Book Review -- Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary

Recent years have seen a growth in published accounts of art music in Ireland, with biographies of Seóirse Bodley, Brian Boydell, Ina Boyle, James Wilson, Alois Fleischmann, and more, as well as the monumental Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland. Adding to this list, Gillian Smith’s new biography of her mother Olive Smith—founder of the Irish Youth Orchestra, a central figure in the Music Association of Ireland, and an early champion of the project to build a concert hall in Dublin—brings a new character into focus, delivered with an immediacy with which few academic historians could compete.

Gillian Smith takes the reader through the details of her mother’s personal and professional life. Beginning as an affectionate personal memoir and family history, there are accounts of Olive’s own musical upbringing, including perspectives on Dublin’s musical life from the period up to the 1940s, a useful context. We see her involvement in music begin its shift to management in 1948 when she took her place on the executive committee of the newly-formed Music Association of Ireland.

The MAI promoted music and the musical profession in Ireland at a time when the very idea of professionalism in music was still patchy at best. As part of this, the association developed an ambitious range of initiatives, all of which Smith was involved with and in many cases led. It organised nationwide tours of chamber music groups (anticipating the present-day Music Network tours); live music performances in schools; supported young Irish artists of the day—including names such as Bernadette Greevy, Mary Gallagher and John O’Conor—with performance opportunities and funding; as well as promoting and producing musical events itself. These ranged from concerts of new music by living Irish composers, to such programmes as the Bach (1950) and Handel (1959) bicentenary celebrations. The breadth of focus from early to contemporary music, sometimes seen here within the space of a single page, is staggering, but reflects the sheer amount of work that needed to be done, as well as the lack of any support structure or strategic policy template in place.


Olive Smith and members of the New London String Quartet at Cong, Co. Mayo, 1954

Olive Smith and members of the New London String Quartet at Cong, Co. Mayo, 1954


The one project for which the MAI is best-known was the campaign to build a concert hall for Dublin, a tortuous effort that eventually, if indirectly, led to the setting-up of the National Concert Hall. The strategic failure to achieve this hall as originally envisaged (as a newly-built structure), thanks partly to the politicking and posturing that went on around it, is picked apart in painstaking detail. Adding to other accounts of this story, in this context it raises questions that continue to haunt the present institution—what is it for: a receiving venue for concerts, or a development centre to foster music?— especially as the NCH now contemplates both a major renovation and the possible takeover of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The major achievement of Olive Smith’s career—forming an effective contrast to the above debacle—was her success in forming the Irish Youth Orchestra, now the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland. This development is given due weight, with a valuable account of its early history in the 1970s, rounding off a career with an initiative that proved, and continues to form, the opening chapter of many other musical careers.

This work is a complex study: while the life of the subject herself may have reached its end over twenty years ago, the institutions, activities, issues, and some of the people she supported are still very much with us. The music world in which she lived and worked was a busy web, connecting performers, promoters, students, audiences, committee-members, civil servants, and politicians. As well as following the life of one individual, there is also a strong feeling for community across generations in this book, gathering names from Turner Huggard to Peter Whelan.

Gillian Smith’s documentary approach contributes an invaluable timeline for future researchers, and a rich cultural history for the general reader, her clear references providing a useful guide to the primary sources in the National Library. It is fascinating to have the sense of a full life, lived fully, as seen from both the public eye of official documentation and the private perspective that Gillian provides. Olive Smith did much for music in Ireland during her lifetime, largely on a voluntary basis (unthinkable at her level now), reflecting an informality that in part lingers on in the arts, for better and worse.

The author’s view of her subject is crystallised in the subtitle of this study: ‘a musical visionary’. In describing her mother in this way, one is reminded of the style of a generation that, like Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1958, could memorably argue that ‘music will show you what to do with your life. It is necessary to know facts, but music will enable you to see past facts to the very essence of things in a way which science cannot do. The arts are the means by which we can look through the magic casements and see what lies beyond.’ It is that sense of visionary idealism and rugged passion, of purposefully looking beyond immediate problems to a possible future, that shines through this memoir.

Olive Smith – A Musical Visionary is published by Somerville Press. It is available from bookshops nationwide, from the Music Box shop at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, and direct from the publishers at