POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Music Features

'Would you like a song?' Honing a music therapy approach with help from Sinéad O’Connor

Published on Sep 11, 2023 by Kerrie O'Connor


I purchased my first album when I was twelve. Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. On vinyl. My Father ordered me back to the shop. “Cassettes are the future,” he said. The shop assistant held it up to the light to check for scratches before exchanging it for a cassette. That summer I saw her perform at the Point Depot. My first concert. Earlier in the year I took Sinéad as my Confirmation name. I  couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become Kerrie Majella Sinéad O’Connor.

I am a singer but there are two songs I cannot sing. Of course, there are many songs I don’t sing but these I would like to sing but cannot. I begin, am reduced to tears and unable to continue. I never attempt them publicly. I check in with them occasionally to see whether I can sing them through. To no avail. When I listen to them my emotional reaction is usually internalised, but when I sing them my voice cannot give lie to what I am feeling and it breaks. Years ago during a school debate we, the student audience, were asked “Who likes the coffee creams in the box of Roses?” The intriguing question piqued our interest and devotees raised their hands. Sadly for them, the coffee creams are long gone. The student delivered her speech, left the podium and then returned. “The thing about the coffee creams was just something for myself,” she remarked, departing without further elaboration. The first of the songs, like the coffee creams, is something for myself. The second is Phil Coulter’s The Shores of the Swilly.

My Father owned few albums. At fourteen I bemoaned my lack of fashionable clothing, particularly problematic on non-uniform school days. “No wonder,” a classmate, not the coffee cream girl, observed, “you spend all your money on music”. Keen to expand my wardrobe, but not at the expense of my album collection, I discovered second-hand shops. I was beyond excited when I happened upon the soundtrack to Dr. Zhivago. On vinyl. My Father’s favourite film. Another of his albums was Phil Coulter’s Classic Tranquillity, on cassette, and our companion on long car journeys. Years later my sister, on boarding a flight, found herself seated alongside Phil Coulter. “We used to listen to your music on road trips,” she excitedly exclaimed. “Your generation either hate me or hate your parents,” he replied humorously. We hated neither.

In 2007 I visited the University of Limerick for a music therapy information day, an experience that cemented my decision to leave my job as a computer programmer to study music therapy. It was March and my Father had died in December. Afterwards, I continued to Kerry, my Father’s birthplace and the destination of most of the car journeys with Phil Coulter. A few days later I made my way back home to Dublin. It was late, dark, wet and the car’s heating system was broken. The previous December I had driven my Mother and one of my sisters, not the one that sat next to Phil Coulter, from Kerry back to Dublin after my Father’s funeral. The broken heating gifted an unlikely reprieve to our broken hearts. “I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying and I’m losing control,” sang my sister from the backseat. That night in March The Shores of the Swilly came on the radio. Sung by Sinéad O’Connor.

The story unfolded gently, purely and beautifully, describing Phil’s childhood vacationing by Lough Swilly with his sister and later with children of their own. The story continued tragically, devastatingly. His sister worked as a counsellor. She was called to tend to a client. Neither returned home. Phil Coulter entrusted the song to Sinéad O’Connor. As I listened I began to sob from the innermost part of myself, a place I had only broken into once before, eleven years earlier. Another case for the coffee creams. And after a while I noticed something, a congruence between what I was hearing, how I was feeling, where I was feeling from and the manner in which I was reacting. Calm followed. Nothing in the months since December had tapped into my sadness like listening to that song. Nothing had brought about such an external expression of my sadness. But neither had anything reassured me that equilibrium could and would return: the second reason I endeavour to sing this song now and again. I experience the release of grief and the return of calm.     


Lough Swilly. Attribution: Kenneth Allen / Ardnamoyle Townland

A Music Therapy Approach

In my group work with individuals with Dementia residing in long term care facilities, my approach centres around variations of the phrase “Would you like a song?” While some groups are Dementia specific, most include older adults with and without a Dementia diagnosis. Groups generally comprise of individuals residing together in the same unit, though visitors from other units are welcome. Each group serves as a microcosm for community life in the unit where the realities of communal living are worked out through the use of song. Much of what arises in the group is addressed within the group, if it cannot it is taken up individually or in a smaller group. I frame the offer of a song in a way that is manageable for each individual.

“Would you like a song?”

“Can we sing you a song?”

“Can someone suggest a song for…?”

“I am going to sing this song for you, you have mentioned to me that you like it.”

“Would you like to sing a song?”

This offer is a bucket drawing from a well that never runs dry; I can learn up to 10 songs weekly. This week’s new suggestions include: She’s a Lassie from Lancashire, When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver, For Killarney and You, Where the River Shannon Flows and (When You Come to the End of) A Perfect Day. Some answers come directly in the form of song titles or in the recitation of a lyric. Other songs suggest themselves from a person’s humming or from musical biographies completed by families. Group members who do not have Dementia suggest songs that resonate with those with Dementia and get feet tapping, hands clapping, mouths singing and eyes welling up, or even rolling. The power of this question and the responsibility in posing it is not lost on me: the third reason I continue to test the waters and reattempt The Shores of the Swilly privately. Group members, and even bystanders or staff, will have their own Shores of the Swilly. This question, posed and responded to correctly, elicits change.

