John Francis O’Donovan

The 1939 International Team tournament (or Olympiad as it is now called) was played in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ireland was represented by John O’Hanlon, John O’Donovan, Gerard Kerlin, William Minnis and Warwick Nash. During the competition war broke out in Europe and many players decided to remain in South America. One of those was O’Donovan.

On the 12th November 1941 the Irish Independent reported under the heading Sailed in 1939: Irish Chess Expert in Argentine that: “Of a team of five chess experts who left Antwerp in July 1939, to play in an international tourney in Buenos Aires, all except one are back in Ireland.

He is Mr. J.F. O’Donovan, aged about 23, a native of Cork. According to latest messages received Mr. O’Donovan is safe and happy in Argentine – still playing chess.”

John O’Donovan played Board 2 (de facto Board 1 after O’Hanlon returned home after the preliminary stage) for the Irish team at the 1939 Olympiad. He won the 1936 London Boys’ Championship (30 Dec 1935 – 4 Jan 1936 to be precise) and played for Cambridge University in the annual varsity match with Oxford in 1937, 1938 and 1939 (in the final year he was President of Cambridge University Chess Club). He also played with success in the subsidiary sections of some of the major English tournaments of the late 1930s (e.g. Margate 1937, BCF Championships Blackpool 1937, BCF Championships Brighton 1938).

He had a couple of endgame studies published by the British Chess Magazine in 1956. I have been unable to find out if he played competitively in Argentina (or whether he kept in touch with any other chess exiles there). Also I have not found any reference to him playing in Ireland – the fact that he won the London Boys’ title suggests he may have moved to England at a relatively young age.

I wrote some years ago to his University College (Jesus College Cambridge) and received this reply from Mrs Muriel Brittain, “Fellow Commoner, Assistant Keeper of the Records” at Jesus College:

“John Francis O’Donovan was born on 10th April 1918 at Queenstown, Cork, the son of the Revd. Richard Henry O’Donovan, deceased. He took a first class in the first part of the Mathematical Tripos in 1937 and graduated BA in 1939.

He taught English at the Engineering School in Buenos Aires for 26 years.

I last heard from him in 1996 when he replied to my letter of good wishes on the 60th anniversary of his entering the College.”

Mrs Brittain supplied an address in Argentina and as a result of that information in 2001 Mark Orr, when he was editing The Irish Chess Archive, was able to contact O’Donovan’s daughter Patricia. She replied that: “John O’Donovan, my father, died on November 5th, 1999 in Buenos Aires. He left his wife Sabina, whom I brought to Israel to live close to me , their only daughter.”

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2 Responses to John Francis O’Donovan

  1. Sean Coffey says:

    He posted an excellent record in that Olympiad: +7 =4 -5, 56.3%, remarkable for boards 1 & 2 in an era when Irish Olympiad teams found the going very tough. If I’m reading the OlimpBase records correctly, his record wasn’t surpassed on any board until 1970.

  2. Patricia O'Donovan says:

    Amazing to find this post about my father. Thanks so much.
    Correction : My father taught English at the Faculty of Engineering of the National University of Buenos Aires for 26 years.

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