intimate feel to it – very different than a concert hall. A performer knows the Backroom audience is going to be up close and engaged, which makes for a really good time.”

Keeping with that in-your-living-room vibe, Brian O’Donovan would always hold a brief conversation with the featured performer or band during the concert, giving them an opportunity to connect with the Backroom crowd in a more personalized way.

“This was something Brian did a lot, whether at the Backroom or ‘A Celtic Sojourn Christmas’ or other events he hosted,” says Lindsay O’Donovan, who has taken on the series’ emcee role, which includes the on-stage chats. “People always said how much they appreciated the informality of these discussions and the insights performers would share. It really made you feel like you were gathered in somebody’s home. So, we certainly want that to continue.”

O’Donovan expressed her gratitude to the Burren co-owners Tommy McCarthy – who co-launched the series with Brian O’Donovan – and Louise Costello, as well as Backroom manager Tom Bianchi, audio engineer Joyce In, and all other behind-the-scenes staffers. Shannon Heaton and the publicity company Hurd Strategy also have lent valuable assistance, she says.

McCarthy, for his part, is only too glad that the series lives on. “Brian and Lindsay have given us many memorable events here at the Burren over the years. We’re delighted that Lindsay wants to continue with the Backroom series and keep bringing in such great acts. We recently sent a mass email to all the folks who’ve been attending the concerts with a note from Lindsay announcing the plans to continue the series. It’s really important that those words came from Lindsay, because so many people are mourning Brian’s loss, and it meant a lot to them to hear that his work will live on.”

Brian O’Donovan’s work will live on in a different, but also entirely appropriate way, through his namesake Legacy Fund at Passim. It is envisioned as similar to Passim’s Iguana Music Fund, which pays for projects and expenses that aid in artists’ career growth, from recording projects to community programs to specialized equipment or instruments; in its 14-year history, the Iguana Fund has awarded nearly $600,000 in grants to fund more than 300 projects. The Brian O’Donovan Legacy Fund will give out grants annually to qualified artists via a detailed submission process. Entries will be judged and grants given out based on available funding and need.

“People here have always been so generous in supporting Celtic music,” says Lindsay O’Donovan, “and it just made sense to have a charity – in Brian’s name – through which they can target that support directly to the performers and others who help make Boston such an exciting place for Celtic music.”

There are also plans to hold an annual event to benefit the Legacy Fund, she adds.

“Brian was a huge supporter of our local music scene and of Passim, specifically,” says Passim Executive Director Jim Wooster. “It’s a great honor for us to be entrusted with his Legacy Fund, and to use it to help new musicians develop their careers. Clearly, it’s something Brian would be very much in favor of.”

While no one could ever replace Brian, friends and acquaintances of the O’Donovans note that Lindsay has her own essential strengths as an organizer and leader, added to the accumulated experience and insights from working side-by-side with Brian for so many years.

For her part, Lindsay has confidence that Brian’s legacy will endure in a meaningful way.

“Brian had the personality to pull everything together, and the innate ability to win people over,” says Lindsay. “If Brian had an idea, he would seek out others he felt could play a role in making it a reality – or sometimes they would come to him – and he could make them feel that their contribution was an important one.

“It’s fortunate there are so many of these connections, built up over the years, that we’re able to draw upon to keep Celtic music as a vital, active force in Boston.”

For information on events in the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Series, see burren.com/music.html.

To learn more about, and donate to, the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Fund, go to assim.org/mission/grants/brian-odonovan-legacy-fund.