O'Donovan, Harry (1890–1973), writer and actor, was born 7 February 1890 at 3 St James's Terrace, Botanic Road, Glasnevin, Dublin, one of five children of Michael Donovan, clerk in the GPO, and Elizabeth Donovan (née Maley), from Boston, USA. The family moved in the early 1890s to 6 Millbourne Avenue, Drumcondra, Dublin, where Harry probably attended St Patrick's national school, but he was an indifferent student who frequently played truant. The family had a theatrical bent – one brother, Frank O'Donovan (d. 1974), became a noted actor, while another, Kevin, managed the Pavilion theatre in Cork. Harry started his stage career in 1908 after throwing up an apprenticeship in painting and decorating to join the Eddie Mac touring company. Such companies, then known as ‘fit-ups’, toured the country offering a variety of entertainment. Harry's speciality was dancing on roller skates. He changed his name from Donovan to O'Donovan, as did his brother Frank, probably for nationalistic reasons. By 1920 he had set up his own company but the war of independence killed off the ‘fit-ups’ and December 1921 found O'Donovan penniless and back in Dublin, his company disbanded. He managed the Grand Central cinema for a time and also got work as an actor, appearing occasionally in the Abbey. When 2RN (forerunner to Radio Éireann) began broadcasting in 1926, he sent in scripts for comedy sketches and was soon a regular supplier, and also wrote revues for the Olympia theatre. A meeting with the comedian Jimmy O'Dea (qv) about 1927 began one of the most fruitful partnerships in the history of Irish theatre. The quiet, pipe-smoking O'Donovan found the perfect interpreter of his work in the ebullient, mercurial O'Dea. They formed ‘O'D Productions’, apparently over two bottles of stout and a handshake, and always boasted that they needed no legal contract and that they never quarrelled. Their association lasted thirty-seven years until O'Dea's death (1965), after which O'Donovan wrote no more.
Their first show, ‘We're here’, was held in 1928 in the Queen's theatre, and then moved to the Palace theatre, Cork. O'Donovan had apparently to sell his piano to pay for the show but it took in £700 in the first week. As well as writing he took on supporting roles, but O'Dea was the star turn. Their second revue, ‘Now we're here’, was held in the Olympia in October 1928; that Christmas they produced a pantomime, ‘Sinbad the sailor’, also for the Olympia. O'Donovan eschewed the standard pantomime practice of using set gags unrelated to the plot, and instead made the comedy intrinsic to the storyline. A son, from his marriage (1924) to the mezzo-soprano singer Eileen Hayden, was born a few days before the opening night.
The success of O'D Productions was such that within a year the gardaí had to oversee queues outside theatres, and record companies wanted to sign them. Their first two records were cut for the short-lived Dominion label in April 1929, but a few months later they signed for Parlophone Records. Their best-selling second record for Parlophone, ‘Sixpence each way’, was a series of comedy sketches, featuring their most famous creation, Biddy Mulligan, a droll, sharp-tongued, elderly Dublin street-trader. O'Dea's rendering of her put him in the forefront of ‘Dame comedy’ and ensured him great critical and commercial success when O'D Productions toured England (1930, 1931). Their popularity led to a film, Jimmy boy, written by O'Donovan and directed by John Baxter, which was shown in Dublin (January 1936) but was not successful. They continued to produce pantomimes for the Olympia every Christmas through the 1930s, but in 1937 they were offered residency at the Gaiety theatre for a summer show during Horse Show week, and for a pantomime. Their summer show, ‘Gaiety revels’, ran twice nightly for four weeks, making O'D Productions the first company to play one show for forty-eight consecutive performances. They continued their twice-yearly shows at the Gaiety for over twenty years.
In 1937 came a more successful film, Blarney; written and directed by O'Donovan and shot on location in Carlingford and Greenore, it was a spoof thriller and used the border to good comic effect. Partition generally featured prominently in O'Donovan's sketches, as did sweepstakes and racing. Blarney opened in Dublin at the Savoy cinema on O'Connell Street on 7 January 1938 and was well reviewed in the Irish papers, who compared O'Dea to Chaplin. However, the British Monthly film bulletin found the characters, apart from O'Dea, two-dimensional and much of the explanation (on the border and local customs) better suited to a documentary. When it was rereleased in 1949, twenty-five minutes were cut.
In 1940 O'D Productions went once-nightly for the first time, and their summer show ran for nine weeks. The next year the BBC hired them to produce a light entertainment show, ‘Irish half hour’. This was originally intended to be short-lived but the Dominions office found its entertainment value useful for the war effort, and it ran until 1948. That year came a TV outing, the forty-five-minute ‘Mrs Mulligan's private hotel’ for the BBC, with Maureen Potter (qv). Radio Éireann used their talents less, but in 1949 it recorded ‘Cinderella’ at the Phoenix Hall, and in 1954 produced ‘The O'D story’ which was followed by a comedy series, ‘Meet the Mulligans’. Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) and Hilton Edwards (qv) were admirers and in August 1956 Edwards produced the O'Donovan-scripted show ‘Still in Gaiety’, starring O'Dea and MacLiammóir.
After O'Dea's death, O'Donovan retired and was in ill health before he died 3 November 1973 at Roebuck House nursing home, Dublin. He was survived by his son, Terry, a talented pianist who performed in his father's shows. Although O'Donovan published one book of his revues in 1940, his writing could appear lifeless on the page and needed the improvising talents of a comedian such as O'Dea. It has not, therefore, survived, but during the 1930s and 1940s it occasioned some of the liveliest, wittiest, and certainly most popular shows on the Dublin stage.