My mother founded the National Youth Orchestra – this is her story

I wanted to place on record an important period in the history of classical music in Ireland

I find myself in a strange place at the moment. I have been a musician all my life, my public appearances sheltered behind a grand piano or a harpsichord, an accustomed and familiar environment, though not without its stresses and strains and pre-performance nerves.

Now I have written a book and so I am an author! I have undergone the rite of passage of my book launch. I know that my audience, the readers, will not applaud instantly but will take their time to read what I have written, and then praise or criticise or, worse still, remain silent. I have moved into a different world.

This new direction has come about through a long-held conviction that the life story of my mother, Dr Olive Smith, founder of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, deserves to be told. The most frequent comment on her life’s work – “Ah, your mother was a great woman!” – needed substantiation.

She was indeed one of the extraordinary Irish women of her generation. In the words of Dr Joanna Crooks at the book launch, my mother had “a first class mind and would have excelled in any field she might have chosen. The fact that she chose to apply her mind, energies and sheer music in Ireland was a great gift to the nation and has created a lasting legacy.”


I felt that I was peculiarly well positioned to try to capture my mother’s life and work within the covers of a book. As an only child, I spent a great deal of time with her in my early years and was aware of her musicality, watching as she played the piano and prepared her music for rehearsals of the Culwick Choral Society.

As I grew older, she talked to me a great deal about her work and her plans, particularly on car journeys. We often gave lifts to people with whom she was involved in running the Music Association of Ireland (founded in 1948 by a number of concerned and public-spirited musicians), and current matters of musical interest would be discussed and even hotly debated. My role was, of course, the ear-wig in the back seat, but in preparing to write an account of my mother’s life I knew that I could draw on my observations of many Irish composers, instrumentalists and singers.

I was also a concert-goer from a young age, accompanying my mother to the RDS recitals, to the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra (RÉSO) concerts in the Phoenix Hall and the Gaiety Theatre, and becoming accustomed to hearing her friends criticise and praise various performances. When she began to organise concerts herself under the auspices of the MAI, I was frequently employed as a programme-seller, and can therefore remember clearly many of the concerts and musicians who make an appearance in the book.

My father, Lyall Smith, and my mother were hospitable people, and she was a very good cook, so guests were usually entertained at home – eating in a restaurant was an exception – and from 1950 onwards we also had musicians from the UK staying in our home from time to time. In those postwar years, it was quite usual for performers to accept hospitality in a private house, thereby stretching their concert fees and saving on expenses. I certainly got to know some very interesting people.

One of the stated aims of the MAI was: “To work for the establishment of a National Concert Hall”. In 1951 the association set up a sub-committee to take this matter forward, and then in late 1952 oversaw the incorporation of a small company, Concert & Assembly Hall Ltd. My mother was appointed secretary. As she worked from home (the MAI did not have an office at that time), the contents of her desk overflowing onto the dining-room table and busy on the telephone, I was aware of some of her preoccupations. But during 1953-54, whenever the name Montrose was mentioned, I was expected to “make myself scarce”. During my research I discovered that there had been a very real possibility that a National Concert Hall would be built on the Donnybrook site along with the planned development of Radio Teilifís Éireann. O happy thought!

In 1960, Concert and Assembly Hall Ltd. raised the profile of their campaign and my mother embarked upon the organisation of several series of remarkable concerts featuring world-famous performers and the RÉSO. Perhaps the most memorable was the performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in March 1963. In early 1964, it was announced that the Government had decided to build a national concert hall in memory of President John F Kennedy, but to my mother’s deep annoyance this plan failed and she was also disappointed with the subsequent decision in 1974 to convert the former UCD hall at Earlsfort Terrace.

In 1961 I went to study in London, but upon my return found myself drawn again into my mother’s activities, particularly the MAI Schools’ Recital Scheme which she established in 1967 to bring performers into the classrooms of schools throughout Ireland. This scheme complemented the “country tours” concerts of chamber-music which she had been running on behalf of the MAI since 1954.

Finally in 1970 came her most lasting creation – the foundation of the Irish Youth Orchestra – which followed on the death of my father in 1969, and undoubtedly helped to revitalise her spirits and energy at a time of great personal loss. The National Youth Orchestra of Ireland is her legacy to the Irish nation, the living evidence of the altruism of a woman whose years of work for the cause of music were entirely voluntary, and whose chief motivation was to bring the music she loved to as many people as possible.

A brilliant student at Trinity College Dublin, from which she graduated in 1928, and where she held an administrative post until 1943, my mother was also a Girl Guide captain and a gifted choral conductor. Music transformed her into a skilled and successful administrator, organiser and campaigner. En route she probably trod on quite a number of toes; she was known as someone with exacting standards, who did not suffer fools gladly, but nonetheless enjoyed loyalty and affection. The Youth Orchestra called her “Granny Smith”! It was fitting that Trinity College conferred her with an honorary doctorate (LLD) in 1978 in recognition of her services to music.

In writing Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary, my intention was not just to document my mother’s achievements, but also to record the dedicated work of the extraordinary number of people involved in the MAI and the Irish Youth Orchestra, bringing their personalities alive through the pages of the book, and ensuring that an important period in the history of classical music in Ireland will not be forgotten.

I have to confess that I have enjoyed the whole experience. Long hours of poring over 55 boxes of archived material, donated by the MAI to the National Library of Ireland, resulted in the disentangling of hundreds of un-catalogued files and the creation of some chronological order. I had a wonderful time researching the material concerning the Irish Youth Orchestra, receiving such an enthusiastic reaction from former members as I sought reminiscences of the first 10 years of the its existence.

Writing this book has brought me to a position where I can look at my relationship with my mother from a broader, more mature perspective, truly valuing all that she achieved and looking forward to celebrating her legacy with the readers of my book.
Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary is published by Somerville Press