West Cork O’Donovans are curious about Biden pal Fr Leo’s Irish roots

February 3rd, 2021 11:55 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Fr Leo O’Donovan, right, at his friend Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president last week. (Photo: NBC News)

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MEMBERS of the O’Donovan clan in West Cork are clamouring to find a link with Fr Leo O’Donovan, the Jesuit priest who delivered the invocation at President Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.

The Catholic priest and theologian who was born in Queens in New York city in 1939, graduated from Georgetown University, and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Münster, in Germany.

President Biden and Fr O’Donovan have been close friends for decades and the charismatic priest officiated at the funeral mass of the president’s son Beau in 2015 when the president said he ‘provided great wisdom and solace to my family and me.’

As president of Georgetown University from 1989 to 2001, Fr O’Donovan was lauded for restoring the university’s finances and hiring more women and minorities in faculty roles, but his tenure was considered controversial after he recognised an abortion rights students’ group and faced a subsequent threat of a canon law suit from the Vatican.

Fr O’Donovan also took the former president, Donald Trump, to task. As the director of mission for the US branch of Jesuit Refugee Service, he was critical of Trump’s handling of refugee and immigration issues.

Fr O’Donovan had the unusual distinction of being appointed by the then chief executive officer of Disney, Michael Eisner – who served on the board of Georgetown University – to the board of the Walt Disney Co.

The Southern Star contacted Georgetown, the provincial office of the Jesuit order, and even members of the order who worked in communications at home and abroad, but so far no one can speak with any authority about his actual ancestral connections to Ireland.

Some suggested that Castledonovan in West Cork was the ancestral home of the O’Donovans, but others clarified that this was, in fact, a ‘Donovan’ stronghold.

Senator Denis O’Donovan pointed out that there have been O’Donovans and Donovans in West Cork for centuries.

‘The O’Donovans historically originated from Limerick, going back to the time of Brian Boru, but some – possibly as a result of an internal feud – relocated to West Cork.

‘In my home parish of Muinitir Bhaire, on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, there are a lot of O’Donovans, but there was huge emigration to America. In my grandfather’s family, eight of the 12 children emigrated,’ he said.

The senator described the search for Fr Leo O’Donovan’s roots as ‘a needle in a haystack unless someone comes forward and claims him genealogically. I, for one, am not claiming any familial connection,’ the Senator said with some authority because he is currently tracing his own family tree, ‘but I’m only at the beginning of what looks like a very long journey.’

RTÉ’s Washington correspondent Brian O’Donovan, who hails from Farran, admitted to The Southern Star that he is also curious about his fellow O’Donovan’s Irish roots.

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