Soul journey through music

Touch the heart and you’re onto a winner, Sr Bernadette Sweeney tells Paul Keenan

In a longstanding joke at her own expense, the ceaselessly busy Sr Bernadette Sweeney has a sign on her door at St Agnes’ school in Dublin which reads:  ‘I’m in search of myself, has anyone seen me?’

An element of truth becomes apparent in this when The Irish Catholic seeks to know the ‘real’ Sr Bernadette, a nun better known for the musical fruits of her labours via her inspiring violin project for pupils which has today expanded beyond all early aspirations. Driven by a sense of humility to avoid the ‘search’ for her, the Religious Sister of Charity quickly turns all and any questions around to her charges, young and old, and the music project which is perhaps the success story of the Crumlin suburb.

“My gift is not to show how talented I am, but to show others how talented they are,” Sr Bernadette states from the outset.

Despite such gentle evasiveness, however, it is worth noting just how talented Sr Bernadette herself is in order to place into context her triumphs on behalf of others.

Born into a family of 10 children, Sr Bernadette acknowledges that “the whole family loved music”, sowing the seeds of a passion that was to be an important element of her later studies at Carysfort National Teacher Training College. (For the record, Sr Bernadette is also a graduate of University College Dublin, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin and Trinity College of Music, London, and trained with renowned vocal musician and teacher, Veronica Dunne.)

The blending of her musical journey with that of the many hundreds of students and adults who have now gained via St Agnes’ school comes from Sr Bernadette’s own vocation with the Religious Sisters of Charity, exposing her to the beliefs and words of foundress Mary Aikenhead. More than once during this interview, Sr Bernadette quotes Aikenhead’s principle “to give to all what the rich can buy with money”.

 “We started in 2006,” she explains of the initiative which saw all 400 pupils at the primary school receive violins towards leading them towards musical proficiency and – especially important for Sr Bernadette – a sense of “community” in their shared pursuit.


By 2010, the level of interest being shown by parents and grandparents saw Sr Bernadette rise to the challenge of creating a specific music project for them in addition to funding and keeping the children’s project ongoing.

A more recent offshoot of all these efforts is St Agnes’ Musical Society, which, in 2013 successfully staged The King and I, and, while the interview with The Irish Catholic is underway, is busy in rehearsals for The Sound of Music, to be staged at the end of March. Sr Bernadette reveals that she was offered the part of the Mother Superior, but politely declined, keeping to her unofficial long-time role as the driving force behind the scenes.

And it is Sr Bernadette’s tireless efforts and apparently boundless energy which make such productions and ongoing music classes and events possible. Yet, once again when probed on this individual aspect, she is quick to deflect, insisting that “the team of expert teachers” and “the genius Joanna Crooks” (the current project director) are “the key to the success of the music project”.

This is perhaps true of the local project, but it is undeniable that it is through Sr Bernadette’s early efforts alone and her continued work that the St Agnes project now has the backing of such bodies as Dublin City Council – “they are 100% behind us,” she reveals – and has captured the attention of others. A number of parties across Europe have contacted her with a view to duplicating her success in schools there, while one school in Calcutta has been gifted violins from St Agnes’ with follow-up guidance and lessons to follow this year from Ireland.

Did she ever envisage such growth? Again Sr Bernadette reaches towards the words of Mary Aikenhead, insisting that “if what we are engaged in is truly God’s work, it will thrive”.

Building on this, Sr Bernadette shares her own guiding principle for bringing people on in music: “It’s about how we touch the heart of the individual. If you can touch the heart you’re on to a winner.”

The statement suggests that, for her, the music goes well beyond boosting people young and old in terms of their abilities. 

Sr Bernadette agrees: “Music is the medium leading to a soul journey no money can buy.”

With a new Musical Centre now added to the list of achievements at St Agnes’, has Sr Bernadette not done more than enough for her community? Certainly the answer from anyone else would be ‘yes’, but from Sr Bernadette herself the end is nowhere near in sight. “When I see people grow, I want to do more,” she says, her words promising even more possibilities for Crumlin.

 “There’s a million things still to do.”