Michael Jamieson Bristow


INA BOYLE (1889-1967)

Born: (Ireland), March 08 1889 - Died: (Ireland), March 10 1967

INA BOYLE - An appreciation by Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)  Printed for the Library of Trinity College, Dublin at the Dolmen Press 1974

Few people meeting INA BOYLE for the first time can have any notion of what a unique and interesting person she was. When they knew her better they found that under cover of her shy retiring manner, her nondescript appearance and antique hat, lay a strong and independent character, and an original creative mind.

She lived all her life at Bushey Park near Enniskerry, and she seldom left it save for brief periodic visits to London. It was a large house full of rare and beautiful things with a big walled garden and a hilly park with beautiful trees and superb views of the Wicklow Hills all about it. Here she grew up in a very restricted circle, with her mother, her father and one sister - a mutually devoted family. When they died one by one she lived on there alone. Everything became rather neglected and decayed for there was little money, but she loved the whole place with passionate intensity and would not have dreamed of changing it in any way, or exchanging her lonely life there for any other.

Ina Boyle showed an early inclination for music: she had violin and then cello lessons, though she had no natural facility as a performer on any instrument. She studied harmony, counterpoint and later composition with Dr Hewson and Dr Kitson in Dublin, and by correspondence with Charles Wood who was a cousin.

An early work of hers, written in 1916 (when she was 24), 'Soldiers at Peace' for Chorus and Orchestra was performed with amateur forces at a concert at Woodbrooke in 1920. She recorded afterwards "it was a great success. This was the happiest evening of my life."

Not long after, an orchestral work 'The Magic Harp' received a Carnegie award and was published and performed in London and elsewhere. Another award followed and some part-songs and short choral works were published in London.

In the spring of 1928 she went for a short time to London, to have composition lessons from Vaughan Williams. She found him immensely stimulating and helpful, and he had a high opinion of the quality of her music. She continued having lessons from him at intervals for the next eight or ten years: in the summer of 1939 he spent a day with her at Bushey.

These periodic visits to London gave her the chance of going to concerts (including a concert of the Oriana Madrigal Society in March 1931 at which Charles Kennedy Scott conducted some of her Gaelic Hymns) and to the opera and ballet, as well as spending time in the British Museum and the London bookshops. She had a considerable knowledge of books and pictures as well as of music, and read a great deal, especially poetry. Although living out of the world, she always knew what was happening in the world of music and books, reading reviews and ordering new books and scores. She brought a fresh and unprejudiced attitute of mind to whatever she read, and made her own judgements, never taking other people's at second hand.

But living out of the world, though it suited her temperamentally, had the disadvantage that she made very few musical contacts and that her music remained little known and almost unperformed. All composers need to hear performances of their work, not only for stimulation and encouragement but in order to learn their craft and advance their technique. Ina had little opportunity for this: she had an occasional performance in London and from time to time her music was heard in Dublin - the beautiful performances of her Gaelic Hymns by Dr Rosen gave her especially pleasure; but over the years performances were few and far between, and this was a grave handicap and discouragement to her. She never complained about it, however, but went on with her work, regardless of whether she would ever hear it played or not.

Her music is predominantly quiet and serious, never brilliant, though it has its moments of wit or passion. In idiom it is closest perhaps to Vaughan Williams in his early middle period - but it is not just a pale reflection of his style; her music always speaks with a personal tone of voice, which at its best can express deep feeling by simple means.

She wrote steadily throughout her life - choral works, part-songs, several beautiful solo song cycles, a string quartet, as well as a number of larger works and concertos for orchestra, or for chorus and orchestra - and three ballets. Two of these had classical subjects, a Virgilian ballet and Plato's Story of Er. The first was to have been produced in London by the Camargo Society in 1933, when alas! the Society came to an end. This would have been a great occasion for her and was a sad disappointment. Her ballet 'The Dance of Death' was inspired by Holbein's series of drawings in which Death claims each of his victims in turn: it was ingeniously constructed as a series of Variations. For all her ballets she made her own drawings for the various scenes and the costumes and decor. She made drawings, too, for her last big work, a pastoral opera 'Maudlin of Paplewick' for which she herself adapted the libretto from Ben Jonson's 'The Sad Shepherd' - this opera occupied her for some years at the end of her life.

