RIP Composer John Kinsella

John Kinsella receiving the NCH Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 (Photo: NCH)

RIP Composer John Kinsella

Ireland's most prolific symphonist and former RTÉ Head of Music dies aged 89.

The Irish composer John Kinsella has passed away in Dublin (9 November) aged 89.

Born in 1932, he studied viola at the College of Music in the capital and briefly took composition lessons with the composer and arranger Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair. Kinsella’s first substantial work was a symphony when he was twenty, but it wasn’t until the end of the 1950s, with the encouragement of musician friends, that he began to compose more regularly.

He was one of a number of Irish composers who embraced the European avant-garde and serialism in the 1960s, and he had various works performed by RTÉ ensembles. He gradually began to establish himself with works such as Chamber Concerto (1964) and Montage (1965). In 1968 he was appointed as a senior assistant in the RTÉ music department, and, in 1973, he premiered A Selected Life, a setting of poems written by his older brother, the poet Thomas Kinsella, about the recently deceased Seán Ó Riada.

As the musicologist Séamas de Barra has written, Kinsella’s work in RTÉ exposed him to international musical trends and he became increasingly disillusioned with serialism and began to develop a more personal and tonal language. In 1977, Kinsella’s first wife, Bridget O’Neill, died of cancer and, as de Barra writes, ‘his bereavement coincided with the climax of this stylistic crisis. After completing his String Quartet No. 3 (1977) he stopped composing for 18 months.’ He returned to composition, with a more independent style, with The Wayfarer: Rhapsody on a Poem of P.H. Pearse in 1979.

Kinsella became Head of Music in RTÉ in 1983, and the following year composed his Symphony No. 1. In 1988, he retired from RTÉ in order to dedicate his time fully to composition. He has since written ten more symphonies, and his work represents ‘the most substantial contribution to the genre by an Irish composer’ (de Barra).

He received the Marten Toonder award for artists in 1979 and was a founding member of Aosdána in 1981. His discography includes Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 (Marco Polo, 1997), Orchestral Works (RTÉ Lyric FM, 2007) and Symphony No. 5, The 1916 Poets / Symphony No. 10 (Toccata Classics, 2014).

His final symphony premiered in 2019, when he also received the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award. Perhaps one of his best known works is Nocturne (1990), a piece for string orchestra that was recorded by the Irish Chamber Orchestra and released on a Contemporary Music Centre recording. He later produced another version for cello and orchestra, which was recorded by the ICO in 2012 on the Homage CD. Most recently, Kinsella’s Una Giga Para Carlos was included on Malachy Robinson’s recording The Irish Double Bass (2021).

John Kinsella’s funeral took place on 12 November. He is survived by his wife, the violinist Thérèse Timoney, his children Paul, Úna, Finbar, Gráinne, Aisling, Aoife and grandchildren, his brother Thomas, and extended family.

A catalogue of his scores is available on the Contemporary Music Centre website. Visit

Published on 15 November 2021

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