Brian O'Donovan: 'A very interesting time' to be US correspondent

2020 has been a year like no other for all Irish people. But for RTÉ News Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan, it has been a whirlwind in many ways. Ann Murphy talks to the Farran native.
Brian O'Donovan: 'A very interesting time' to be US correspondent

RTE Washington Correspondent Brian O'Donovan and family. 

LIFE as the Washington Correspondent for RTÉ has been a whirlwind in the past year for Farran native Brian O’Donovan.

From starting the year looking forward to the rallies across the USA as per any normal election year, the past twelve months has been a roller coaster, taking in the Covid-19 pandemic, the announcement of the first Irish lockdown by the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, the killing of George Floyd, and the death of Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Since the presidential election, the drama has continued, with the refusal of outgoing President Donald Trump to concede defeat to President Elect Joe Biden. The scene is set for a very exciting and interesting year in 2021, which will be Brian’s last in Washington.

In recent weeks, he got a lucky break when he shouted a question to President Elect Joe Biden, who immediately answered him when he realised he was Irish.

Brian believes a Joe Biden presidency will be very positive for Ireland. 
Brian believes a Joe Biden presidency will be very positive for Ireland. 

Brian says: “He took a quick question on Brexit. He has stayed incredibly loyal to his Irish background and I think it was very much instilled in him and he has embraced it.” 

He adds: “I think it will be very positive for Ireland.”

He pointed out that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was one of the first foreign leaders who spoke to President Elect Biden after his success in the election, along with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson.

He continues: “It is a very interesting time here right now. At the start of the year, I had an idea of what it would be like as an election year, travelling around the country and attending lots of rallies. But come March, the world changed.”

He pointed to the traditional visit by the Irish leader – this year, Leo Varadkar – as an indicator of how the world was changing. During his visit, he announced the first lockdown in Ireland, taking away the focus from the traditional presentation of the bowl of shamrock to the US President. 

Brian reflects: “I will never forget that day when he announced the lockdown for Ireland.”

Two months later, the spotlight was shifted somewhat from the pandemic in the US when African American man George Floyd died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minnesota. A police officer was subsequently charged with his murder. The incident sparked a series of Black Lives Matters protests across the US.

Brian recalls: “In May, everything changed when George Floyd was killed. It was such a huge story and the news was not about Covid-19 anymore. We had to go out and cover it.” 

Having spent several weeks primarily working from home, covering the Floyd death posed new challenges of getting interviews for broadcast, while social distancing and wearing masks.

As the summer progressed, the focus switched to the election scheduled for November. In an ordinary election year, the campaigning would already have been fierce but this year’s approach had to change to be Covid-friendly. Instead of massive rallies, there were conventions which were done virtually – without the traditional huge crowds of cheering supporters, and balloons and fanfare. But towards the end of the campaign, Brian says the ramping up of campaigning by President Trump and his team gave a whiff of the traditional campaigns of other election years. And the enthusiasm of his supporters was phenomenal, according to Brian. 

He says: “His rallies are very colourful and they all boo the media.” 

But he laughs as he recalls that when he carried out interviews with supporters at the Trump campaign rallies, he was met by very friendly people willing to engage, despite the opposition which President Trump shows to the media.

Brian’s journey to the prestigious Washington post began two decades ago when he applied for two roles at RedFM.

 Attending college in Dublin, he knew he wanted to work in the media. But he didn’t know what role he wanted, so when he saw roles advertised with RedFM for weekend news readers and weekend DJs, he applied for both.

He recalls: “Lana O’Connor contacted me and offered me a weekend newsreading job.” 

He remembers that he loved the buzz of news and when he graduated from Dublin City University, he got a full time job with RedFM, where he stayed for two years.

In 2005, he went to TV3, where he spent ten years, until he moved to RTÉ in 2015. He says his time in TV3 included the turbulent period of the bust after the Celtic Tiger, which he saw at first hand through his role as finance and business correspondent.

This time next year, the O’Donovan family expect to return home to Dublin, with Brian unsure what post he will take up within the RTÉ newsroom.

He says: “I am guaranteed a job back in Dublin and my hope would be that some positions would open that I can apply for. I know I will stay in news. It is what I love.”

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