Ina's inspiration almost always came from poetry: even her purely instrumental works were usually headed by a quotation, a few lines, perhaps, which had set off a train of thought and fired her musical imagination. Her choice of words reflected her wide reading, from translations of early Gaelic poems or medieval Latin lyrics through the poetry of John Donne to that of Edith Sitwell, for which she had a particular affinity. She was always faithful to the mood and meaning underlying the words and to their shape and rhythm, never distorting them for musical effect, but allowing them to speak more fully through her music.

For the last 15 or 20 years of her life she lived alone in the large unheated house, eating less and less, with a total disregard for comfort or worldly values. These are the conditions in which from time to time men and women have seen visions and dreamed dreams - and there was in fact something of the visionary in her. On at least two occasions, which she described to me, she had a mystical experience - but an aural rather than a visual one: she heard in her head a complete new musical work played straight through. She heard her Symphony 'From the Darkness' complete, in this way, sounding, she said, as it might have in a performance on the wireless - though up till then she had only been thinking about it in a general way and making a few tentative notes for it. This work was a setting for contralto and orchestra of poems by Edith Sitwell, and it and her setting of 'Still falls the rain' are among her best works.

She continued writing to the end of her life: three of her four last songs 'Looking back' were written in her last summer, and she completed the full score of her opera though she was already very ill.

I had a letter from her in February 1967 saying: "I have had an X-ray and the result came today. It is cancer and there is nothing that can be done. I want to stay here as long as I can. So far I have not had pain, but am very weak....I have come upon a most striking old ballad, unknown to me hitherto, called 'The Demon Lover'. If I can, I will have a shot at setting it for mezzo, baritone, small chorus and orchestra. I have not met anything that so attracted me for ages."

But the same day she collapsed from weakness and had to go to bed, and a few weeks later, on March 10th, she died.


From the book: Powerscourt, Sheila, Sun Too Fast, by Geoffrey Bles (Chapter 10: Powerscourt and Ina Boyle) Published London 1974

One equally icy day I had gone over to Bushey Park, whose roof George IV had reproved, to see my friend Ina Boyle the composer, and found her splitting logs in her front hall. "Why are you doing that in here, Ina?" "It's so much warmer than doing it outside," she answered. A Spanish baroque gilt table was at hand. Propping her axe against it, she took me up the curving staircase of stone that was carpeted by thick dust, nothing else, and into her workroom.

Ina's build remained thin and frail through her fifties and sixties and seventies; her movements were always quick and nervous; and she talked in a rush, as if her ideas had stayed unspoken a long time. Nor did her appearance vary. Those brown eyes behind pince-nez had an expression of kindness and concern in them. Otherwise, because of her ageing hair which she looped up rather untidily, and the neutral shade of her ankle-length skirt that was longer on one side than the other, and her colourless Shetland pullover, the general tone of things was grey. All the more vivid was a green straw hat put on for anything out-of-doors, such as picking redcurrants or going visiting.

Ina Boyle playing cello

Her workroom never looked different either, with its music-stand, it's 'cello sloped against a chair, and bookshelves full of splendid literature including a fine collection of Blake. Here she wrote music, and wasted precious time wrestling with Income Tax farm claims, though I doubt if she was worldly enough to benefit from those by one penny. As she turned to look out at her demesne and the Wicklow hills, I could see she was quietly joyful. She had been a favourite pupil of Vaughan Williams, who thought highly of her music and always kept his affection for her; and now he had invited her to come to London to be with him for the first performance of his new symphony. "I grew peas this summer," she said, "as I heard one could make a profit out of them. But the harvesting machine was too big to go through the gate, so I had to get the wall knocked down, then built up afterwards. Of course any money from the peas had gone. "Would you like to hear a Kathleen Ferrier?" and she cranked up her old gramophone with its dipping turntable. It was in this room that she lived the sad, full, solitary, humorous life of a saint.

