Sage were deeply saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Martin Coughlan in February. Martin was one of our longest volunteers and will be sadly missed by all of us at Sage and in the wider Galway community.
Martin Coughlan – an appreciation
Galway Sage Advocacy Team was stunned on learning of the sudden death of a valued colleague, Martin Coughlan. Having trained with the first cohort of advocates in Galway (2009/10), Martin was assigned as independent advocate in the Oranmore Nursing Home, County Galway. The idea that on completing training, the advocate was expected to ‘pay back’ 2 years of service to a nursing home was foreign to Martin’s way of thinking. For him, it was a privilege to offer one’s service as advocate to those who might otherwise remain voiceless. At the time of his death he had completed almost seven years of advocacy service in Oranmore.
A member of the Irish Defence Force, in 1963, Martin was one of the cadets who performed a Memorial Drill at President John F Kennedy’s graveside. In 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s death, Martin featured in several interviews and memorial documentaries. He loved to recount how the call up, “cadets report to base” went out on radio and cinema announcements throughout Ireland – no mobiles then. Looking at a photograph of the then fresh-faced eighteen year old Martin and friends,
he recalled the seemingly endless practise of the memorial drill the night before they boarded the plane for Washington DC. But he was proud to recall also how in presenting arms at Arlington Cemetery the slow-moving solemnity and precision of their movements captivated the Kennedy family, dignitaries, Congressional Members and Press alike, just as it had for JFK some six months previously at Arbour Hill in Ireland.
During a life of army service, Martin was appalled at the abject poverty and human misery in those lands where he and his colleagues served as buffers between warring factions. And though rising to the rank of colonel, Martin’s world-view appears to have been one of trying to balance a life of command-and-compliance with a life of service. I was privileged to hear his views on this very subject during a conversation about the work of advocacy. Witnessing whole peoples rendered voiceless by the dominant – and dominating – structures of their lives made him realize that such peoples need advocates to speak for them in ways no peace-keeping army could ever hope to do.
Thus, Martin was very clear that his decision to train as an advocate was precisely to explore that possibility of being a voice for those who felt helpless or disempowered. That said, Martin could be impatient with equivocation in word or deed, especially when it came from the top. Steeped in the command and compliance model of “getting things done”, Martin could be relied upon to vigorously question any new procedure in the work of advocacy. However, once the decision was made, he gave his wholehearted support to the implementation of that decision
Martin was interested in what Sage might look like in an Ireland some twenty years from now. In this regard, he was impressed – and very proud to be part of Sage – when Mervyn Taylor, Manager of Sage Advocacy Service, in May 2016, shared his vision of an expanded Sage Service with the Galway Advocacy Team. Commenting that evening to me, he said, “imagine an advocacy service for those who are homeless and in prison! This is the first time I have heard as bold a vision of Ireland. And though I may not live to see it, it was great to hear it and this gives me great hope.”
Martin had an uncanny ability to recount the telling anecdote. At our advocacy meeting this past Monday, following a minute’s silence in his honour, some recalled his favourite anecdote. As with all beginning advocates, Martin spent the first several months of his visits to the nursing home wondering if he was making any impact as advocate. “What is my role really like?”; “What am I doing there?”; “I don’t think they even see me!’ In particular, he felt that no one seemed to respond to him, coming or going. [Of course, Martin’s uncertainty and diffidence are characteristic of all beginners in any walk of life].
Fast forward, and Martin takes his two-week vacation. The holiday over, and though not hugely looking forward to the re-entry, he heads back to the nursing home. In the door and lo and behold, a resident – male – sitting inside the door, says, “where have you been for the last two weeks?” Martin love to recount this story! Not because he had discovered that one person, at least, knew when he was coming and going. But, for Martin, it was also a two-fold lesson i.e. first, don’t take oneself too seriously and second, that it behoves all experienced advocates to encourage those new to the world of advocacy. Later, he was quite chuffed to discover that the gentleman who greeted him on his arrival back from holidays was also named Martin (Donoghue)..
Speaking with Rachel Moran, Director of Nursing, Oranmore NH, she tells me that residents and staff were saddened on hearing that Martin had died. Residents of Bushfield Residential Care had come to know and appreciate his “quiet, loyal presence” among them. Further, there is a sad irony in the fact that it was from his namesake, Martin (D) that Rachel and staff first heard of Martin’s death. Apparently, Martin (D) had heard it on the radio. Chatting with Rachel, he recalled Martin as a “decent, quiet man, a family man, a gentleman, who kept us all going with the chat,” adding, “we all miss him.“
If Martin’s death is difficult for his colleagues in advocacy, how much greater must it be for his beloved wife, Beatrice, his daughters, Nicola, Grainne and Clodagh and his son Kieran; his brothers, Eddie and Brendan, his sisters, Mary and Margaret, son-in-law Brian, daughter-in-law, Donna and his much loved grand -children, James, Christian, Clara and Adam-Martin. We can only hold them in our prayer as they try to come to terms with the emptiness left by his sudden death. Who but Martin’s family can understand the painful hollowness and emptiness of losing the person they loved? Or the long monotonous drag of days empty of the voice and face they long for? Yet, in this life changing moment, this huge experience, painful as it is, life will, hopefully, flow forward.
One member of our Galway Advocacy Team, a man who had only come to know Martin since September, had this to say about him on Monday night last: “I did not know Martin very well. But from what I could see, he seemed a loyal man, a man of honour.” Martin was indeed a man of principle, a quiet man of great faith. He lived by a higher moral code than many do. In his life, there did not appear to be room for viciousness or anything that was mean spirited. Instead, -by his example, he leaves us a legacy of a faith that is marked by love, care and commitment for both family and community. And among the Galway Sage community and his friends in the Oranmore Nursing Home this legacy will long be remembered with affection and gratitude. May Martin’s life be not only our inspiration and comfort, but also our legacy when we, too, leave this earth.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.
Dr Meta M Reid – Galway