Pianist, composer, and poet
1903 – 2000
From youthful beginnings as a piano prodigy to a career featuring a string of solo concerto appearances and a thirty-year residency as official Radio Éireann/RTÉ accompanist, Rhoda Coghill was one of the finest Irish musicians of the twentieth century. Not only an outstanding performer, she also demonstrated a precocious gift for composition. Nor were her talents confined to music either: in middle age, she surprised Dublin’s literary scene by revealing herself as a poet in the well-received collections The Bright Hillside (1948) and Time is a Squirrel (1956). Coghill managed to carve out an independent livelihood in the arts—never an easy task—during an era when Irish society was hostile towards professional women. The story of Coghill’s success lies in how she subtly made herself indispensable to the nation’s musical infrastructure in the post-Free State decades.
The youngest of nine children, Coghill was born in 1903 to a middle-class family living at 100 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, Dublin. Her Scottish father worked as a printer for Eason, while her Dublin mother gave Rhoda her first piano lessons. Subsequently enrolled in the Patricia Read Leinster School of Music, the ‘child pianist’ was billed as a star attraction at the capital’s Theatre Royal at the age of 15. By her early twenties she had a MusB degree from Trinity College Dublin (a rare feat for a woman in the 1920s), bagged every piano trophy in the annual Feis Ceoil competitions, and glimpsed international success with a London debut. Following a stint studying in Berlin, Coghill returned to Ireland for good.
At home, she became a force in nation-building cultural initiatives. Returning to the Feis Ceoil, she worked, variously, as accompanist, adjudicator, and arranger. While Ireland lacked a professional orchestra Coghill was active in efforts to remedy this situation. With the formation of the Dublin Philharmonic Society Orchestra in 1927, she multitasked as piano soloist, occasional double-bass player, and behind the scenes on the managing committee. Around the same time, she began broadcasting on 2RN, the state’s first radio station.
Coghill was appointed Radio Éireann accompanist in 1939, remaining with RTÉ until retirement in 1968. Collaborating with visiting international artists and local musicians, she further used her connections to promote her compositional activities. As a student in 1923 Coghill had penned what is now regarded as one of the the most progressive Irish scores of its era (Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, for orchestra, choir, and tenor soloist). In 1939 she exploited RÉ’s resources to organise Cradle’s first, reduced, performance and later enlisted RÉ/RTÉ singers in recitals of her vocal pieces.
A devout Quaker and a modest, unassuming woman, Coghill lived until the age of 96, spending her last years in a retirement home. She never married, perhaps never intended to— but marriage would have forced her resignation from RÉ/RTÉ as per Civil Service rules, effectively curtailing her public career. Virtuoso performer, composer, and poet: Coghill’s portfolio of artistic achievement was remarkable. Equally impressive was her commitment to the collective project of promoting art music in this country. Her near century-long presence in Irish musical life is unique. In 1990 at the age of 87 she finally heard the full premiere of Cradle. This work is set for a revival in the National Concert Hall’s 2016 Composing the Island Festival.
Special thanks to Dr Laura Watson (Maynooth University) for this week's herstory