Her father, the Reverend William Boyle, had been an active clergyman in Enniskerry parish for sixty-eight years. In his nineties he was pink faced and rotund, and could talk about archaeology or armour, and still make fine violins as a hobby, and would ask excitedly about the latest American cellulose finishes. "My fiddles have a beautiful tone till the varnish goes on. It's varnish that's the secret," he'd say. His heart overflowed with honesty and his mind with the broadest religious views. I decided that if I ever committed a murder I'd go straight to Mr Boyle and he'd not only forgive me, he would also understand. His enthusiasms embraced antique furniture. His wife's uncle had been ambassador to Madrid, so Bushey was crammed with inherited treasures which he and Ina revered. He once told me that as an impecunious your curate he had gone to an auction of the contents of an old house. "The things were so beautiful, it made you ill wanting to steal them," he said with a great smile. Although surrounded by museum pieces, he and Ina appeared to exist on the edge of poverty and nothing was ever sold. A correction. Towards the end of his life, and because he thought it morally wrong to keep them, he rid himself of a set of bawdy and valuable Rowlandson watercolours.

During the war, when the Irish ought under-the-counter paraffin and candles without a blink of conscience, the Boyles did not, so in winter they went to bed at tea-time. Reading was impossible as the house had no electricity.

Indeed, Ina was once found listening through headphones on a cat's whisker crystal set to one of her compositions being performed in London. Was this perhaps an early orchestral work which had won a Carnegie Award and was played under Henry Wood? There were a few performances of her music at Anne Macnaghten's concerts and, very occasionally, broadcasts from Radio telefis Eirann of part of her song cycle for tenor and string quartet: I once heard a piece from this which struck me as springing green with sap and gaiety. A short orchestral work, 'The Wild Geese', was given several times, but only at long intervals.

Most of her music was unplublished and unplayed. Such as three ballets, one of them based on Holbein's Dance of Death drawings. Another on a classical subject was accepted by the Camargo Society which came to an end shortly after, so that this work was never performed. Also unperformed is a symphony with contralto called 'From the darkness', based on a work by Edith Sitwell; and a great deal more that is equally fresh and inventive. Her manuscript and printed works, and notes relevant to her music, are all with the keeper of manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Writing to me in 1918 about how rare it was to find a successful single long movement in music (referring to a long poem I had embarked on) she added a postscript: I had a letter yesterday from Anne Macnaghten saying she had to put off the concert at which she meant to have played my 'Donne' on account of the crisis. This 'Donne' was a particularly fascinating setting to several of his poems fr voice and strings, and it was with a kind of hesitant satisfaction that she had shown me the full score of: Think then, my soul, that death is but a Groom, which brings a Tapour to the outward room.

For it was poetry that usually fired her. During five years she bent her energies to setting Edith Sitwell's 'Still falls the rain" for mezzo and string quartet. It's coming along slowly," she'd say with suppressed excitement. That particular poem moved her profoundly and she gave her whole strength and intelligence to this work; she considered it the best thing she had ever done. In her total simplicity it had never struck her as wise to approach the poet beforehand and mention her own status as a composer of music, rather than ask permission to publish the work after it was finished. One day she handed me a letter in silence. I looked at the envelope. U:S: stamps, Californian postmark, and on the back: Dame Edith Sitwell, D.Litt, D.Litt, D.Litt. "Read it." It stated in the coldest terms that Dame Edith Sitwell never gave permission for her poetry to be set to music. "William Walton was allowed to," Ina said in a steady voice. Her self-control did not break although her eyes looked piteous. She was a spirited person with great independence of mind, but she had disciplined herself to a state of humility and acceptance. She could not bear the slightest showing-off. For example, she tried to make her deep religious feelings less noticeable by sitting in the last pew of Enniskerry church. During the seemingly endless years in which she nursed a bedridden younger sister, and then later her father when he was failing, she never mentioned how this took up all her working time. It was this same quality which prevented her using the push required to advance her interests and help her work to be played.

