Jimmy and Eileen Grogan. Photo by Erin McGuire.

Gerry Noonan stands at the front of the room behind an electric keyboard.

“So you can all get in touch with your inner Audrey Hepburn,” he says. “Page 14, ‘Moon River’ please. ‘Moon River’. Fourteen. One four.”

His students leaf through the pages of their songbooks, some helped by nursing home staff.

Noonan picks out the melody with one hand and throws a few chords in with the other. The class of about 20 people join in, singing through the classic ballad, written over half a century ago for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in one take.

The Happy Voices Community Choir is one of four choirs for older people with dementia that Noonan, a retired secondary-school teacher, directs.

It meets Thursday afternoons at the Maryfield Nursing Home in Chapelizod. It’s open to any retired person in the local area. Most of the singers, though, have memory issues of some kind.

Noonan challenges the choir to sing the next song, “Che Che Kule”, as loud as they can. It’s call and response. Noonan sings a line. The class repeats it. “Hey!” the song ends, and there’s an outbreak of laughter.

Noonan hears from family members that choir practice often puts people in a good mood for the day, even if they can’t remember why.

A Feeling

Noonan chooses songs for the choir’s lengthy songbook to suit the age profile of the group, he says. Music memory is one of the last things that people with dementia lose.

He wants students to work on songs they remember. “If it’s familiar enough, they’ll sing it from memory,” he says.

That often evokes emotion. “Certain songs will evoke memories or else they’ll evoke a feeling,” he says. “They may not remember the exact memory, but they’ll remember the feeling.”

He chooses some older songs, some newer. By newer, he means post-1970. There’s no point in putting in the latest songs from the charts, he says.

A few Beatles songs have made it in, though. The others are mostly Irish folk songs, show tunes, and songs from old films.

Many are songs that Noonan came across when he worked on the musical Dublin’s Theatre Royal, Revisited, about the institution that closed in 1962.

When he hits the first few notes of “Beidh Aonach Amárach”, a lady in a wheelchair at the side of the room, who appeared to be asleep, opens her eyes and sings along. That’s a song they all learnt in school, says Noonan.

Noonan taught English and religion at Árdscoil La Salle in Raheny. But singing is his passion, he says.

That’s what he now teaches both privately and at the Leinster School of Music and Drama.

He first got involved with a choir at St. Agnes’ Community Centre for Music and Arts in Crumlin, which was founded by Sr Bernadette Sweeney, who started several music projects in the area.

Dublin City Council officials noticed. The council partly funds the Happy Voices Community Choir here in Chapelizod.

Directing choirs is completely different than teaching at school, says Noonan, because he knows people enjoy it and they can sing whatever they like.

The choir used to attract lots of people from outside the nursing home, says Maryfield’s activity coordinator, Catherine Bourke. Building works stopped that for a while, though.

Now that the building is complete, Bourke hopes more people from the community will join in, she says. The more voices, the better.

Tapping Her Dainty Toes

Later on, Noonan encourages the singers to tap into their inner Lauren Bacall for a rendition of “As Time Goes By” from the film Casablanca. He corrects himself – it’s actually Ingrid Bergman.

This sparks debate. Were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall married?

A singer named Cecilia thinks they were; Noonan disagrees. “I think they were just an item forever, as far as I know.”

He Googles it. Cecilia was right: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married from 1945 until he died in 1957. It was Bogart’s fourth marriage. Bacall later married, and divorced, Jason Robards.

“So there you go. There’s today’s instalment of scandal for you all,” he says.

In the front row, friends Aldona McBride and Ida Cleary hold hands and sway as they sing. They’ve been coming for 18 months, they said.

Cleary will turn 100 in July, McBride says, and she “taps her dainty shoes” to the music. “I think we all enjoy it. Some may not seem to be registering it, but they do.”

Bourke says residents without memory issues, like McBride, still get a lot out of the choir. It’s a chance for them to meet up with friends and do something together. These two ladies “have a great little thing going”, she says.

It’s the same, Bourke says, for the couple of women who come in to join their husbands. It’s something for them both to do.

“Music lifts everyone’s spirits. It’s a social event. There’s always a cup of tea, and there’s always a bit of fun at it,” she says.

Singing Together

“It brings him out of himself. He gets to see different people that he’s not with everyday, and he chats to them,” says Eileen Grogan, during a tea break.

She’s sat at the back of the room, talking about her husband, Jimmy, a resident of the Willow Unit at Cherry Orchard Hospital.

Jimmy developed vascular dementia after a heart operation five years ago. He had a long career driving for the Office of Public Works and had retired only a few months before the surgery. The choir gets him out and socialising.

“One woman knitted him a doll, and I have to hang that on his wheelchair,” she says. “And she watches now to make sure that’s still there.”

She goes to visit him everyday, and she brings him to choir practice every week. They sing together.

Says Eileen: “I try to keep him active, so this is what we do. Anything that’s going, I bring him to it. I bring him everywhere.”

Erin McGuire is a city reporter. Her stories often offer an intimate window into the lives of those we share the city with. You can reach her at erin@dublininquirer.com.

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