How Brian O’Donovan set Boston’s stage for connection and community

The Power of the Local Pub

How Brian O’Donovan set Boston’s stage for connection and community
How Brian O’Donovan set Boston’s stage for connection and community
Episode Trailer

Boston producer Brian O’Donovan made a lot of space for Irish music and culture. He was dedicated to sharing it widely.  And though he presented music on formal stages and through his WGBH broadcast “A Celtic Sojourn,” casual, public Irish music sessions were ever important and enduring for him. This beloved leader lifted up traditional music. And he elevated the practice of ‘just going to the local pub’ into an act of radical community building.

Here’s a list of Boston area session. Of course these gatherings, like the living traditions that propel them, can evolve. So make sure to check with the pub before heading out, to confirm times!

* Burren Pub (Somerville): 6pm slow session in the back room of the Burren, followed by 8:30pm faster session in front room
* Druid Pub (Cambridge): 8pm singing session at the Druid

* Druid Pub (Cambridge): 8pm Scottish session
* The Haven (JP), 6:30m session 

* Druid Pub (Cambridge): 8-11pm Irish session 

* Druid Pub (Cambridge): 8pm SONG Session
* Piper’s Club @ Canadian American Club: 7:30-10 FIRST Thursday of the month,

* BeBop (Boston), 6pm session
* Irish Cultural Center (Canton): 6-9pm session
* Burren Pub (Somerville) 9:30pm 

* Backbeat Brewery (Beverly), 10:30am-1:30pm every other Saturday
* Bunratty Tavern (Reading), 1-4pm
* Emmetts’ Pub (Boston), 3-6pm…  and also 9pm-midnight
Hugh O’Neill’s (Malden), 5-8pm, mix of half singing, half tune playing
* Tavern at the End of the World (Charlestown), 5pm:
* Burren Pub (Somerville), 9:30pm 
* Druid Pub (Cambridge), 3:30-6:30pm
* Brendan Behan (Jamaica Plain), 5pm –

* Druid Pub (Cambridge) – 12-3pm 
* Burren Pub (Somerville) – 3-6pm 
* Dubliner (Boston) – 3-6pm 
* Ford Tavern (Medford) – 4-7pm


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy.

Episode 76-The Power of the Local Pub
How Brian O’Donovan set Boston’s stage for connection and community
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 14, 2023

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Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Joey Abarta: L.A.-born, Boston-based uilleann piper
>> Karan Casey: Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist
>> Matt Heaton: Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native who worked in Boston’s public broadcasting and music production
>> Hanneke Cassel: Oregon-born, Boston-based fiddler/pianist/composer
>> Maeve Gilchrist: Edinburgh-born, New York-based Celtic (lever) harp player
>> Kieran Jordan: Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer
>> Keith Murphy: Newfoundland-born, Vermont-based multi-instrumentalist and singer
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. An Irish flute player in Boston. And you’re listening to Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music and the bigger stories behind it.

From the big community of people — all the eloquent, excellent story tellers, poets, writers, singers, musicians, dancers, composers and visual innovators who keep the trad arts alive.

[ Music: “The Curse Reversed,” from Silver

Composer/Artist: Hanneke Cassel ]

Traditional music is an enduring form. Not a popular, ephemeral one. Even modern innovations in traditional music and dance aren’t always on the main stage or airwaves. But when they are… when we traditional musicians are called into service… our melodies, our dance rhythms, and our love songs often raise the roof.

Boston producer Brian O’Donovan made a lot of space for new and old traditional music. He was so dedicated to sharing it widely, generously, passionately, and with excellence. He really knew how to make a show. And he knew how to assemble a cast. Not always headliners, like on purpose. That was his shtick. It was just about great collaborators: anyone with whom he could share his vision. Even while he was battling brain cancer, he and his wife Lindsay O’Donovan kept the concerts going. And we also got to hear Brian’s voice weekly on a Celtic Sojourn, the radio broadcast that WGBH was gracious enough to host.

