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Poignant farewell to legendary ‘Keeper of the Tradition’

June 8, 2015

The Comhaltas community throughout Ireland, and most particularly in the local Ring of Gullion, has been left bereft with the recent passing of one of its most valued members and proficient performers.

Michael (Mick) Quinn (88) passed away on Sunday last, after a short period of failing health.  A sprightly octogenarian, he had been the active linchpin of the local south Armagh branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) since he helped establish the group more than 40 years ago.  An all-round and masterful lyrical maestro, Mick was known throughout the country for his traditional singing and storytelling.

The following eulogy, contributed to The Examiner by his close friend Peter Makem, is a telling testament to a man who personified the very best of traditional Irish culture and devoted his long life to its preservation.

Mick Quinn: the great south Armagh Bard

The last sounds he heard in this world were the same as the first sounds that greeted him on entering it eighty eight years before, the sound of singing, of traditional song, that what welcomed him then, came to welcome him again.  The evening before he died in Daisy Hill hospital, the family of Michael ‘Mick’ Quinn, of Conway Park Mullaghbawn – one of south Armagh’s greatest cultural personalities – gathered around his bed and, at his request, sang song after favourite song.

The eldest of ten children born to John Ned and Alice Quinn from the townland of Carricknagavna, Mick began work as a farm hire for several years in the tradition of the times, and later worked for Newry Number Two Rural and the NI Housing Executive in rent collection. In 1966 he moved to Conway Park, Mullaghbawn with his wife Tessie (née Murchan).

The inheritance of traditional song and storytelling came directly from his father and was taken up with enthusiasm. He built upon this as the years went on until he possessed a huge repertoire, even though he kept returning to his early inheritance as the mainstay of his singing. But there was something extra in Mick’s personality that surrounded all this and gave it a special pedestal. He seemed to have also somehow inherited the folk ways and wisdoms of the past generations in the district that went back and back into ancient times. It seemed that from where he was born, right in the core of the Ring of Gullion, that the great legends and presences of the mountain inhabited him, found a place of fresh expression in his person.

His fame as a traditional singer and storyteller spread throughout Ireland. He knew all the singers and they knew and respected him, not merely for his vast repertoire of song or his strong expressive voice, but for his sheer presence.  Song people from such Comhaltas branches as Inishowen and Wexford – which he annually frequented – often commented that his personality naturally raised the overall sense of occasion, that the great chieftain had arrived and singer and song alike enhanced.  The sense of presence, which accompanied him everywhere to such occasions was that of warmth, strength, and utter enthusiasm for the art of traditional song, all adorned by a depth of folk knowledge through which he interpreted the ways of the world.  And as the sessions went on, and the odd glass of whiskey made its way into the system, the songs of war and devilment grew louder and more expressive- and the songs of love grew tenderer.

He became immersed in the cultural life of his district through traditional music and song and through the GAA in the local Mullaghbawn club.  A founder member of the Ring of Gullion Comhaltas in 1975 and later president, he was also a founder member of the ‘Forkhill Singing Weekend’ and of the Stray Leaf Folk Club.

Mick Quinn shared with the late John Campbell of Mullaghbawn, a faculty of humorous storytelling that had no equal in Ireland and, like his great friend, some of these were inherited and enhanced, but many were creations of their own imagination and delivered in a “round the hearth” style.  He could electrify the dourest of gatherings, and even as he stood looking around the hall before he began his yarns, created a sense of expectation that none could match.  The song and music tradition was passed on to his family. So it was only natural that his grandchildren, grand nephews and nieces provided the moving and powerful music for his funeral Mass, in the company of musicians from the Ring of Gullion Comhaltas and by special local friends in the song tradition – Len Graham, Padraigin Ni Uallachain and Gerry Cullen from the ‘Voice Squad’.

As Mick’s remains were carried from the chapel to the sound of “The Bard of Armagh” there was a long round of applause as the procession moved toward the grave.  Silence descended for the final prayers, led by Fr Heagney PP and native priest Fr. Phelim McKeown and after the last amen, as the stream at the bottom of the graveyard sounded, and in the great backdrop of Slieve Gullion, the voice of Rita Gallagher from Donegal arose singing the poignant verses  of ‘Craigie Hill’, his favourite song.

And so, Mick’s status moved from one living presence to another, to enter the memory of the people, of the local landscape with those others such as Michael J Murphy, John Campbell, Eugene Hannaway and the wider brotherhood of the local Gaelic poets, long gone but ever alive, whom the presence of the mountain touched and stirred in their day.

Michael Quinn was predeceased by his wife Tessie, and is survived by his children Pauline (Mulligan), John, Catherine (Rice), Miceal, and Fiona (McVerry), his grandchildren, brothers Sean and Eamonn, sisters Nancy and Brigid and wider family circle.

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