James Wilson was born in London in 1922. After wartime service in the Royal Navy, he emigrated to Ireland and now lives near Dublin. In 1999 he adopted Irish nationality. As a composer Wilson is largely self-taught. He has himself taught composition for many years, both in Dublin and in the summer school which he runs in the west of Ireland. He has experimented with many compositional styles, but has never given allegiance to any one of them, remaining his own man. His output is both large and varied, including a number of concertos, two symphonies, choral and instrumental works, about two hundred songs, several ballets and seven operas, five of which have been staged at the time of writing.
The majority of Wilsons works have been performed in Ireland and he has also worked extensively in Denmark. His opera Grinning at the Devil, based on the life of Karen Blixen and with a libretto by the Danish writer Elsa Gress, a close friend of Baroness Blixen, was warmly received in Copenhagen in 1989. Another opera, Letters to Theo, on the life of Vincent van Gogh, won an Independent Arts Award and has been produced for television as well as the theatre. Recent works include the triple concerto For Sarajevo, Calico Pie, a cycle of Edward Lear settings given its first performance by Janes Minstrels, and Concerto Giocoso, a concerto for wind quintet and orchestra, heard in Dublin in June 1998. His Clarinet Concerto was composed in 1999 and had its première in January 2000.
Wilson has an interest in some of the less usual instruments and has written substantial works for the free-bass accordion, the cor anglais and an electrically modified flute. In 1969 he was invited to Toronto for the Canadian première of his Quintet for accordion and strings. His output also includes a number of works for children. It was his childrens opera The Hunting of the Snark that first brought him to public attention in 1965. He is a member of Aosdana, the Irish counterpart of the Académie Française.