Above the murmur of prayer in St Patrick’s Church, Cushendun, where we gathered for requiem mass for local son and barrister James McSparran (83), bleating lambs announced new life.
Once more the cycle of life and death was being played out in two adjacent fields in James’s beloved Cushendun. It was so appropriate that his final resting place should be on the headland of one of those fields which a local told me he donated to the church for use as an extended graveyard.
The Gaelic message adorning the arch which framed the altar, high above James’s coffin aptly read “Cónaigh a Chríost i mo Chroí” (dwell in my heart Christ).
The passing of James McSparran QC leaves but one of that line of older friends to whom I gravitated over the last thirty years. I thoroughly enjoyed the Glens man’s company every time I met him. It was, as you would know, no meeting of wilting violets.
A passing mention of the name of a fellow journalist or of a barrister was liable to prompt the rebuke “that fella’s a cod. He rarely asks the right question. He’s a cod.”
The conversation would move then to the politics of the day. By now I was girding my loins: “you fellows aren’t asking the right questions. I would ask them about …” he would prosecute. He was on his feet now, as so often in the past in court, expertly cross-examining me, momentarily forgetting I was not meant to be on the receiving end of his highly forensic and inquisitorial mind.
The time had come for me to confront this opinionated fusillade, matching fire with fire: “are you still following that old sectarian football?” I would loose off.
By now, it was time for flying low, knowing what was coming down the track. “Do you know anything about football? Have you ever been to Ibrox?” he would challenge. I’d toss in another little grenade “Ferguson is still leading from the front.” “I don’t like Ferguson. Did you know he…?” He would challenge. I did know, because he fired the same salvo across my bows the last time I mentioned the name Ferguson.
We would quickly move to the next item – the Catholic Church and child abuse. James was clearly hurt by this. “Should Sean Brady have stepped down?” I queried in our last conversation just over three weeks ago. “He should have – of course” he affirmed.
In the course of that lovely joyful afternoon in the living room of the family’s Malone Park home we then turned to poetry and Seamus Heaney. James was very keen on poetry. Heaney’s gifting of his manuscripts to the National Library in Dublin was a hot topic. Friel was also on the agenda as were other writers.
Art was always close to the surface. We were jousting again. “There’s a very good painting. I know you don’t rate him as a painter but I’m telling you, he’s a good painter” he chided. “Yes James” I said. He had told me that before. That was why we always had such craic. That little bit of competitiveness.
Then came that moment of reflection on a life’s work “I really miss the Law. I didn’t think I’d miss it so much” he remarked. Fellow barrister Michael Lavery, a former pupil spoke of James’s status in the Bar Library. He said “he was one of the most outstanding advocates in my life time. It is difficult to think of anybody better than he was. He contained the witness, making them answer the question. He also had his father’s (also a QC) strong personality. He wouldn’t suffer fools gladly.”
Those who knew him well say Lord Justice McDermott and former Lord Chief Justice Robbie Lowry (whose pupil James was) had tremendous regard and affection for him professionally and personally.
We had by now exhausted the agenda for that visitation and I came away from McSparrans uplifted and as always feeling my day had been enriched in having spent more than an hour in the presence of one of the finest, thinking, challenging conversationalists known to me.
James is now asleep in the place he loved and with the people whom he so dearly loved, in Cushendun.
James, like St Turibius, a lawyer whose feast day coincided with his funeral, enriched the lives of all who knew him.
Go raibh a anam ar lámh dheis Dé.