In this page:

Irish Times appreciation
'Modern Irish Lives' entry
Obituary - written by Charles himself!
An Irishman's Diary in the Irish Times

Charles Acton, music critic and polymath

Carol, his widow, sent me in 1999 this appreciation of Charles Acton written by Richard Pine, and I thought it might go here. Charles was the last owner of Kilmacurragh, the setting of the romance that is in the photo section of this site. He had, and Carol inherited, a magnificent set of paintings of all the Acton owners of Kilmacurragh. They are now in Australia with the nearest Acton relative, Peter, and are reproduced here.

My son Trevor and I visited Charles and Carol while cycling in Co Dublin and Wicklow, and Peter and Vicky came with me on another occasion. I wonder if they recognise the description of Charles' home life? - David Parsons

Charles Acton, FRIAM

"WE HAVE lost Charles," was Carol's message. The "we" is a signal both to the characteristic generosity with which she was prepared to share her bereavement and her grief, and to the fact that Charles, an intensely private man in so many ways, belonged to many worlds and many publics.

There was of course the distinctive achievement of having been Music Critic of this newspaper for over 30 years, and of having in that time made his mark on the Irish musical environment through his thousands of reviews and his trenchant and insightful critical journalism. The Acton Collection of concert programmes which he and Carol presented to the National Library, and the award of honorary life membership of the NUJ, are proof of that.

And there was the deeply cultured, widely read, extremely knowledgeable man who was a modern polymath interested in and able to discourse on almost everything, but always ready in a very humble way to leam, to listen, even to take correction.

And there was the supporter and champion of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, of which he was successively a Governor, Fellow and Vice-President, which he loved in a very pragmatic way (only two previous governors in its 150-year history had served longer than his own 44 years). He always insisted on seeing the past in terms of the future rather than vice versa, always pushed for improvement and the maintenance of standards, was always passionately concerned for the young and for their potential careers.

Charles always stressed that what he wrote was his honest opinion and nothing more, and he was faithfully read because his public recognised the consistency and the tenacity of what he had to say. When he had to write an unfavourable notice, we could hear him thinking: "This hurts me more than it hurts you." Many of those who received adverse criticism may have felt that Charles could be hurtful, even cruel, but however sharp the rebuke or severe the judgement, it was never malicious but quite the opposite - fuelled by a determination that no one should be launched on a career for which they were ill-suited or unprepared, and anxious that, through his work, as he put it, "as many as possible might have the infinite solace of music."

He could of course be cantankerous and obstinate to the point of mulishness, but only when he was absolutely sure of himself - we once had a coolness which lasted for almost a year, which pained us both and he did not suffer fools at all, once loudly berating a Dame of the British Empire for asserting that Soviet Georgia was part of Russia. Brian Fallen perfectly summed up this quirkiness and irascible impatience as "his iron whim".

As an Anglo-Irishman Charles joked that the only place he was supposed to be at home was the mailboat, but he was quite the opposite of the effete, ex-landlord class who sometimes claim an attention they do not deserve and pretend not to be useless. Charles, by contrast, was a man of vision, proud, as he put it, "of being of Ireland" and, like his friend and fellow-critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor, to be doing some good. In fact Charles epitomised the rapprochement of classes, creeds and commitments which has been the slow impetus of the many Irelands towards a common understanding, if not a common name. There was a sense of responsibility and of participating in a new Ireland that is exemplied in his renowned engagement (in this newspaper and in private) with Scan 6 Riada, and the award of the inaugural Sean O'Boyle medal.

As we buried Charles two days after his 85th birthday, his cousin Canon Billy Wynne spoke of Charles's "unique personality" and of the search which eludes so many of us for an inner peace.

And it was as a private man in his own home - a converted railway station which he and Carol made into a welcoming focus of intelligence and commentary, blather and jar - that Charles was most at peace. Those who were not privileged to have known him in that environment cannot fully appreciate the geniality, the wit, the sense of security and calm fortitude which pervaded that home. It was here - in the beautiful book-and disc-lined studio built by Louis Arigho, or the log-fired sitting room filled with memorabilia of his ancestral home, Kilmacurragh - that one came to absorb as much as one could of that "unique personality" of the qualities which made him such a very striking individual: his curiosity, his conscience, his sense of belief, of how to behave, and the need to observe form but not at the expense of freedom.

