Wife, mother, lover of intelligent conversation. Born on Feb. 5, 1925, in Doonbeg, Ireland; died on Sept. 11, 2013, in Belleville, Ont., of heart failure, aged 88.
Mairead was born in Doonbeg in County Clare in the west of Ireland, where the North Atlantic pounds the coast and the Irish language survived into the 20th century. She was the eldest of Michael and Mary Blake’s four children. Her parents were teachers at the local school: Michael was the headmaster and taught the upper classes, and Mary taught the younger children.
On Sundays, the family spoke Irish at home and Mairead’s knowledge of it would prove useful. She wrote her secondary-school final exams in Irish for bonus marks, bumping her results in several subjects to more than 100 per cent. And much later, when her sister Cecilia visited her in Canada, the two sometimes switched from their native English to Irish – a sure sign to Mairead’s children that something fascinatingly adult was being discussed.
After school, Mairead moved to Dublin to work in the civil service. In 1951, she married Dermot McCourt, a young chartered accountant – the start of a 62-year love story – and they began their family.
In 1960, with four children under the age of eight (Anne, Catherine, Mary and Conor), they packed a couple of trunks of household goods and moved to Canada. Though they had neither family nor friends in Toronto, there were good job opportunities for a chartered accountant. Leaving her close-knit family was difficult for Mairead, but by the time their two youngest children (Susan and Neil) were born, she had become a committed and engaged Canadian citizen.
Mairead was a loving mother, an excellent homemaker and a gifted cook. She had an impeccable sense of style, sewed many of her own clothes, and was always beautifully turned out not matter what the occasion, whether attending a dinner party or riding a bike to the grocery store.
She set high standards for herself and her children. It could be chagrining to proudly produce a math test on which you had scored 96 per cent only to be asked, “What happened to the other four marks?” She read voraciously, everything from mysteries to theology; was an informed and opinionated observer of politics; kept a wide-open mind; and loved a good discussion.
Sunday dinner was a special meal in the McCourt home. Mairead regularly produced a perfectly cooked four-course meal for Dermot, the children still at home or visiting, and any significant others who were lucky enough to find a seat at the table, and presided over a lively exchange of ideas. After the main course, she would instruct everyone to “Carry on the intelligent conversation” while she cleared the plates and brought in dessert.
In 1980, with her children grown, Mairead embarked on a new career as a volunteer at North York General Hospital. Her kind heart, generous spirit and organizational abilities were recognized when she was named North York’s Volunteer of the Year in 1988 in a ceremony presided over by then-mayor Mel Lastman.
The years following Dermot’s retirement also allowed Mairead and Dermot to travel far and wide. They explored nearly every corner of their adopted country and loved it all, but Mairead had a special place in her heart for the people and places of the Atlantic provinces.
Mairead is sadly missed by Dermot, her six children and their partners, 10 grandchildren, two great-granddaughters, brothers, nieces and nephews. But any time there is an argument about politics, an opinionated review of a book, a funny story, or anything at all that passes for intelligent conversation, Mairead is with us.
Anne McCourt is Mairead’s eldest daughter.