Acton, Charles (1914–99), music critic, was born Ball-Acton (but changed the former surname by deed poll in 1939) on 25 April 1914 in Iron Acton near Bristol, Somerset, England, into a family that can be traced back to the twelfth century, and with an estate (till 1944) at Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow. His father, Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton, major in the British army, fell at Ypres in 1916, but his mother, Isabel (née Richmond), lived till 1971, having remarried into the La Touche family. Acton was educated at Rugby and read natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was also actively involved in theatrical pursuits and writing music reviews for Varsity Weekly. He spent the summer of 1935 in Munich, where he saw Richard Strauss and Hans Knappertsbusch conducting, and left Cambridge in 1936 without taking a degree. After employment as a booking clerk for Thomas Cook in London (and from 1937 in Palestine, where he subsequently ran a small library), he returned to Ireland and worked from 1939 as a farmer, hotel barman, manufacturer of charcoal during the war years for powering vehicles, and salesman for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Proctor's Tripod Harvesting Ltd. In 1951 he married Carol Little, daughter of Francis Thompson Little, JP of Clabby, Co. Fermanagh and was appointed music critic of the Irish Times in 1955.
During the following thirty-one years he reviewed over 6,000 concerts for the Irish Times (often signing them ‘C. A.’), employing a conversational and eminently readable style. He was often polemical, campaigned unceasingly for a national concert hall and adequate Arts Council funding, and stressed the importance of a standardised and punctual starting time for concerts. Acton also criticised RTÉ continuously for what he considered to be a shirking of its national and institutional responsibilities to Irish artists, composers, concert-goers, and radio and television audiences, and he greatly influenced concert-going conventions in Ireland. Acton also wrote articles on almost every subject of musical interest in Ireland, such as Irish traditional music (in connection with which he received the first Seán O'Boyle award in 1986), the Feis Ceoil, the Music Association of Ireland, the Dublin Grand Opera Society, the Wexford Opera Festival, music facilities, Irish composers, and music education in Ireland. He contributed regular record reviews, interviews, obituaries, portraits, and other articles for the Irish Times and journals such as Envoy, Feasta, Éire-Ireland, and the Musical Times, and was an obituarist for the Guardian. He published Irish music and musicians in the Easons ‘Irish Heritage’ series (Dublin, 1978), contributed a short study of Irish pianists from John Field (qv) to the 1980s for the GPA Irish Arts Review (1988), and with Richard Pine coedited To talent alone: the Royal Irish Academy of Music 1848–1998 (Dublin, 1998). In the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 1974 he expounded his personal tenets of music criticism in a talk entitled ‘A critic's creed’.
Acton retired officially in 1987 and the following year presented his entire collection of concert programmes to the NLI; this ‘Acton collection’ constitutes a unique and valuable historical source for documentation of this period. He was elected a Coulson governor of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 1957, fellow in 1990, and vice-president in 1998. He was the only critic outside London to be a member of the Critics' Circle. He died at his home, Carrickmines Station, Dublin, on 22 April 1999, and was buried in his family graveyard at Dunganstown, Co. Wicklow.