There were a few things that my school — St Mary’s Convent, Arklow — had going for it but as far as I was concerned, the choir trumped most other activities. That was on account of the nun in charge, Sister Agnes, who had been, we had heard, a professional singer before she entered the convent. She was brisk, upright, her habit immaculate, with beady blue eyes and the kind of focus that set her apart even in the convent.
Her choir was legendary, at least in our circle. We won every competition we entered, and we entered lots: Dublin, provincial music festivals, Llandudno in Wales. Not winning would have been a source of collective shame, letting down past generations of choristers.
But this time we went further, to Belgium, for a European schools competition. It may have had an EU dimension, because we had to learn the ‘Ode to Joy’ in German. The repertoire included a difficult Pater Noster, something by Kodaly, an Irish lament, a brisk little jig called ‘Kitty, My Love, Will You Marry Me?’ and an alphabet song based on Mozart.
So two nuns — Sister Agnes was accompanied by Sister Maura, the head — and 40 teenage girls set off from Co Wicklow to Brussels, to be parcelled up into pairs and claimed by assorted families in a Brussels suburb who would be our hosts for a couple of nights. We had packed presents of Irish interest for the families: a bit of Waterford Glass, some Irish linen, Arklow pottery.
For some of the girls it was the first time they’d been away; for most it was the first time they’d stayed abroad with a family. The Belgians found us quite funny, I think: a little rustic. This was 1979, before Ireland was cool and when it was still Catholic.
Back then the school was divided into boarders and day pupils but we were all put into boarders’ Sunday uniforms, dug out of the spares cupboard — blue and blue — which we thought was terrifically smart but the Belgian families thought mildly quaint.
I was impressed with the fresh orange juice at breakfast — I was used to Britvic. Some friends were so anxious not to inconvenience their hosts they said no to eggs and rashers for breakfast even though they were starving; their hosts insisted so they got them anyway. One girl was mortified when she opened the door of the bathroom and discovered the son of the house in the bath, starkers, obviously. It was a time when there was still sufficient difference between cultures for Belgium to seem exotic.
Obviously, the families with the older girls wanted them to drink beer but they bargained without the intransigence of two of the girls, who had taken the pledge of total abstinence from alcohol until the age of 21 at confirmation and were sticking to it. Some families took older girls to bars; the head nun caught them and gave them one of those wait-until-I get-you-home looks.
We did the rounds — the Planetarium, the Atomium, Louvain — where we sang at a church that was celebrating its 800th anniversary and Waterloo, the significance of which wasn’t much emphasised in our curriculum. The Belgians were hospitable and assumed we’d all be hungry; we were, but we were still fussy. We got boiled spinach with our lunch; most pushed it under the mashed potato.
It was during our trip to Louvain that I discovered nuns also needed to wee. We were lined up in the public loos and I made for a vacated lavatory, only to be held back by Sister Agnes who pointed out that the head nun had been waiting longer. I wasn’t being rude; I just hadn’t associated bodily functions with nuns.
The competition was in a vast concert hall with TV cameras. We lined up on the platform and looked towards Sister Agnes. She did what she always did. She smiled brightly and raised her hand, and we looked nowhere else. She could always mesmerise us. And we sang beautifully, without a tremor because we trusted her. We won; we always won, and she took the prize gracefully, well aware that we, she, deserved it. Our pianist got a special commendation.
When we returned to our families, one boy played ‘We are the Champions’. Then we got our celebratory dinner. My friend and I were handed plates with a round of nice lean meat and a rich gravy on the side. The meat was slightly softer than normal, a little sweet in flavour and, I noticed the fat was different, slightly wobbly. I looked, ashen faced, across at my friend, who was cleaning her plate. We had eaten horse.