Fr James (Dominic) McCouaig, O.Carm.

Given by E. Griffin, O.Carm. at the Reception of the Remains in the College Chapel, Terenure College, on the evening of Wednesday, January 15, 2002.

 “No Trimmings . . .”
I was looking for a word or phrase to describe our beloved departed confrere, Fr Jim McCouaig, or Dominic as he was called at times, and the phrase that came to me was . . . . “No Trimmings.” No trimmings in every department of his life, of his religious life, of his professional life, of his life as a priest. Jim joined the Carmelite Order a year in advance of me. We were in the same communities in Ardavon, now Mt Carmel Hospital, I caught up with Jim at Ordination. We were ordained with fifty others, all religious, at Clonliffe College on Sunday July 16, 1950 – the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – at 8.00 in the morning by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Mass production those days.

But to come back to the trimmings. We had a very pious prior in Gort Muire who insisted on trimmings, devotional trimmings which he added to an already full round of daily prayer. Mass and Divine Office, all in Latin for over two hours each day. Jim had no time for such trimmings. He found them distasteful and difficult to endure. He was too much of a gentleman to complain in public but some of us knew how he felt. Many of us felt the same but nobody questioned authority in those days, long before the student revolt was heard of.
Theirs not to ask the reason why,
Theirs but to do or die.

Jim hated piousity. But he had his priorities. He had a great respect for the Contemplative Carmelite Nuns at Firhouse and at Roebuck where he was confessor for several years. He had a great ability to listen, to discern where people were at and to give them hope and heart. He was especially dear to Sr Brigid at Roebuck, Prioress for several years. She relied on his advice not only in community affairs, but in the building of their new convent and chapel and in the layout of the grounds. She said to me this morning, ‘we can never say too much in praise of Fr McCouaig.’ He ceased being their confessor over eighteen months ago but he went back again this Advent with Fr O’Hea and said as they came back, ‘I am glad we did that, we must do it again!’

No trimmings either in his role as bursar, teacher, principal of the school, prior or rugby coach. As bursar he got the job done with efficiency and courtesy. He had that extraordinary ability to grapple with the most complex financial situations.

No trimmings either in his teaching. His primary degree was in Philosophy and English. And even though he had no third level qualification in Science he was an outstanding Chemistry teacher. He loved Chemistry and this came across to his students. But again, no trimmings. He stated the material as it was with extreme clarity. Past students remember him with great fondness and as a great teacher. I have stated before in this place, and it’s a deep conviction of mine, that a good teacher has an influence and a spin off that can never be measured. But did Jim have control? Even as he walked the corridors he commanded attention and respect.

His other love was English Literature. He had a gift to penetrate Shakespeare. One of his favourite poets was Tennyson.

He was a very young man when, in 1955, he brought the Leinster Junior Rugby Cup home to the College. In 1958 Terenure won the Leinster double – Junior and Senior Rugby Cups. Jim was still the one who trained the Junior team. What wonderful days! Some of you here tonight may recall them. When it came to rugby, as well as no trimmings it was no messing.

His outstanding characteristic was his gentle approach. He loved the line from Shakespeare’s As you like it – ‘If thou has ever been where bells have tolled to Church let gentleness its strong enforcement be.’ But his gentleness was anything but passive. It had the strength of steel about it. If he was ever angry he was angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time. It was Ladeslaus Boros, a great theologian, who said, ‘It’s a great fortune good fortune to meet a truly gentle person, it can mark a whole lifetime.’ That was the Christ-like side of his character. And it was combined with fidelity, fidelity to this College and all it stood for, fidelity combined with great love for his family. For his parents, his sisters – Patricia and Moira – and for his nephew – Brian. And of course for his origins – the green glens of Antrim. He always retained that little touch of the Antrim accent.

For the past few years his health was deteriorating. He was going downhill all the time. His strength was diminishing and yet despite the fact that he was unable to stand for any length of time he insisted on concelebrating at Funeral Masses in this Chapel, a gesture that was deeply appreciated by the clients of this College Chapel. It was John the Prophet, a sixth century monk who wrote,
God asks nothing of the sick person
except thanksgiving and patience.
These intercede before God for the sick person’s
powerlessness better than anything.

Patience and thanksgiving was very much part of him in his latter years when he began to feel the diminishments of illness and of the ageing process. He died in Mt Carmel Hospital where he had begun his studies and where among the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary he had friends for whom he was very special.

If he were asked, ‘What do you want for you funeral, Jim?’ I’m sure the answer would be ‘No trimmings.’ But let me add one trimming, appropriately from Tennyson:
From: Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)



Sermon given at the Requiem Mass by Fr. J. Murray, O.Carm., Prior of Terenure College. January 16, 2002.

