Smith, Brendan John (1917–89), founder-director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, was born 7 February 1917 in Ilford, Essex, England, son of John Mead, executive in a London co-operative society, and Greta Smith, a professional cellist. It is not known whether his parents were married; he always went by his mother's maiden name. After moving to Dublin at the age of four, he was educated at Belvedere College, and made his stage debut, aged 15, in the Gate Theatre, where his mother was orchestra leader. On leaving school he went to work for the ESB but continued his involvement with the theatre. He set up a company called Premiere Productions, for which he wrote and appeared in eight plays and three revues, including ‘You are invited’, ‘No man's heaven’, and ‘Private hotel’, which were performed (mostly in the Peacock) between 1941 and 1945. In 1943 he set up the Brendan Smith Theatre Academy, which he ran successfully while continuing to work for the ESB. Distinguished former students include the actor John Kavanagh. In 1956 he produced ‘Cú Chulainn’, a pageant staged in Croke Park with a cast of fifty, and crowd scenes with 850 extras. The following year he persuaded Bord Fáilte to back the first Dublin Theatre Festival; the Festival became his life's work.
The early years of the festival were dogged by controversy: in 1957 the director of the Pike theatre, Alan Simpson (qv), was arrested in connection with the alleged indecency of the opening play, ‘The rose tattoo’. The following year Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) refused to celebrate the votive mass for the festival because of the inclusion of ‘Bloomsday’, a play about Joyce (qv), and of a new play by O'Casey (qv), who responded by withdrawing his play. Samuel Beckett (qv) then withdrew his three mime plays in sympathy and the festival had to be cancelled. However, 1960 was a triumphal year with the premiering of ‘The importance of being Oscar’ by Micheál MacLiammóir (qv); Siobhán McKenna (qv) in an acclaimed production of ‘The playboy of the western world’; and five new plays by playwrights of the younger school, including John B. Keane (qv), Bryan MacMahon (qv), Walter Macken (qv), and Hugh Leonard (qv). Smith then boasted that it was the best theatre festival on the lowest budget in Europe. The following year he produced the film version of the ‘Playboy’ production, through a company he had set up with Lord Killanin (qv), Four Provinces Production, but the film was critically panned. He continued to base the festival around new works and foreign acts. At a period when Irish theatre was generally uninspired and conservative, the festival provided an innovative forum. MacLiammóir wrote in 1964: ‘With all its faults and oversights, it is by far the most hopeful light that shines from the living theatre in Ireland today’ (MacLiammóir, 73–4). In 1964 Smith was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of his promotion of cultural exchanges between Irish and French theatres. In 1981 he received an honorary doctorate from the NUI.
Although the festival in later years was less controversial, it made the headlines frequently with, for instance, the injunction against David Halliwell's ‘Mr Joyce is leaving Paris’ in 1971, and a playwright pouring beer over two critics in 1980. The Times critic, Ned Chaillet, noted that Smith had an excellent news instinct and ‘as much an eye for the headlines as for the talent’ (Times, 18 Oct. 1980). His combination of ebullience, optimism, and perseverance enabled him to keep the festival going, even against such setbacks as a drastic cut (1977) in its Arts Council funding. Ill health forced his retirement in the mid 1980s. The festival continued to be held annually.
Smith was involved in Irish theatre and radio across the board; when the Olympia Theatre was threatened with closure and demolition in 1963 he took a leading part in the successful campaign to save it and then served for many years as its chairman. He also produced numerous shows for radio, and wrote and featured in many. In 1986 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease from which he died 31 October 1989 in a Dublin nursing home. He was survived by his wife, the actress Beryl Fagan (m. 3 May 1955), and two sons. The Brendan Smith Archive (consisting principally of material relating to the Theatre Festival) is incorporated in the Irish Theatre Archive, in Pearse St. Library, Dublin.