Dame Edith had obviously classed her as one of those upstart youngsters of no artistic or personal merit who simply have to be snubbed. "Young people must be slapped down now and again," she was to declare with emphasis in a television interview long afterwards. When Edith Sitwell died I asked Ina if her setting could now be published. "No good," she said in a tone of defeat. "You see, I had to change the entire wording and of course the result was useless. And I simply can't put it back again." In point of fact the ban still holds concerning Ina Boyle. Edith Sitwell's literary executors remain adament.

But there was a splendid moment when, in one Olympiad, Ina carried off the only medal awarded to Ireland - a Bronze - for a composition she had submitted to the Olympic committee of cultural activities. The few locals who heard about it were dumbfounded. Visualizing a winner as someone of fabulous athletic prowess, they passed the thing off as a joke.

It made a hollow in one's heart to think that a person so quick in understanding, so responsive to beauty, could be denied the satisfaction and encouragement of actually hearing the greater part of those exciting, glorious sounds into which her sensitivity and awareness had been transmuted. Silence. Except in her head where some new work was inevitably shaping.

One could say nothing. And nothing needed to be said, as is shown by this letter:

I love this dear house [Bushey] so much that I never mind about lack of musical success, though of course it would have been very welcome, and so long as I can stay here I am well content. I have been writing a kind of children's opera, on Ben Jonson's unfinished play 'The Sad Shepherd,' of which I have just finished the short score and have now to orchestrate it...One only finds it in a complete edition, so I had never seen it until fairly lately, and as I had always wanted to write an opera, I jumped to it at once, and have not tired of it in the doing.

She was not quite alone in Bushey Park for the last sixteen years of her life. There was a maid who, rumour said, had to be roused by Ina with early morning tea. This maid never understood the principle by which stockings are held up for hers fell in great loops down her legs and over her ankles; as far as I could see her only function was to prevent Dublin's over-assertive antique dealers putting a foot in the front door and having a look around. She seemed a weak creature but must have been a mastiff at this job.

The Spanish hall table against which Ina had leant her axe was a rarity in more than one sense. Many years back my father-in-law had been puzzled by its unusually short legs. "My dear wife was very tender-hearted towards animals," Mr Boyle explained. "If it was raining, she couldn't bear to let the dogs out. So you see, the base of one leg just rotted away and I had to take a saw to the other three to make it stand level."

One room at Bushey Park held a special magic for me and each time I went there I asked to see it. Ina would take me along a passage which was warmly suffused by colour from red blinds that were always pulled down and through which the afternoon sunlight filtered; if the windows beyond them were open a smell of greenness or of haycocks would drift in. It led to a little drawing-room, intact as the day it was done. Pleated, blue-flowered chintz covered the walls, its glaze still bright. Small French chairs, upholstered in blue velvet, were set at a round table. And on Chinese Chippendale wall-brackets and all over a mantelpiece, as well as ranged along many shelves, were collections of porcelain that would make any dealer go pale. Engraved rococo mirrors, original Wedgwood pottery and other marvels held the eye. But it was the chintz on the walls - ruffled at the top - and those empty chairs round the table that gave me such a happy feeling. Ina would smile indulgently.

At Bushey there was always cafe-au-lait and Vienna bread, and butter made that day and home-made jelly, at teatime in the big drawing-room. Under the high ceiling and surrounded by Spanish paintings and armour, we were as easy as bumblebees in fields of red clover.