Oh behalf of Fr. Jim's sister, Patricia, his nephew, Brian, his many friends and the Carmelite Community, I welcome you all and thank for joining us in celebrating the Mass of the Resurrection for Fr. Jim.

This morning we gather to give thanks and to celebrate his life and memory. Fr. Jim was an Antrim man, born in Ballycastle. He joined the order in 1944 and was ordained in 1950. So he has given more than half a century of service to the Church, to the Order and to Terenure College.

The Fr. McCouaig that I first met in the 1960s was a tall, wiry figure. He was a reserved man. Orderly, predictable, shy and self-effacing. As a teacher he was organised, compassionate, perceptive, erudite, caring, courteous, well-read – all adjectives one might use in drawing a portrait of him.

He had a highly disciplined approach to work and he saw it as more something to be done than talked about. Terenure College and its landscape were to become central to his life. As Helen Keller said, ‘All that we love deeply becomes part of us’. Terenure was very much part of him. In those early days of my first acquaintance with him, he taught classes all day, took Junior Rugby in the evening, supervised study at night and then looked after the dormitories. In that first year he asked me to stand in for him on four occasions and these were the only four nights in the year that he seemed to be free.

Last night Fr. Griffin reminded you of his success as a trainer of football teams. He also looked after the Tennis teams and of course he founded the Our Lady of Mount Carmel 81st Scout Unit in 1957. His enthusiasm and flair for organisation, plus his knowledge of the principles and ideals of scouting, made him as obvious choice for such a task.

His interest in his pupils extended to them as past-pupils. With a great sense of occasion and history he chronicled their days at school and never seemed to lose trace of them. He was always glad to meet them and exchange memories and stories. When I succeeded him as principal, for no one could replace him, I sought his advice and he said that the task usually involves a judicious use of the blind eye! For uses of the blind eye in such contexts can prove to be quite visionary!

Despite his sickness in recent years he displayed no self-pity and never lost his enthusiasm for life for he was still too young at heart and restless to retire. He never missed a function or funeral in this church. Towards the end, when he was brittle with exhaustion, his mind still dragged an ailing body to the altar. He took that illness with characteristic dignity. Good manners often masked its symptoms. Like Job, his troubles didn’t make him a saint, but confirmed the goodness that was already there. With James Plunkett he could say:
‘Still I must fight
But now a gleam of hope
Comes to me like a dream.’

As always it was his graciousness that was appealing and as his condition deteriorated he continued to reveal that familiar kindness we all had come to know so well. When I visited him the morning before he died he asked me if there was anything he could do to help. ‘Just rest,’ I said. He laughed and he rested!

We can only see the vision when we stand back. It is then that we can pray with Anne McKenzie:
‘We pray that you will keep faith with us
And we with you,
Holding our hands as we weep,
Giving us strength to continue,
And sowing us beacons along the way,
To becoming new.’

There’s a great spirit gone, whose life was shaped by gestures of care and friendship. So many of us have been touched by the authenticity of his life, by his uncompromising commitment to his calling. We’ll miss the re-assuring presence.

Last night I was handed a cutting from some publication and the extract was obviously written by some past-pupil. It refers to Fr. Eltin and Fr. Jim. Here is a brief extract: Fr. Jim, whose Sunday homily was delivered with a gentle northern burr and in a most economic style where the impact and simplicity of each word was telling and quietly direct.

When men like these have left us and we line up to give our tributes to their memory, it is then too late! Why can’t we tell them now, when they are with us, when our words might give them some support and appreciation in return for the sacrifices and effort on our behalf? We meet exceptional people from time to time through life. Fr. Jim’s quiet sincerity and depth, his self-effacing modesty in the light of all his qualities as a man and a priest, make him truly exceptional’.

As a priest he was one to whom principles were paramount. He was the gospel person, humble, thoughtful and mild. He was much sought after as a confessor and spiritual director. He listened, not just with his ears, but with his heart and so was able to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of so many people.

Brendan Kennelly’s poem, ‘The Good’ captures many of Fr. Jim’s qualities.
The good are vulnerable
As any bird in flight
They do not think of safety
Are blind to possible extinction
And when most vulnerable
Are most themselves.
The good incline to praise
To have the knack of seeing that
The best is not destroyed
Although forever threatened.
Always, they retain a kind of youth,
The vulnerable grace
Of any bird in flight,
Content to be itself
Accomplished master and potential victim,
Accepting what the earth or heaven intends.
I think that I know one or two
Among my friends’.

Having known Fr. Jim, I can say that I know one among my friends.

I bparrhas na ngrást go raibh sé.