Joe O’Donovan designed the first bridge over the River Orwell in Dublin City in 1972 while working for Denis O’Leary and Partners, Consulting Engineer. In 1974 he co-founded the design firm of Roughan O’Donovan with Dermot Roughan. In the initial years he was involved in designing structures in Ireland, the UK and the Middle East.
In 1978 he completed his first bridge designs at Ugool and Knocknadangan in Co. Mayo. The construction of the Western Parkway (now part of the M50) illustrated his flair and attention, not solely for the structural form, but also the aesthetics of the structure. In order to achieve the latter he introduced architectural firms to the design teams, which was innovative thinking for bridge design in Ireland. Up until this time the aesthetics of a bridge were considered a luxury, as the Government provided the funding and functionality was the sole criteria.
O’Donovan pursued the ideal of improving the aesthetics of bridges and at the same time introducing new techniques. He was influential in the introduction of post tensioned bridges into Ireland. His experience was sought and recognised by all engineers throughout the country. This was confirmed with the design of the first large cable stayed bridges in Ireland, the William Dargan LUAS bridge in Dundrum and the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge over the River Boyne on the M1 in Co. Louth. He also designed stress ribbon bridges (Kilmacanogue) and incrementally launched bridges (Brides Glen).
O’Donovan developed a special bridge section within his consultancy. His enthusiasm and mentoring developed a culture and standard which produced the highest quality bridges, with the minimum of additional cost, particularly during the period of the motorway building programme. He was also the Irish Partner and independent checker for the bridges designed by Santiago Calatrava in Dublin, namely, the James Joyce Bridge and the Samuel Beckett Bridge.
His talent has been recognised by being awarded many prizes by the Engineering Institute and Engineering Academy.
Joe O’Donovan was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and, despite being seriously ill for periods, he was actively involved in both designing and promoting bridge projects until a few weeks before his death in 2008.