There was no place in the house for what was merely modish, and if the Emperor seemed to us naked, we said so. We found ourselves at one over a lot of things, such as how uncomfortable Bruckner made us by his repetition of inane phrases, or Mahler by the sentimentality of his symphonic work with its occasionally punishing last movements. A lot was understood between us without words. We delighted in a host of living composers. And it was easy to agree with her views on opera. "I can't think why," she said. "there's such a commotion about what language an opera's sung in. I can never understand a word." When I mentioned I had forgotten in which mediaeval Mystery it was that Abraham, about to sacrifice Isaac, calls out: "Sweet Jesu..." Ina at once told me it was in the Chester cycle of plays, that of the Barbers and Wax-Chandlers. In the middle of asking about my Greek trip she darted off and came back gragging a huge, heavy atlas in which Greece was still shown as part of Turkey. When antiquities were mentioned there was the same eager dash to the study to get her reference book on archaeology. This was Sir Henry Layard's 'Discovery in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon with steel engravings, which had been in the house since its publication in 1853.

When we met again my illness, after a rough, very rough, ten years in hospitals, had become more bearable. hers were terminal. I told her Peter Hall was reported to have toned down the orgy scene in Schönberg's 'Moses and Aaron' at Covent Garden because he didn't want to go on record as the first producer of a dirty opera. Ina smiled and said: "Better dirty than dull!"

Then in Bushey's dank and primitive pantry she talked of extrasensory perception. She knew I found ESP in the form of pre-vision a simple matter. Not that I have ever foreseen anything important, the living event which occurs one or two days after I have seen it while dozing and in the clearest colour and great exactitude is absurdly trivial.

"I was very fond of my rather staid governess," Ina said. "I'll show you an inscribed copy of James Joyce's 'Dubliners' she gave me. How shocked she would have been to know of his later reputation!

"Years after she'd left, I suddenly ran into her just here" - pointing to the pantry passage - "and I was greatly surprised. The strangest thing was her short blue coat which was pushed up behind her head as she looked at me. With us she'd always worn a brown mackintosh. Before I could speak she went off in the direction of her old room. Of course there was nobody there, nothing."

"Then a message came from the matron of an Old Ladies' Home that my governess was dying. When I got there she looked exactly as I'd seen her in this passage. The blue thing was a bed-jacket the Home had just bought her, and it was all rucked up behind her hair."

But old Mr Boyle had told me that one night when he was young and visiting a parishioner in Glencree valley, he had seen a troop of men crossing what was now a road, at a certain spot. he remembered how their spears glittered in the moonlight.


The Magic Harp - orchestral rhapsody (1919) (Carnegie award) (12 mins)

Colin Clout - pastoral for orchestra  (1921)

Gaelic Hymns - unaccompanied choral work  (1923-1924)

Symphony No.1 'Glencree' (1924-1927) (35 mins)

Phantasy for violin and chamber orchestra (1926)

Psalm for cello and orchestra (1927)

Symphony No.2 'The Dream of the Rood' (1929-1930) after the Anglo-Saxon poem

Virgilian Suite - ballet suite for small orchestra (1930-1931) based on the Eclogues of Virgil

Overture (1933-1934) (10 mins.)

String Quartet in E minor (1934) (20 mins)

Concerto for violin and orchestra (1935) (17 mins)

The Dance of Death - a masque for dancing (1935-1936) after the woodcuts by Hans Holbein

The Vision of Er - a mimed drama or ballet (1938-1939) founded on Plato's Republic, Book X

Wild Geese - a sketch for small orchestra (1942) (5 mins)

Symphony No.3 'From the Darkness' for contralto and orchestra (1946-1951) words by Edith Sitwell

Maudlin of Paplewick - a pastoral opera for solo voices with chamber orchestra (1964-1966) based on 'The Sad Shepherd' of Ben Jonson



Ina Boyle won an Olympic Honorable Mention in 1948 for Ireland with Lament for Bion, a composition she submitted to the Olympic Cultural Activities Committee.

Ina's mother, Philippa, was from a wealthy family, and they owned Bushey Park. Philippa, died in 1932 and her only sister, Phyllis, died in 1938 at the age of 48. Ina then cared for her father until he died in 1951 at the age of 91. She never married.

Ina, her father and sister are buried in a plot with a simple cross in the graveyard of the Church of Ireland, Enniskerry. Her mother is buried nearby in a grave with a much more elaborate headstone, surrounded by her wealthy relatives.


October 3 2011 13:21 GMT