I have known Charles for almost 30 years, and I still feel I don't know the half of him. I shall miss that "iron whim" which could be as much frivolous as incisive, as much mechant as mordant. I shall miss his anecdotes about his extraordinary family which made the 18th and 19th centuries a virtual reality. Beside the Acton family vaults at Dunganstown, Billy Wynne spoke of personality as something which continues, of an energy that is never lost, and in this sense I hope that Carol - his wife, partner, companion and, as he called her, "the management" for 48 years - will find the stillness in which to celebrate and grieve for this most remarkable of men and the personality which continues to fill their home.

Richard B.Pine.

The Irish Times 5th May 1999


(1914 - 1999) music critic

Born Iron Acton, Bristol

Source Educated at Rugby and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Undertook a variety of occupations both before and after 1939, when he came to Ireland, where his family had an estate at Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. He was later to recall how, as a schoolboy, he had attended performances conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and Elgar, while as a student he had heard Richard Strauss conduct Salome and Elektra in Munich. Acton played the bassoon with the Dublin orchestral Players.

He was music critic of the Irish Times 1955-86, and established a formidable reputation for sternly demanding high standards of performers but also for generously praising them when, in his opinion, they attained excellence. He campaigned tirelessly for better funding for music, a proper concert hall in Dublin and related objectives, some at least of which he was to see achieved. Governor of the Royal Irish Academy of Music from 1955, fellow 1990. A selection of his reviews, Acton's Music, edited by Gareth Cox, was published in 1996. In 1951 he married Carol Little, who, as Carol Acton, was also to become a distinguished music critic. He died on April 22nd 1999.

Source: Modern Irish Lives: Dictionary of 20th-century Biography, Louis McRedmond (General Ed.), Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1996

A critic who helped to put Irish music centre stage

CHARLES ACTON, who was music critic of The Irish Times for more than 30 years from 1955, died on April 22nd, aged 84.

His ancestors had been protestants in Co Wicklow since the reign of Charles I the family includes the historian Lord Acton and various notabilities in Naples, including a cardinal, They owned Kilmacurragh since 1697. With David and Sir Frederick Moore, heads of the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, his great-uncle, Thomas, made it one of the major European collections of conifers and heathers.

In 1916, when Charles was two, his father was killed at Ypres and in 1920 his mother emigrated, for financial reasons. He grew up in England, being educated at Rugby and Trinity College Cambridge.

There he read sciences, for which he found he was clearly unsuited, and failed to take his degree. Bat he lived a rery full life of theatre and music there, and for more than a year was music critic of Varsity Weekly (where his notices include the first performance of Vaughan Williams's opera, The Poisoned Kiss.)

After not graduating he joined Thos Cook and Son, first in London and then as assistant manager in Haifa, Palestine.

He returned to Ireland to work for Charles Budina, his tenant at Kilmacurragh (since 1932 a hotel). From 1942 to 1955 he was a rolling stone gathering no moss as a partner in a charcoal business, growing prize-winning apples, selling (or rather not selling) the Encyclopaedia Britannica, managing a haymaking equipment company until Joseph Groocock recommended Jack White, then Irish Times features editor, to recruit him as the paper's music critic, his real ambition.

In 1951 he had the great good fortune to marry Carol Little, violin teacher in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, for many years leader and librarian of the Dublin Orchestral Players, a well-known private teacher of piano and violin, who was also a critic and journalist. They became known as a remarkable partnership. In 1955 also, he became a Members' Governor of the RIAM, later becoming a Coulson Governor, which he remained until he was elected Vice-President in 1998, and a member of the Council of the Music Association of Ireland in the days when it was an effective lobbying group for music. As such he was instrumental in assisting Aloys Fleischmann to get Radio Eireann to establish a quartet in Cork, the first resident quartet of any broadcasting station in the world.

In 1970 he was invited to become a member of the Critics' Circle of London; apart from Clive Barnes the only member of its music section working outside Britain. In 1980 he received the first Sean O'Boyle Award for his outstanding contribution to Irish traditional music, an honour of which he was extremely proud, as he was when in 1990 he was elected a Fellow of the RIAM.

Apart from The Irish Times, he contributed to the Times, the Guardian, Musical America, the Musical Times, Feasta, Musical Opinion, Eire Ireland and other periodicals.

He wrote Irish Music and Musicians for Eason's Irish Heritage series (a groundbreaking historical account of traditional and art music). In 1988, for the programme of the first GPA Dublin International Piano Competition, he wrote a pioneering monograph on Irish pianists, given more permanent form in Irish Arts Review. In 1998 appeared To Talent Alone, the sesquicentennial history of the RIAM, which he co-edited with Richard Pine.

In 1995 Dr John O'Conor FRIAM wrote a foreword to an anthology of Acton's notices in The Irish Times, published as Acton's Music. He well sums up Acton's aims and achievements by writing: "Of course, he could be infuriating and perplexing at times, but there is nobody who can match his experience, enthusiasm, compassion and exuberance."

