After three decades of St. Patrick’s Days in Savannah, musician Harry O’Donoghue — a real, true son of Ireland from the coastal town of Drogheda — is pretty sure he understands the big picture.
“There are people who come here to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but geographically they couldn’t find the island with a map,” he laughs. “But hey, at least they’re embracing it — it’s a party. Let’s rock on.”
Rocking on might not be a traditional Irish activity, but St. Patrick’s Day, after all these years, no longer has much to do with the patron saint who drove out the snakes, or whatever. The anniversary of St. Patrick’s death is both a liturgical and non–liturgical holiday, and in America, it’s about leprechauns, shamrocks and a whole helluva lot of beer.
“I think Ireland, this time of year, looks to America, and Australia and other places where the St. Patrick’s celebrations have taken on a life of their own,” O’Donoghue says. “There’s a great realization that this enhances the culture, and enhances tourism, and the Irish psyche and way of life.”
Donoghue, who has family in Ireland, takes tour groups over several times a year. “St. Patrick’s Day is still considered to be a holy day in Ireland,” he explains. “They have a parade in Dublin, but it just isn’t the same. The greatest celebrations of all things Irish are outside of the island, really.”
A Savannah resident since 1987, O’Donoghue makes his living by traveling the country, with his guitar and his bodhran (Irish hand drum), singing folk songs of the old country at Irish festivals and in Irish–themed pubs.
Kevin Barry’s, on River Street, is his home away from home. This St. Patrick’s Day, as always, he’ll be on the Barry’s stage. “I love the Mardi Gras aspect of St. Patrick’s Day on the river with 500,000 people,” he says. “And I get to play a couple of sets with Frank Emerson and Carroll Brown. It’s fun, everything’s off the cuff, and I play a little bit more of the bodhran.
“With three voices, we can really get a lot of power behind a song. That’s one of the things I look forward to the most.”
On his most recent CD, A Splash of No Regrets, O’Donoghue demonstrates his ability to not only sing a good old Irish folk tune — he has a stirring, clearwater tenor voice —but to write, and arrange, his own material.
His “other” influences run to the early ‘70s, James Taylor–led singer/songwriter movement, to country and bluegrass, and rhythm & blues.
On A Splash of No Regrets, produced by the estimable Gabriel Donohue, he mixes the genres — Irish and non–Irish — on a pleasing palette.
The songs, he says, take their own direction, and he’s powerless to stop them. “It’s very hard to be contrived,” he says, “and say ‘Well, OK, I’m going to write a traditional Irish song.’”
With a 30–year career already under his belt, O’Donoghue knows he can deliver the goods, whether it’s an old–timey tune or one of his own ... and anyway, he believes, “people form their opinions in their own minds. Like it or lump it, that’s what’s gonna stick.”
He performs at the Savannah Irish Festival each February, and at the low–key Tara Feis at Emmet Park in early March.
“At the Irish Festival, I host a singer/songwriter in the round kind of thing, and that is very enjoyable to me,” he says.
“Working with different people and talking about the songs. I find that challenging, so I try and write new songs for that. And that’s something I’d like to do more of. I don’t get the opportunity as much as I would like.
“What I do now is, I sneak some of my own songs into a regular set. I don’t necessarily tell people they’re mine! If a song is good, it’ll stand on its own merit ... the last thing you need is that sympathy round of applause, ‘oh, that was good, can we move on?’”
Now, St. Paddy’s Day is another kettle o’ fish entirely. The boozy throngs are likely to revolt if the troubadour onstage doesn’t do a bit of “Danny Boy.” Or, well, “The Unicorn,” even.
“In the last several years it has been very civilized, so to speak,” O’Donoghue chuckles. “I remember in years before there was a certain madness to the whole thing, with people crawling off the ceiling at 10 o’clock at night, but it seems to have calmed down a little bit.
“The management at Kevin Barry’s keep a very tight rein on that. They’ve got good guys working the door, and a cover charge, so the people who really are not interested won’t come in.”
Where: Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub, 117 W. River St.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, March 17