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Aidan O'Hara

Nlresize Aidan Ohara
Aidan O’Hara in his role as the Director of the 1978 NL Folk Festival (photo by Len Penton, provided courtesy of Aidan O’Hara; used with permission).
Aidan O’Hara is a tremendous ambassador for Newfoundland and promoter of the links between the two big islands.
John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland

Born in Co Donegal and now living in Longford, Aidan O’Hara is 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.

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 pursed 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.


I'll Live 'till I Die (1997)
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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.

The Branch Crowd dancing a set at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Len Penton, photographer
The Branch Crowd dancing a set at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Len Penton, photographer
 
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The Branch Crowd dancing a set at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Len Penton, photographer

The Branch Crowd dancing a set on stage at the 1977 Newfoundland Folk Festival. Aidan O'Hara is visible in the background, beside the 3rd dancer from the left. The musicians (left to right): Ron Felix, Andy Samuelson and Mac Schwackhamer. Those dancing include, left to right, Mary Power, Lucy Nash, Aidan O’Hara, John Joe Englsih, Eleanor Dawson, Val Ryan, and Virginia Ryan (née Preston).

The Branch Crowd dancing a set at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Len Penton, photographer

The Branch Crowd dancing a set at the Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Len Penton, photographer

© Len Penton

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.

Joyce O'Hara and her children at the first Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Aidan O'Hara
Joyce O'Hara and her children at the first Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Aidan O'Hara
 
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Joyce O'Hara and her children at the first Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Aidan O'Hara

Joyce, Kathleen (hidden), and Conor O'Hara sitting in the front row at the 1977 Newfoundland Folk Festival.

Joyce O'Hara and her children at the first Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Aidan O'Hara

Joyce O'Hara and her children at the first Newfoundland Folk Festival, 1977 / Aidan O'Hara

© Aidan O'Hara

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.

Anthony Power and friends at the 1978 Newfoundland Folk Festival / Aidan O'Hara
Anthony Power and friends at the 1978 Newfoundland Folk Festival / Aidan O'Hara
From left to right: Anthony Power, Virginia Ryan (née Preston), [Lucy Nash (née Connors)], and Mary Power.
 
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Anthony Power and friends at the 1978 Newfoundland Folk Festival / Aidan O'Hara

Relaxing at the 1978 NL Folk Festival, from left to right: Anthony Power, Virginia Ryan (née Preston), Lucy Nash (née Connors), and Mary Power. Photographer Len Penton (right) stands chatting with Ron Felix (left) and an unknown woman in the background.

Anthony Power and friends at the 1978 Newfoundland Folk Festival / Aidan O'Hara

Anthony Power and friends at the 1978 Newfoundland Folk Festival / Aidan O'Hara

© Aidan O'Hara

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 RTE 1 in 1980 and 1981, and segments were later included in the BBC’s Emmy-award winning mini-series, The Story of English

The Forgotten Irish (1981)
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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 continues to consult on radio TV series focusing on the connection between Newfoundland and Ireland.

While no longer active as a broadcaster, Aidan works as a writer and researcher. His interests are wide-ranging, though “the Newfoundland connection” continues 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.

Na Gaeil i dTalamh an Éisc (1998)
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Aidan is a keen historian with a special interest in the Irish emigration experience. He is an active member of the Co Longford Historical Society and contributes 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 is also a member of the Knocklyon History Society (Dublin) and the Co Donegal Historical Society. Aidan is 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.