He was born at Keinton Mandeville, Somerset, England, and worked as a clerk in London before becoming an actor. His first appearances were in Scotland and the north of England, and he did not tread the London stage until 1866. He played all the major Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, and by 1878, when he entered into a partnership with the actress Ellen Terry and became manager of the Lyceum Theatre, London, he was already famous. In 1895, he became the first actor ever to receive a knighthood. He and Ellen Terry continued to work together until 1902, but the Lyceum had to be sold in 1898. One of Irving's sons, Laurence Irving, was a dramatist.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey.