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Michael “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 88 years before, the sound of singing, of traditional song. That which welcomed him then, came to welcome him again. The evening before he died in Daisy Hill hospital on the 30 May 2015, 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 10 children born to John Ned and Alice Quinn from the townland of Carricknagavna, he began work as a farm hire for several years, in the tradition of the times, and later worked for Newry Number Two Rural District Council and later again at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in rent collection. In 1966, he moved to Conway Park, Mullaghbawn with his wife Tessie (Ni Murchan).

His inheritance of traditional song and storytelling came directly from his father and he took this up with enthusiasm from an early age and built upon it as the years went on and as his fame as a traditional singer and story teller spread throughout Ireland. He knew all the traditional singers and they knew and respected him, not merely for his vast repertoire of song and story or his strong expressive voice, but for his sheer sense of presence. There was something extra in his personality that surrounded his art and gave it a special pedestal. He seemed to have also somehow inherited the folk ways and wisdoms of the past generations in his native district that went back into ancient times. It seemed that from where he was born, right in the core of the Ring of Gullion, the great legends and presences of the mountain inhabited him, found a place of fresh expression in his person.

Song people from such branches as Inishowen and Wexford - which he annually frequented - often commented that his personality and sense of presence naturally raised the overall occasion; that the great chieftain had arrived and singer and song alike were enhanced.

This sense of presence - warmth, strength, sheer enthusiasm for the art of traditional song and story - was 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 and pint of stout 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 local Mullaghbawn GAA 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 local 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 or club before he began his yarns, could create a sense of expectation that none could match. He often discussed how the art of song and storytelling were closely related to each other and were part of the same Irish tradition, and how there were great pockets of this tradition in specific parts of Ireland such as in the Keady area and his own specific South Armagh district.

He agreed that the very notion of art is only understood from the position that normal verbal communication cannot cope with the human intensity of confronting the mysteries of existence, and so people naturally sought to express this in chant, dance, song, poetry, music, painting and so on. In this way, the song and the story became one of the great inheritances of Irish rural life, the living out of depths that day to day communication could not express.

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 Mullaghbawn chapel 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, Zoe Conway and Gerry Cullen from The Voice Squad.

As the 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. All went quiet for the final prayers 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 of Donegal arose singing the poignant verses of Craigie Hill, Mick’s favourite song.

And so his status moved from one living presence to another and he entered the memory of the people, of the local landscape with those other cultural heroes from the district - 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 Mc Verry, his grandchildren, great granddaughter, brothers Sean, Eamon and Brian, and sisters Nancy and Bridget.

Peter Makem