Regulars at the Great Irish Fair need little introduction to this year’s Chief Brehon, James F. O’Dea. Though some may not recognize his name, they surely know the sound of his voice.
O’Dea has emceed the Fair for 11 years, proudly singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “A Solider’s Song” on the main stage, and introducing the honorees.
That alone has been an incredible honor, O’Dea said. And being named Chief Brehon is “way beyond” anything he could have imagined.
But it is no surprise to friends and neighbors in his native Windsor Terrace, where he has been an active member of Holy Name of Jesus parish for almost his entire life.
It is where he attended Mass as a boy with his parents, James F. and Josephine O’Dea; where he and his wife of 52 years, Eileen, raised their family; and where the couple continues to worship.
Professionally, O’Dea has had a long career in communications and technology sales, and currently serves as the director of business development for KGM Consulting, Inc.
His Irish-American upbringing and Catholic education are what have shaped his life. “It’s who I am,” he said.
Tracing his Irish roots, he describes his heritage on both sides as a “celebration of Munster Province.” Though his parents were born here, he can easily detail his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ ties to the southwestern counties of Kerry, Clare and Cork.
Integral to his Irish-American upbringing was his Catholic faith, and his parents worked hard to ensure a Catholic education for him.
“Catholic education is about values,” O’Dea said. “The same values I learned at home were strengthened at school. And the older I get, the more I appreciate those values” of friendship, faith, service and love.
He attended Holy Name of Jesus School, where he says he met his “very best friends.” Earlier this year, more than a dozen graduates of the Boys Class of January, 1957 met for a 60-year reunion.
After grade school, the Marianist priests and brothers nurtured his growth in academics and faith at Most Holy Trinity H.S, Williamsburg. He came to know the Franciscan Brothers while attending St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, and grew in friendship with the brothers after graduation as a social studies teacher at Bishop Ford H.S., Park Slope.
O’Dea’s next role was with Catholic Charities as a youth corps counselor and South Brooklyn supervisor, and he later served the same area as a member of the NYC District 15 Community School Board. The Catholic Teachers Association honored him for his service.
He found love, loyalty and friendship not far from home; in fact, just one parish over at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Kensington. He and his wife, Eileen, wed in December, 1964, and the couple was blessed with three daughters.
With a family to support, O’Dea went to work in communications and technology sales at ITT World Communications in 1977. He also worked for ITT DTS, CTS and was with IPC Systems for 30 years.
While balancing life at work and home, he continued to volunteer in his parish and local community. He served as president of the Holy Name Father’s Guild and coached Holy Name’s CYO basketball teams for 15 years. He also coached soccer, tee-ball and refereed flag football.
He was honored as a distinguished alumnus of Holy Name School by the Holy Name Foundation in 2008, and has been master of ceremonies for the foundation since its inception. He recently served as a director on the board of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy, located in the former Holy Name School.
More than just identifying as an Irish-American, O’Dea has grown in his knowledge and appreciation of Ireland’s “cultural treasures,” from the music and language, to literature and history. His first visit to the Emerald Isle was with his wife and daughters in the mid-1980s.
Through the years, he has celebrated his Irish-American heritage by serving as master of ceremonies for the Great Irish Fair, the Irish American Building Society, the Brooklyn Irish American Parade and the Emerald Ball. He is proud to have sung the American and Irish national anthems at these events, as well as at other New York City Hall and Brooklyn Borough Hall events and presentations.
Previous honors include serving as a member of the Brooklyn Diocese’s Irish Apostolate; marching as an aide to the grand marshal of the Brooklyn Irish American Parade, and being recognized by St. Francis College’s alumni association in 2012.
Though he is well-known for his singing voice, O’Dea also plays guitar and has performed with accomplished Irish traditional musicians. He was part of the Donegal Hill Band, featuring the late “great Tom Doherty,” and continues to perform with the 7s and 3s traditional group today.
His CD, “The Line,” is a collection of original songs that acknowledge significant individuals and events in his life. The title song, “The Line,” is a tribute to “the best, the bravest and the finest” of Sept. 11, 2001. His two sons-in-law are among the Bravest and Finest: FDNY Battalion Chief Steve Corcoran and retired NYPD Lt. Brian Doherty, respectively.
Recounting his life and accomplishments, O’Dea seems most proud – and appropriately so – of his daughters, who have taken the Irish culture and Catholic faith that he and Eileen have instilled in them, and passed it along to their own families and communities.
His youngest, Bridget, is a public school teacher who has received the Irish Echo’s “40 Under 40” award. Deirdre Corcoran, his second child, is also a teacher and received the Blackboard Award for Teachers. She and her husband have two girls, Alannah Mary and Fiona May. His eldest, Jenny Doherty, is a former broadcast network executive. She and her husband have two children, Delia Catherine and James Francis.
On the day of the Fair, O’Dea looks forward to being surrounded by his entire family and hopes to see his friends from Brooklyn, as well as his summer friends from Breezy Point.
Video Clip: Jim O’Dea singing The Great Irish Fair song