Sandford, Irene (1937–2005), singer, was born in east Belfast on 11 January 1937, eldest child of Francis Sandford, who owned a hairdressing salon, and his wife Meta (née Nesbitt). She had two younger sisters and a younger brother. She attended Belmont and Strandtown primary schools, and then Bloomfield Collegiate School. Irene's singing teacher was Carys Denton, and from an early age Irene's talent was obvious; she won first prize for a vocal solo in Belfast Musical Festival in March 1951. She continued to develop her voice, as leading soprano in the choir of St Anne's cathedral (1959–62), singing from 1960 with the Studio Opera Group set up in Belfast by Havelock Nelson (qv). She was an elegant and attractive young woman, well suited to the many romantic roles in her repertoire. She managed to combine professional singing engagements with an equally successful career as telecommunications officer with Post Office Telephones (later British Telecom).
In 1966, she began a long association with Our Lady's Choral Society in Dublin; she was a soloist in many of their concerts over twenty years, and in May 1975 toured Italy with that group, other leading soloists and the New Ireland Chamber Orchestra. They gave a performance of Handel's Messiah, televised by the Italian national television service, and sang during an audience with Pope Paul VI in the Vatican. Colleagues were amused to note that Sandford, obviously not a stereotypical east Belfast protestant, enthusiastically obtained papal blessings on several rosaries and other religious souvenirs. In 1977, the same soloists and orchestra and the Guinness choir gave a series of concerts in Sicily. Concerts in other parts of Europe followed, and she also visited the United States. Sandford took part in the Killarney Bach Festival and the 1979 Kilkenny Arts Festival, and sang in a series of Bach cantatas organized annually from 1973 by the pioneer of the appreciation of early music, John Beckett (1927–2007), which took place in Dublin at St Ann's Church on Dawson Street. In July 1979 she was a soloist in a promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, performing with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra.
As well as singing solos in choral works, she was also at home with operatic roles, singing often with the Dublin Grand Opera Society in the 1970s and 1980s, and with Opera Northern Ireland. She was well known in Northern Ireland as a soloist in operas performed in Castleward, the National Trust house on the shores of Strangford Lough; she had been one of the founding members of Opera Northern Ireland in 1985. Her name was also familiar to radio audiences; many of her concerts were broadcast by RTÉ and by BBC NI.
A highlight of her career, and a personal triumph, was a visit to China in July 1980, touring with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra and its conductor John Beckett. The trip marked the inauguration of diplomatic relations between Ireland and China, and was probably the first time that Chinese audiences heard music by John Francis Larchet (qv), as well as Irish folk songs. Irene Sandford, dazzling in an emerald green silk gown, delighted audiences by singing several Chinese songs.
After a car accident in the early 1990s, Sandford ceased to appear onstage, but was appointed in 1993 to the Northern Ireland Arts Council; she was too a director of Opera Northern Ireland. Her most important contribution to musical life in the 1990s was through her teaching; she taught singing in Methodist College, Belfast, and in Ballyclare High. She also taught postgraduates in the music department of Queen's University, Belfast, and taught in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, where she was head of vocal studies (1997–2003). She became one of the most respected and successful teachers of her generation. In the New Year's honours list of 2000, she was appointed MBE for services to music.
Irene Sandford married Billy Reid in Belfast on 30 August 1960. She died in Belfast after a long illness on 22 January 2005. An annual prize established in 2006 by Sandford's husband in her honour in the Royal Irish Academy of Music became one of the most prestigious awards in Irish music.