An Irishman's Diary

HOW ODD and how right that Charles Acton should breathe his last just as a full-time, dedicated classical music radio service was about to breathe its first. No matter what his criticisms of the station might have been, he would have been the first to applaud its birth. Merely to have the great music of Western civilisation available in even small excerpts at all times to ordinary people everywhere must surely be an infinite improvement on our radio diet of hitherto, when the deliberately ephemeral melodies of popular culture were granted an almost total monopoly of the airwaves.

That this was so, that the classical music of Europe and the great music of Irish traditional culture should have been marooned in isolated and obscure programming ghettoes was surely a denial of the public service broadcasting remit of RTE. Nobody chafed at this disservice more than Charles, for he regarded great music as being as much the birthright of the humble pot-boy amidst his suds and saucepans as it was of the gentleman artist in his salon.

For Charles loved his music. He adored it. It filled his life and his soul, his heart and his hours; and there was hardly a passing moment in a single day when he was not rehearsing some melody within, when his mind was not toying with some score, when he was not preoccupied with something musical.

Charles Acton was never old. In his eighties he was a big pink cherub, all rubicund cheek and boyish cheer, with a metaphorical cry of "Oh how absolutely wizard!" on his lips. Yet despite his irrepressible and enchanting juvenility, he still bore the manner of his caste, and not lightly: he described his family as being Protestants in Wicklow for hundreds of years. But there are many kinds of Wicklow Protes-tants, and most of them are plain folk, hill farmers of modest means. The Actons were not hill farmers of modest means. They were imperially Irish, proud of their Irishness but equally proud of the role their tribe had played in the affairs of the world. False patronymic modesty is not a vice of which one would convincingly accuse Charles.

This is not to say he was vain or conceited. He was not. He was confident. He knew his mind, and he spoke it, perhaps more forthrightly than many people found comforting. It would be easy for those who did not understand his manner to think that he was being arrogant. He wasn't. He was being honest. In his world the mind existed that one should speak it. It was that simple.

So of course, in a culture in which dissembling is often seen as either a social courtesy or a safe refuge he could rub people up the wrong way. Nobody who worked with Charles could ever say that it was plain sailing, especially as he belonged to an old world in which certain values of decorum should be respected at all times. I remember interrupting a colleague in conversation in the newsroom without as much emollient as the situation quite demanded, and was in an instant turned into a small spot of apologetic grease on the floor.

On this occasion, he felt he had been provoked; and he responded briskly and without quarter. But it would be utterly wrong to give the impression that he was an imperious or haughty man. He wasn't. He was in himself simply a man of enormous courtesy and grave attentiveness. Manners were not an adornment to his daily intercourse; they were what made that intercourse possible.

This is what made Charles so fascinating; for that kind of attention to social decorum is so often accompanied by a cold and unflinching hauteur. Charles could not have been further removed from such frigidity. He was a deeply emotional man and was not shy about his deep and passionate affections, the greatest of which was for his wife, his companion, his friend, and his love, Carol. Charles & Carol. A single and singular singularity. May God guard her in these days and hours and the darker watches of the night.

But nearly as much as he loved Carol, he loved music. He wept with joy or with sadness when music moved his soul. He could so easily be sent into to great raptures by artistic beauty; and at the end of a concert his large form could often be seen overflowing in its seat, as he mopped the tears from his large round cheeks with an even larger white handkerchief. He was a perpetual little boy with all the expansive exuberance, mischievous joy and simple, unvarnished emotions of such a creature.

So he is gone, having found that peaceful death that he deserved, stealing away to the burial ground of his forefathers before anyone knew he had departed. A truly Carolingianly Actonian end, and as I write of it, I can hear Lyric Notes being presented by the hitherto shamefully underemployed Maire Nic Gearailt. It is good to hear her where she deserves to be, in a prime-time position where more people can hear her fine broadcasting qualities. And perhaps in time she can persuade her masters that we do not listen to such radio for half-hourly news bulletins, or breathlessly chatty phone-ins (not from her but others), but for music.

Music; full symphony or concerto, and not just slot-compatible, computer-selected items such as might be found in any supermarket. But of course, these things take time to get right. We should be patient; and maybe with the long-overdue arrival of Lyric FM, we are embarking upon a new chapter of music in Irish life. Let us hope so. To award the music of Western civilisation a proper place in Irish life would be a fitting tribute to the critic around whom music in Ireland revolved for the previous half-century: Charles Acton, gentleman.

Kevin Myers.
Charles Ball-Acton aged 4 months and one week.