Bobby O’Donovan reckons he’s one of the few people who’ve ever been pulled over by the police for going too slow on the highway.
It was just a little mix-up, he says — he’s been out of the country for about 20 years and is used to reading his speedometer in miles, not kilometres, so he assumed he was driving along fine, on his way downtown from Goulds, until he heard the RNC officer’s siren behind him.
“As if the line of five cars behind me wasn’t my first clue,” O’Donovan says in his still-thick Irish brogue, with a hearty laugh. “I said, ‘Sorry, officer, what did I do?’ He said, ‘Sir, you’re going too slow. Go on, speed up, for God’s sake!’ Everybody gets stopped for speeding; only O’Donovan gets stopped for going too slow.”
Fans of Irish and Irish-Newfoundland music will no doubt recognize O’Donovan’s name from his career as a musician in this province. He was a longtime member of the Sons of Erin, with whom he played on 15 albums, having moved to St. John’s from Cork in 1970. His reason for the move? The music, plain and simple. Stepping off the airplane, he recalls, he wondered if he had actually emigrated or if it was all a dream.
“At a the airport, a guy says to me, ‘Oh, you’re musicianers. Musicianers — that’s a word from Ireland.
“That night, I went up to the old Skyline Motel and the next morning I woke up and heard an accordion and a fiddle going, and I thought I was back in Ireland.”
O’Donovan left the province eventually, feeling there was only so much he could do here. The Sons of Erin’s television show was winding down and member Ralph O’Brien had bought Erin’s Pub, spending less time on the road. O’Donovan headed to Toronto with Will Millar of the Irish Rovers — a band in which O’Donovan also performed — and became part of the group Rogues and Romancers, staying with the band for a few years. After that, he moved to Florida, where he still lives with his wife.
He was last in Newfoundland in 2010, but just for a few days, when he performed with Noble and Sons of Erin members in a 40-year celebration show at Holy Heart Theatre.
O’Donovan has been back in St. John’s for the past month or so, performing at Shamrock City and Erin’s Pub with collaborator Bob Noble (a Brit and former musician for Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Aha and Bob Geldof, among others). The pair, along with guitarist Vincent Griffin of Montreal, under the band name Fire in the Kitchen, have released a new CD, called “More Songs and Fun.”
The record is a 14-track collection of traditional Irish songs, with “Danny Boy,” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “One for the Morning Glory” among them, with some well-known pieces included for good measure. “Snowbird” is a version of the song made popular by Anne Murray, while “You’re Not Irish” is a tune by Irish singer/songwriter Robbie O’Connell.
“I love singing that one, because there’s a lot of truth to it,” O’Donovan says, breaking into song: “You’re not Irish, you can’t be Irish, you don’t know ‘Danny Boy’/Or ‘Toora Loora Loora’ or even ‘Irish Eyes.’”
O’Donovan admits there’s not quite the market or passion for Irish music in Florida that there is up here, and his shows with Noble and Griffin are geared toward entertaining people as well as playing music. He says he likes having a laugh and has always been able to make people chuckle, and brings that to the stage as much as he can.
His focus, when it comes to music, is on working with good people.
“The music industry is so cruel, and I find, in my later years, the most important thing is the person playing the music, because there are so many you-know-whats,” he says. “It can be cruel; it can eat you up and spit you out.
“It’s like that song,” he continues, singing again, this time a Harry Chapin tune: “All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown; the moon rolls through the nighttime; till the daybreak comes around.
“Here I am: it took me 20 years to come back and start my life again, though I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame. I want to thank all my old friends for the memories and for welcoming me back.”
O’Donovan and Noble will be in town for another few days. You can catch them onstage Saturday at Shamrock City on Water Street from 5 to 8 p.m., and Sunday at Shamrock City in the Goulds from 6 to 9 p.m.
“More Songs and Fun” is available online through CDBaby or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
O’Donovan is in the process of writing a book, a memoir he plans to call “Between the Gigs and the Reels.”
“You like that?” he asks of the title, grinning and winking. “I was going to call it ‘New and Exciting Things to do with a Rubber Ducky on Those Long Winter Evenings.’”