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.