Ireland was born in Bowdon, near Manchester, into a family of Scottish descent and some cultural distinction. His parents died soon after he had entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 14. He studied piano and organ there, and later composition under Charles Villiers Stanford. He subsequently became a teacher at the College himself, his pupils including Ernest John Moeran (who admired him) and Benjamin Britten (who found Ireland’s teaching of less interest). He also worked as organist and choirmaster at St. Luke’s Church, Chelsea, London. He retired in 1953, settling at Sussex for the rest of his life.
From Stanford, Ireland inherited a thorough knowledge of the music of Beethoven, Brahms and other German classics, but as a young man he was also strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel as well as the earlier works by Stravinsky and Bartók. From these influences, he developed his own brand of "English Impressionism", related closer to French and Russian models than to the folk-song style then prevailing in English music.
Like most other Impressionist composers, Ireland favoured small forms and wrote neither symphonies nor operas, although his Piano Concerto is among his best works. His output includes some chamber music and a substantial body of piano works, including his best-known piece The Holy Boy, known in numerous arrangements. His songs to poems by A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield and Rupert Brooke are a valuable addition to English vocal repertoire. Due to his job at St. Luke’s Church, he also wrote hymns, carols and other sacred choral music.