Forging a musical career against the odds

John Kinsella will be the special guest at this year's Music for Galway Mid-Winter Festival, Swansong.
John Kinsella will be the special guest at this year's Music for Galway Mid-Winter Festival, Swansong.

Lifestyle – Composer John Kinsella grew up in Dublin where his working-class father instilled a love of the arts in his sons. The former Head of Music at RTÉ and special guest at Music for Galway’s Midwinter Festival tells JUDY MURPHY about his extraordinary life. 

“More like a billiard ball rolling around a table rather than having any direct path,” is how 86-year-old John Kinsella describes his journey towards becoming a professional musician. It certainly wasn’t a straightforward trajectory for the Dubliner who developed his passion for classical music in childhood thanks to his father, a labourer at the Guinness brewery. “Very much a Leftie”, John Kinsella Senior passed on his lifelong love of literature and music to his two sons Thomas and John.

The older son, Thomas, became one of Ireland’s pre-eminent poets while John eventually pursued his true love, becoming Head of Music at RTÉ and enjoying a prolific composing career. But he only made the leap after several years in a “secure, permanent and pensionable job” with Wills tobacco company. During that time, he became a programmer for Ireland’s first ever computer and, nearly 60 years on, can recall the thrill of that ground-breaking experience.

While in his day job, John kept his musical interest alive by learning and performing – he played with the Abbey Theatre Orchestra during the 1950s.

“I was fascinated by orchestras and started learning violin at 16,” he recalls. “I was a latecomer because I didn’t know where to go to start performing.”

The teenage John spent time at the College of Music, studying “harmony and counterpoint but it was hit and miss”.

However, he persevered.

“At the age of 30, I plugged into taking the whole thing seriously,” he says.

John’s first wife died as a young woman – the father of four later remarried and had two more children. Given his family responsibilities, he couldn’t just up sticks to follow his musical dreams.

“I didn’t give up the day job during my first marriage but in 1964, I began writing scores and sending them into RTÉ to see if they’d be interested.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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