I knew Brian on and offstage. To me, and I think to all of his audience—to all the many friends that Brian had—it was so clear that Brian O’Donovan’s promotion of traditional music was about a lot more than putting on concerts or being a radio host. And he put his name on all his projects and big events in the service of promoting other people.

[ Music: Tune: “Grupai Ceoil Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton]

Brian was so aware, so knowledgeable of all of the players, of the lineage and the connections. Of the importance of music. Of the value of music for Irish, Scottish, Welsh people, for people from Brittany, the Shetlands, the Isle of Man, Cornwall. For people from Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Quebec. For people from all over the world who have found purpose and connection in the Celtic arts.

I spoke with just a few colleagues about the resonance and importance of Brian’s creativity, about how he brought so many people together. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. to keep some room and support for traditional music here in Boston and beyond. And it starts today, Saturday, October 14th, 2023. There are a whole lot of Irish music sessions going on in Boston this weekend, and every weekend, and all around the world.

I hope you’ll take in this short montage of memories. And then get thee to a session, where you might hear someone like Joey Abarta on uilleann pipes. He, too, has known Brian on and off stage

>> Joey: I first met Brian O’Donovan probably around 2010. Little did I know at the time how important he was to the traditional Irish music scene in Boston and how many times I would eventually share a stage with him.

>> Shannon: On his show and in live performances, Brian always spoke about the roots and branches of traditional Irish music. In a time where music marketing could sometimes overshadow the roots of our tradition, Brian was extraordinarily talented at making sure the light still shone through. He was a wonderful friend to me and my family, and he leaves a great chasm in our community.

[ Music: “The Dear Irish Boy,” from Swimming Against The Falls/SnámhIin Aghaidh Easa

Arrtit: Joey Abarta ]

>> Karan: It’s very hard to put into words what an extraordinary person he is.

>> Shannon: Waterford singer Karan Casey has known Brian for over 20 years.

>> Karan: His absolute commitment and support for multiple artists across the world has been breathtaking. His continued love and just generosity, the depth of it and his wisdom around nurturing and keeping artists going. His love for his family, for Lindsay is just something to be heard. He always told me just to do it do it, K. Just do it. When I’d be hemming and hawing, or afraid to do something, he’d say just do it. So I thank you,  Brian, for that.

>> Shannon: I feel lucky to also share memories of Brian with my husband, guitarist Matt Heaton:

>> Matt: One of the great things about Brian was the way he would always shoot for the moon in in any project he was doing. And he always had something big, something big cooking. He would never settle for good enough. He always wanted it to be the best that he possibly could. And he would involve people with it,  but it was never about using people to get what he wanted. It was about involving people for this greater project. And when you were involved you were happy to be there, because you could follow along with his lead, which was always, always a vision of something marvelous, not just something that’ll do. “You gotta shoot for the moon.”

[ Music: “Meaning of Life Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton]

>> Shannon: There was this one time that I asked Brian to describe the small weekly music session at the Druid Pub. Off the cuff, he painted this ideal scene with all the sparkle and important music. that you’d have in a big formal concert. Cause like, it can all be special. It can all matter. It can all bring people together and connect everybody in the room—if you set the stage right.

>> Brian: In the best nights that I’ve walked into the druid, it’s been cold outside. And I’ve opened up the door and suddenly you’re hit with a sense of warmth. There’s something going on in there. There’s a conviviality. there’s a Bonhomme.

There’s traditional music going on just around the corner to the right and everybody else there, some people really know the music and the musicians. Many people are there for the first time and are kind of bemused that they’re in this great situation where this music is being played acoustically in the corner. It suddenly makes you feel a part of it even if you’re not playing an instrument.

And you don’t have to be ethnically connected with the music. music. It’s enveloping it doesn’t require you to take any action whatsoever just to enjoy the moment absorb the tunes and enjoy the company of other people.

>> Shannon: Enjoying the company of other people—that’s left a mark on fiddle player Hanneke Cassel.

