Vincent O’Brien, Irish organist, music teacher and composer, is born in Dublin on May 9, 1871, where he lived all his life. He is an important figure in early 20th-century Irish music. For some, he is mainly known as the first teacher of singers such as John McCormack, Margaret Burke Sheridan and the writer James Joyce.
O’Brien is the eldest child of a Roman Catholic church musician. In 1885, he first appears in a public piano recital and, later in the year, becomes the organist of Rathmines parish church, a position he holds until 1888. He holds another organist’s position at the Dublin Carmelite church from 1897 to 1899, but is chiefly known as organist and choir director of Dublin’s largest Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, between 1903 and 1946. In 1898, he is the founder and first director of the Palestrina Choir, originally all-male, which is still active, and which is financed for many years by Edward Martyn.
O’Brien studies with Robert Prescott Stewart at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (1888-90), where he is the first winner of the Coulson Scholarship and frequently performs as both tenor singer, piano accompanist, and organist in many public concerts during the 1890s. As a church musician, he becomes particularly involved in the Cecilian Movement, conducting works by Michael Haller and others, and also pursuing their artistic ideals in his own sacred choral compositions.
O’Brien is the founding conductor of the Dublin Oratorio Society (1906), the Brisan Opera Company (1916) and conducts at many ad hoc events. In 1925, he becomes the first music director of Radio Éireann (originally called 2RN), a position he holds until 1941. He singles out his work as music director for the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (1932) as his most prized personal achievement. As late as 1945, he founds Our Lady’s Choral Society, a large oratorio choir still in existence, which originally is recruited mainly from the various Roman Catholic church choirs in Dublin.
Among his teaching positions, O’Brien teaches at the diocesan seminary at Holy Cross College, is Professor of Gregorian Chant at the missionary seminary of All Hallows College from 1903, and Professor of Music at the Ladies’ Teacher-Training College at Carysfort Park, Blackrock, County Dublin, from 1908 until his death in Dublin on June 21, 1948. As a much-demanded vocal coach, he teaches at his home, his best-known pupils including John McCormack, Margaret Burke Sheridan and James Joyce. He performs the piano accompaniments for McCormack’s first gramophone recordings and accompanies him during his 1913–14 Australasian tour of 60 performances in three months, during which he also gives organ recitals at the Irish-dominated Catholic cathedrals of Sydney and Melbourne.
In 1932, O’Brien receives a doctorate honoris causa from the National University of Ireland (NUI).
Of his two sons, Oliver O’Brien (1922–2001) largely follows in his father’s footsteps, as organist and director of the Palestrina Choir, of Our Lady’s Choral Society, music teacher at Carysfort College and as teacher in various Dublin schools. His other son, Colum O’Brien, is organist in the Pro-Cathedral.
Before his work for the Palestrina Choir, O’Brien’s musical interests are very broad, culminating in 1893 in the composition of the full-scale opera Hester. As a church music composer, he follows Cecilian ideals, with a number of hymns, motets and other choral works. He also composes a number of songs for voice and piano, with The Fairy Tree (1930) being a particular favourite of John McCormack’s.