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Harry O’Donoghue

Hollywood musicals, apprenticeships, and cruise lines

Photo by Ace Andersson

Despite playing all over the world, Harry O’Donoghue still calls Savannah his home. He’s been in the States for nearly forty years, collaborated with countless artists, yet still cherishes those late-night moments at Kevin Barry’s down on River Street. Here, he talks about immigrating to America, performing for Norwegian Cruise Lines, and much more.

What are some of your earliest musical memories?

Ireland is a country chock full of music…everyone sings or tells stories, jokes or poems. I grew up in a non musical family for the most part but my dad did sing with a local group. There were a lot of them or so it seemed to a young boy and they sang musical theatre and minstrel songs, Al Jolsen etc…a lot of the songs from the Stephen Foster songbook. My dad loved to sing, thought he was the second coming of Mario Lanza…he wasn’t! So I became familiar with those kind of songs and of course Bing Crosby and the songs we heard in Hollywood music movies were very popular.

A memory that really stands out, is of me sneaking into my aunt May’s formal sitting room and playing 45rpm records on their brand new record player…they were more well off than us…we didn’t have one. I was probably just shy of ten years old at the time and was mesmerized by the Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. Loved those songs, and still do.. I was never quite sure when or where Irish folk and traditional music entered my life…it seems like it was always just there!

Music is such an integral part of our lives, even on a subconscious level.

Who are some of your musical influences?

Again, the Hollywood music movies were such a part of our lives growing up so that music was certainly an influence. I remember reading that Paul McCartney said something similar in an interview and that’s why he wrote songs like ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ and others. As I grew into my teenage years American Country music was very popular in Ireland and remains so to this day. Johnny Cash, Slim Whitman, Jim Reeves, John Denver, and others of that ilk…and more recently Garth Brooks. Funny, sometimes an old song will come on the radio or YouTube, which stays on all the time in my house, and I stop what I’m doing and think…I know that song, but from where?

Music is such an integral part of our lives, even on a subconscious level. I’ve always loved the Beatles, the original Fleetwood Mac, America, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and the Eagles. Jimmy MacCarthy is an Irish songwriter with a penchant for a beautiful melody and unusually poetic lyric…he’s one of the best. Mary Black is one of Ireland’s foremost female vocalists and she has a terrific knack for choosing the right song at the right time. I love her arrangements. I suppose you might deduce that my influences are all over the place.

How did you end up in America?

By trade I’m an electrician. I served a five year apprenticeship with an American company, Becton Dickinson or BD for short. They still have a plant in my hometown, Drogheda. In the fourth year of my apprenticeship I bought a guitar for Christmas. I was twenty years old, learned a few chords and went on to sing at charity gigs and with a large folk mass group. Three years later I had a good job, a not so good relationship, was paying very high taxes and was rather uncertain about life in general. Add a healthy spoonful of wanderlust to the mix and the stage was set for change. I have second cousins living in Philadelphia… (I had not met them at the time) … but they were, as is my experience with most Americans, very kind and supportive, and extended an offer to visit them.

A priest from our folk mass was relocated to Buena Park, California and the plan was to go visit him and see some of the United States along the way. We arrived (three of us) in Philadelphia on Mother’s Day, 1980 with the intent to stay for five months. This we did and the next year I returned to the States again, this time for a much longer period. We settled in the Philly area and hit the road, performing all over…St. Louis, Wilmington Delaware, Houston, New Orleans, San Diego, Ft. Lauderdale, Key West, Washington DC, Buffalo, Albany, Charleston and Atlanta, and in April 1983 I arrived in Savannah, Georgia. One of my cousins, Jeanne Hutton, lives on Tybee Island and invited us to spent some time at their house on the island. We had just finished recording our first album and were delighted to take some sun. Before we came down she asked if we could call an Irish Pub in Savannah named Kevin Barry’s. This we did, and I performed there for 36 years, right to the very end. It was a legendary venue and a vital part of the Savannah landscape for many years. I settled and married in Savannah and love it here, to me it’s one of the most beautiful city’s in the United States.

Kevin Barry’s was one of a kind, I’ve never played anyplace like it.

What’s it like working on the Norwegian Cruise Lines?

Ah, the cruise ship world…what I like to call the bubble on the ocean. Ship life is something akin to suspended reality. I’ve been performing with NCL since 2001 as a Guest Entertainer and must confess that I do love it. Over the last forty years my time has been spent driving hundreds and hundreds of miles, unloading, humping the equipment up and down stairs, setting up, breaking down and driving on to the next gig. It’s a different life but one I embraced wholeheartedly because of the love of music and performance.

Then along comes an offer to perform with NCL…they fly you all over the world, you get to stay in a very nice cabin and have stage technicians help with your onstage requirements. Sound and lighting technicians ensure you have everything exactly like you want it, you’re provided with an assistant to help sell product and you have plenty of time to mingle and dine with passengers…what’s not to love? My whole performance style and stage craft changed when I started working with NCL. I feel that I’ve become more professional and my performances have become more exact and nuanced over the years. I’ve been offered several contracts with Norwegian in 2020 and look forward to them.