>> Hanneke: It’s hard to fully describe the impact the Brian O’Donovan has had on the Celtic musicians in Boston over the years, the support he has given us through the radio show and the many concerts and festivals. But I think I particularly, when thinking about Brian, I think about the parties and the gatherings and his generosity of spirit and his love of having very joyful times. And I particularly remember a night where I played for the Irish president, along with a bunch of others. And Brian had put this together, and he took us all out afterwards. And it was just such an amazing evening.

And there’s so many of those over the years. And they contribute so greatly to my love for playing music and my love for Brian and for the O’Donovan family.

[ Music: “Farika,” from Vignette

Artists/Composers: Maeve Gilchrist & Vicktor Krauss ]

>> Maeve: Brian and Lindsay have been family  to me since I arrived in Boston as a wayward 17 year old in 2003.

>> Shannon: Shortly after she’d left Edinburgh, harpist and composer Maeve Gilchrist connected with Brian and Lindsay.

>> Maeve: Their real extension of love, energy and resources has been a bottomless well, and it’s that manifestation of love and humanity that coated everything that Brian touched. His natural curiosity and thirst to dig deeper into the world pushed him and everyone around him to constantly be open to the new, the evolution that Brian always firmly believed was essential in the continued journey of the Celtic arts.

I’ll never forget the kindness he showed me personally as he offered me me work opportunities before I think I even realised that I was ready for them myself. And his straight shooting professionalism taught me more lessons than I could have ever learnt in music school. “Ask for what you need, know your worth, don’t worry about pleasing everyone.” Brian always has faith in me. He always cared so deeply.

Brian and Lindsay O’Donovan have been beacons of support for artists on and off stage. Dancer Kieran Jordan and visual artist Vincent Crotty have known the O’Donovan’s for years.

>> Kieran: I met Brian more than 25 years ago when I was a student at Boston College. And over the years he became a collaborator, mentor, father figure, and dear friend to me and my husband, Vincent. Brian was always there for me personally. I could pick up the phone and ask him for advice anytime, and his wisdom and acuity and good humor would always come through.

I think that his love of literature and language was part of everything he did. And his love of family and community shined above everything else. He was positive, curious, adventurous.

Our entire Boston music community and Irish cultural community have been truly shaped and supported and inspired and elevated by his generosity and brilliant light.

[ Music: “Midnight Sojourn,” from Lovers’ Well

>> Keith: Brian was a consummate host. He was just always such a master of gathering people and making them feel comfortable. And he was just so good at making people feel welcome and appreciated.

>> Shannon: Multi -instrumentalist Keith Murphy knows a thing or two about being a gracious emcee. He’s learned from one of the best.

>> Keith: You know, so often, musicians you know, musicians, when they’re being presented on stage, you get somebody who’s just reading a blurb word -for -word off your website, and it’s not always the most inspiring lead -up to play. And Brian would never have done that. Because Brian knew his musicians. He knew the people he was presenting, and was excited, deeply excited always, to have them share what they did.

I feel like I did learn so much doing that with him. Brian was an unflappable guy and he was always a delight. It was just such a pleasure working with him.

>> Shannon: Brian O’Donovan presented Celtic music in Irish culture so warmly and so generously and he was so committed to excellence and kindness. He really helped illuminate the power of shared public community music.

>> Brian: Honestly, it’s just.. it’s the power of the local pub with musicians playing in the corner. I can’t think of anything better.

>> Shannon: This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me,  Shannon Heaton. To learn more about where you can hear Irish music at pubs and on stage and how you can be part of the Irish music community in Boston and beyond, please visit

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

L.A.-born, Boston-based uilleann piper

Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist 

Matt Heaton


Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player

Brian O'Donovan


Cork native who transformed Boston’s traditional music community.

Oregon-born, Boston-based fiddler/pianist/composer 

Maeve Gilchrist


Edinburgh-born, New York-based harp player and composer

Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer

Keith Murphy


Newfoundland-born, Vermont-based multi-instrumentalist and singer 

The Heaton List