Aidan O'Hara, 1939‑2023

Nlresize Aidan Ohara
Aidan O'Hara

Is méala mór do Thaisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann a chloisint go bhfuair Aidan O'Hara, craoltóir, scríobhneoir agus bailitheoir ceoil, bás le déanaí

Born in Co Donegal and more recently living in Longford, Aidan O’Hara was an award-winning broadcaster, writer, and historian. Through his travels for work and education, he also became an accidental collector of songs, music, and oral history. His recordings from Newfoundland, Canada are the cornerstone of ITMA's microsite, A Grand Time: The songs, music and dance of Newfoundland's Cape Shore

Aidan qualified as a teacher at St Mary’s College in Dublin (now known as the Marino Institute of Education). As a young graduate, he moved to Canada and found work teaching in British Columbia—Canada’s most westerly province. That’s where he met Joyce Kuntz: a fine teacher and a singer, and important collaborator on many of Aidan’s subsequent endeavours.

Over the next several years, the young couple lived in a number of locales. They relocated to Ontario, Joyce’s home, and were married there in 1965. They taught near Ottawa for a year before moving into the capital city. While continuing to teach, they also sang in a folk group that featured on local stages, television, and radio. Aidan also pursued part-time studies at the University of Ottawa.

Aidan’s time in Ottawa also led to his acquaintance with Delia Murphy, the Mayo-born songstress. This chance meeting became the foundation for the biography that he published many years later: I’ll Live ‘til I Die’: The Story of Delia Murphy (1997) was the featured book on RTÉ’s Book on One in May 2005.

When Aidan and Joyce moved to Ireland in 1969, they settled their young family in Dublin, and Aidan began his career with Raidió Telefís Éireann (RTÉ). Aidan, however, was interested in furthering his education. So after a few short years, in 1973 Aidan and Joyce packed up their belongings, and their four young children, and headed to St John’s, Newfoundland—Canada’s most easterly city.

Aidan attended Memorial University of Newfoundland, taking courses in folklore, history, and cultural geography. It was there that Aidan met Galway-born scholar John Mannion, a professor of geography and expert on the Irish presence in Eastern and Atlantic Canada. John introduced Aidan to the people of the Cape Shore, sparking the friendships that inspired Aidan to make the recordings featured in A Grand Time.

To make ends meet for his young family, Aidan continued his work as a broadcaster. He worked with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in St John’s, presenting the Saturday evening radio programme Friends and Neighbours. He was also a regular on a series that broadcast across all of Canada: All around the Circle. And, in the autumn of 1975, he took an appointment as the deputy head of School Broadcasts (the Department of Education series that went out on CBC Radio). Aidan’s ongoing work in radio and television provided a forum and opportunity to share some of his recordings. During the mid-1970s, the voices of “The Branch Crowd,” as they came to be known, were exposed to an island-wide audience.

Aidan was active in the cultural and academic life of St John’s. During the mid-1970s, he took on the role of Vice-President with the St John’s Folk Arts Council (the organisation now known as the NL Folk Arts Society). His work with the Folk Arts Council culminated in the founding of the Newfoundland Folk Festival—a now-annual event—in August 1977. He was the programme director for the Festival for the first two years. As was so often the case, this endeavour was a family affair: Joyce coordinated food and lodgings for the many singers, musicians, dancers, and storytellers who travelled to St John’s for the festival.

Aidan was also the founding president of the Irish Newfoundland Association. Initially, the purpose of the organisation was to ensure that the Irish American Cultural Institute had a reason to include St John’s on its annual tour. This tour featured visits to North American cities by leading figures from Irish life. Aidan spoke on Newfoundland-Irish ties as part of the Institute’s 1976 tour.

Aidan was sometimes asked to facilitate Irish guests to the province. Following the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal, Irish politician John Bruton stopped off in Newfoundland for a short holiday. The Ottawa-based Irish Embassy asked Aidan to coordinate the visit: Aidan took Mr Bruton to visit with Anthony and Mary Power in Branch and arranged for him to stay with John and Maura Mannion in St John’s.

These brief holiday encounters proved formative 20 years later when Taoiseach Bruton negotiated and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin in 1996. This agreement provides ongoing ties between the cultural, educational, and business sectors of Newfoundland and Ireland.

It was quite an amazing sense of coming home, even though I had never been there before.
John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland, on his visit to Branch & the Cape Shore.

Following his return from Canada, Aidan presented three acclaimed Radharc-produced documentaries on the Irish of Newfoundland—one of them the award-winning, The Forgotten Irish (1981). The broadcasts aired on RTÉ 1 in 1980 and 1981, and segments were later included in the BBC’s Emmy-award winning mini-series, The Story of English.

Moreover, as RTÉ employed Aidan as a broadcaster after his return from Newfoundland, much as they had in St John’s, selections from his Cape Shore field recordings occasionally made it into his broadcasts. Since retiring, Aidan continued to consult on radio TV series focusing on the connection between Newfoundland and Ireland.

Aidan continued to work as a writer and researcher. His interests were wide-ranging, though “the Newfoundland connection” continued to inflect his work. In 1991, he published the “The Irish in Newfoundland” in The Emigrant Experience (Galway Labour History Group, 1991). In 1998, his telling of the story of the Irish in Newfoundland, Na Gaeil i dTalamh an Éisc, won the Oireachtas ‘97 literary award for a work in prose. It was also nominated for The Irish Times Literature Prize in 1999 for a work in the Irish language. His most recent book A Damn Yankee, Am I? Thanks!: Portraits of the Irish in the era of the American Civil War (Aidan O'Hara, 2022) was published only a few months ago.

Aidan was a keen historian with a special interest in the Irish emigration experience. He was an active member of the Co Longford Historical Society and contributed regularly to the society’s journal, Teabhtha. His articles and editorials have appeared in Irish Music Magazine, and a variety of other journals and newspapers in Ireland. He was also a member of the Knocklyon History Society (Dublin) and the Co Donegal Historical Society. Aidan was Chairman of the Emmet and Devlin Committee, and was a founding member of the Association of Canadian Studies in Ireland.

In 2018, Aidan was awarded the NL Folk Arts Society Lifetime Achievement in recognition of his work.

Déanann Bord agus foireann Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann comhbhrón lena chéile Joyce agus lena gclann uilig.