What was it like performing at Kevin Barry’s on River Street?

Kevin Barry’s was one of a kind, I’ve never played anyplace like it. There were no television sets in the pub, the main dining room was called the Listening Room and it was a magical space. My favorite performances: Sometimes late at night when the bulk of the audience have left and there are but six or eight people remaining, and all is quiet, and you sing whatever you’d like…and you play a song…and you hear this sound, and it sounds wonderful, and you wonder…is that really me making that sound?…and there is nothing compares to that feeling, that intimacy, that gentleness, that emotion. I don’t know if those words even come close to conveying the magic that that room held. I’ve enjoyed performing with the Savannah Philharmonic, enjoyed performing at big festivals and on big stages but nothing compares to the occasional late night magic that could happen in a place like Kevin Barry’s. I will miss it for the rest of my life.

Your thoughts on Savannah’s music scene …

In the early years I’d finish performing in Kevin Barry’s and hit the town. Back then it was the Night Flight, the Long Branch, Hard Hearted Hannah’s, The Who’s Who and other more Bohemian establishments. I always thought that Savannah had a vibrant music scene, both with touring acts and local musicians. I don’t hit the town so much theses days after my shows but I still see that the Savannah music scene is as vibrant as ever. Today it’s a lot more eclectic and there are a much greater amount of venues to choose from. On any given night in Savannah you can hear jazz, country, singer songwriters, blues, acoustic and piano music…that’s fairly impressive for a small City.

Beginning to sound like a broken record here, but Kevin Barry’ would be my favorite all time venue.

Are there any Savannah artists you would like to collaborate with?

I’ve been lucky to have collaborated with some local musicians through the years. I’ve recorded with Phil Hadaway and worked with guitarist John Banks, bassist Johnnie Kennedy, vocalist/ pianist Johnny Herald, keyboard/guitarist Skip Graham, international touring and recording artist Kristina Train and more recently singer songwriter C.C Witt. Both in the studio and in live performance I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with Savannah Philharmonic Director Peter Shannon, arranger /saxophonist Randall Reese and arranger /horn player Robin Beauchamp and Savannah Symphony conductor Philip Greenburg. One never knows what lies ahead with respect to collaborations so I’ll wait to see what if anything happens down the road. There’s a country artist from Statesboro that I know…Erin Alvey…we’ve chatted about one day writing a song together so we’ll see if that pans out.

What are some of your favorite venues to perform in, either in Savannah or elsewhere?

Beginning to sound like a broken record here…but Kevin Barry’ would be my favorite all time venue. I also very much enjoyed the Holiday Pops concerts in St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Savannah…tough place for sound though, If you go in there even now you may still be able to hear my voice swirling about way up high! And I always liked the Lucas Theatre in Savannah, it exudes class and it’s a beautiful room in which to perform. Some of the theater’s on board the older ships in the Norwegian fleet are very nice also, then there’s the Tybee Post Theatre, it has a wonderful homey funky vibe, and over in Bluffton the Roasting Room is a delightful space.

All in all life is good and I’m thankful to have had a wonderful career, long may it continue.

Why do you think people love Irish folk tales so much?

Just like country music, Irish folk songs are of the people written about and for the people. Really most songs, stories and poems are the same, each one has a story and a reason why it was written. Some pieces are clouded by rhythms and percussion and productions that mask the underlying story, but the story is still there. Stories and songs connect with people on a basic level, or strive to. A good song is like a rental vehicle…when you sit into your rental car it it becomes yours for a period of time…a song is the same, the song becomes you and you become the song. It happens to everyone…sometimes you hear a song or piece of music and for a fleeting moment you’re transported to a time and place that was special in your life. Irish folk songs connect to people on this basic level and here in the States millions claim Irish heritage so there’s a romanticism attached also.

Do you have any upcoming projects for 2020?

2020 will bring with it some fairly substantial changes in my life. My anchor venue for the last 36 years is gone, the Irish pub scene, once so strong, has changed significantly, a lot of new Irish pubs are simply glorified sports bars, and there doesn’t seem to be an interest in the old Irish ballads and folks songs any more. I do have several contracts with Norwegian Cruise Line in 2020 and we have three Tours to Ireland next year, two being sold out. The third is an Autumn in Ireland Tour in October. My wife Traci and I have been taking groups to Ireland for many years now and it’s something we very much enjoy.

My radio show The Green Island Radio Show is still on the air weekly on Georgia Public Broadcasting and strange as it seems to me 2020 will be our 28th year.

I’m also working on a second comedy cd, specifically for the cruise ship world, where I’m known as a humorist as well as a singer songwriter. All in all life is good and I’m thankful to have had a wonderful career, long may it continue.

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