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 learn, 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 Fallon 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 mail-boat, 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 exemplified in his renowned engagement (in this newspaper and in private) with Sean O 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, of 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 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.

R.B.P