A Case in Point

Geraldine, not her real name, lives in a nursing home, in a closed dementia unit. She never agrees to a song choice. I affirm her decision and move on. But I renew my offer weekly. She declines. I affirm. I move on. Our group takes place in a communal area and she often remarks that it is dark and I should think about going home. I assure her I won’t run over time and this is acceptable. One day I ask whether she would like a song and she responds "Four Green Fields". I agree to learn it for the following week.

On arrival, I make my way to her. “I’ve learned your song,” I say.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she responds.

“I’d like How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” says another group member.

“That’s a stupid song,” says Geraldine, “it’s for children.”

“You could say it is for children,” I agree, “did you know there are verses? Have a listen and tell me what you think.”

I lead the group in singing the song and afterward, Geraldine begins to cry. I make my way over to her and crouch down beside her. “I’m sorry … my son died” she cries. I offer my condolences, not knowing whether this has occurred recently or if she is recalling the past. She cries for “the poor little boy.” I enquire post session. Her son had died the previous evening but had gone unmentioned in the pre-session handover.

"I have fine strong sons, who fought to save my jewels

They fought and they died, and that was my grief said she."

Four Green Fields, Tommy Makem (1967)

Over the coming weeks Geraldine never explicitly mentions her son. But all her song suggestions centre on the death of a young man: Shannagolden, Willie McBride and Four Green Fields. She becomes tearful, I pause, approach and ask if she would like me to stop. “Keep singing,” she says on one occasion, “It’s natural for the water to fall.” After a number of weeks she cheerfully requests Hard Times Come Again No More.

"Tis the song, the sigh of the weary;

Hard Times, Hard Times, come again no more:

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard Times, come again no more."

Hard Times, Stephen Foster (1854)

Once Geraldine requested Hard Times Come Again No More she entered more freely into the group. She was honest yet tolerant of the songs she did not like. One day a group member declined a song choice remarking “The others might not like it.” Geraldine had often verbalised her dislike of this lady’s song choices. “Steal Away,” Geraldine called out. “I don’t believe it,” cried the reluctant lady. “That is her favourite song,” I explained to Geraldine. “I know,” came the answer. Geraldine no longer told me that it was time to go home, instead, she often invited me to remain for supper.

Up to a week before her son died suddenly, Geraldine had never requested a song. When she did it was a song that alluded to a son’s death, with hindsight perhaps an implicit expression of foreboding: Geraldine’s son had reached the same age her husband was when he died.

When a song choice elicits a reaction such as Geraldine’s to How Much is that Doggie in the Window I draw the song to a close, approach the person and talk to them. They decide what happens next. As we navigate their needs, I respond accordingly. At times I sing it through. Other times I stop or abridge. Sometimes I put the guitar away, move close to them and continue singing gently. On occasion a group member will step in. One day a gentleman in a closed Dementia group requested The White Cliffs of Dover. As I sang he began to cry. I started to move toward him but another group member shook her head wisely. I continued to sing. She approached him and put her arm around him. She understood. She had Dementia too, I did not.

Forgotten Memories

In July 2023, sitting at my Father’s table in Kerry, I received a text message. It simply read Sinéad O’Connor RIP. She was 56. My Father was 56. I replayed the song in my head at first, then located a recording and sat and listened. A forgotten detail from Sinéad O’Connor’s summer concert crystalised. I attended with a Spanish student staying with my family at the time. My Father insisted he accompany me beyond the security gate. He wanted to buy me a bar of chocolate and see me seated, then he would leave. The security guard obliged, and as my Father departed he waved to me from the barrier. A fourth reason I dust off that song: it causes memories long forgotten to surface.

"Till I see you next summer, God keep you from harm."

The Shores of the Swilly, by Sinéad O'Connor, written by Phil Coulter (2001)

Kerrie O’Connor


Kerrie O'Connor is a music therapist working in the areas of Dementia and Acquired Brain Injury. She holds diplomas in Flute and in Church music, incorporating this skill set into her music therapy practice and non-therapeutic settings. She is also a fluent Irish speaker.

Kerrie is a member of the group Fuaimlaoi based at St Teresa's Carmelite Church, Clarendon Street, Dublin. Fuaimlaoi seeks to develop and promote sacred song rooted in the Irish tradition. The group's name Fuaimlaoi is derived from a poetic joining of two Irish words - Fuaim, meaning sound, and Laoi, meaning old epic poem or canticle. 

She is also a founding member of the group Vox Hiberniae, an Irish ensemble who perform music in spaces informed by the complementarity that exists between the two. It is an Irish voice with harp and the Irish language at its core while eagerly drawing on a range of musical traditions.

Image Attributions

Sinéad O'Connor at The Music In My Head 2008 in The Hague, Leah Pritchard from Den Haag, Netherlands, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sin%C3%A9ad_O%E2%80%99Connor_(cropped).jpg 

Lough Swilly, Kenneth Allen / Ardnamoyle Townland, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ardnamoyle_Townland_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1030695.jpg