Written by Dave Molloy
John O’Brien Jr is a pillar of the Irish-American community out in Ohio. Deputy Director of the Cleveland Irish cultural Festival, author of a book on Irish music in the US, and publisher and editor of the Ohio Irish American News, he’s overcome not one, but two serious medical obstacles to get where he is today.
Founding the Cleveland Festival
John’s father moved to America from the Athlone area, first to Montreal, and later to Cleveland, where he became a core part of the local Irish community. He set up the first Cleveland Irish Festival when John was 16 years old, and the spirit of volunteering and chipping in at community events stuck with him the rest of his life.
‘When I look back, I see as being unusual, but growing up, it was just what we grew up with. We didn’t know any different,’ he said.
‘We all went every year, and prepared for it, and worked it all weekend and the week around it, and the love of the Irish culture really just took root. We always had a part of it as part of us.’
The festival is now in its 31st year, set to return this July with a full line-up of Irish and Irish-American acts. But it’s not easy running a festival without corporate backing. The 15 festivals in the area less than a decade ago have been reduced to just eight – two of which are in difficulty.
‘There are a few [festivals] that are put on by cities and corporations, but most are put on by “mom and pop”-type operations like us,’ John explained. ‘And the reality is, that if someone is not working they’re not going to be able to risk that, to organise it, and keep it going … it’s just become a much more personal risk.’
A change of plans
The Cleveland Festival is still going strong, but John has suffered his own share of personal misfortune. At 19, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – though the doctors didn’t know what to call it at the time. As a young man, he wanted to get involved in criminal justice, and maybe apply to the Secret Service, or the FBI.
‘That was my goal. But when I got rheumatoid they were very direct … they said “you will probably graduate in a wheelchair. You need to find something else.”’
So John changed his major, and became a banker, working away on the festival and being very much a part of the community, leaving his aspirations to work in criminal justice behind.
But his life would take another drastic turn years later, when he broke his back in an accident playing hockey, leaving him unable to work. Even during recovery, he knew he wouldn’t be able to return to the 70-hour weeks at the bank. ‘I had to find income and try something different, and relay that into money.’
John had always had a passion for the folklore around Irish music legends on the America circuit: the stories, legends and tall tales around the music. But the stories were always confused, with several versions of the same tale that changed every time it was told. He had always planned to collect some of the stories himself, and find the truth.
While recovering from his back injury, one of the big musical figures John admired passed away – Derek McCormick from Barleycorn. ‘I was sitting in Pittsburgh … and I said you know, I’m not going to wait any longer, I’m just going to do it.’
300 hours of interviews later, John’s first book, Festival Legends, Songs and Stories, hit the shelves. It was a commitment he never would have been able to make while working, and his back injury changed his life entirely, opening doors for him as a writer.
The Ohio Irish American News
On a book tour in Chicago for Songs and Stories he was being shown around by Shay Clarke, a journalist with the Irish American News in Chicago. After spending some time together, Clarke pulled over to the side of the road, out of the blue.
‘He stopped and made a phone call and he said, “Cliff, I know you’ve been trying to start a paper in Ohio, and here’s your man.” And he handed me the phone, and that was my introduction to Cliff Carlson.’
Carlson, editor of the Chicago Irish American News, was looking to launch in Ohio. Two months later, in January 2007, John O’Brien found himself launching the first issue as both publisher and editor. More than half a decade later, the paper is distributed from 240 locations and has a circulation of 24,000, covering its costs every month.
‘If we had tried to do this ten years ago, it would have failed. But with the newspaper business in general failing, it’s actually opened doors for us,’ John said.
‘Because we’re such a niche market and because the Irish community are so geared towards supporting its own, our advertising dollars are sufficient, our support has been tremendous, and we don’t need to appeal to a huge mass.’
And John would never have ended up working as an author, now with two additional books under his belt – the Cleveland Irish Directory and First Generation, a book of his own poetry – if it hadn’t been for that serious accident. Even his dreams of working in criminal justice came full circle: today he works as the public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.
‘I’ve always been of the belief that you keep your mind open and see what doors are open: you walk through them. And the ones that close, close for a reason, and you can lament that, but it won’t get you anywhere.’
I’ve always been very patient. Things may look dark down one hallway – well, what’s this hallway? It’s lit up. Let’s go see what’s there.’