Otto Schlindwein previews his new Lyric Feature documentary The Bard of Armagh, celebrating the folk arts practitioner Micil Ned Quinn.
It’s many years ago now since I walked into the Ballyliffen Hotel on the weekend of the Inishowen International Folk Song and Ballad Seminar and followed the sound of traditional singing from the hotel lobby into a packed lounge. There was standing room only as a beautiful voice sang out the final phrase of a song to great applause. As the noise and chatter subsided the MC for the night declared ‘There’s only one person who can follow that. I call upon Mick Quinn!’
Clapping and shouts of encouragement gathered pace and I saw a man who was maybe in his 70s, immaculate in suit and tie, stand up, grip the lapels of his jacket and wait for the right moment to speak. ‘Well, it’s been worth the journey from Mullaghbawn just to hear that song. Wonderful.’ We all clapped in appreciation. ‘I’ll now sing the song The Bard of Armagh.’
Watch: Mick Quinn sings The Flower of Sweet Strabane and recites The Newry Nook
But first, he told a story about a misadventure at home on the farm that led to a funny story about his father and then a chance encounter along the road. These few strands weaved and dovetailed into a final big punchline about the song itself and the room erupted in laughter. Everyone looked at one another with beaming smiles, laughing and sharing the moment. Then Mick's voice began to rise, singing the song in question and the room eased into silence, becoming attentive once more. We had just been masterfully manoeuvred through the tension and release of his storytelling, and back into listening mode.
Micil Ned Quinn, as he was also known loved to perform his stories but always came back to songs, and the singing of songs learned over a lifetime as his family had always done. I hoped to catch him at any singing weekend while enjoying the unique atmosphere that these gatherings generate and of which Micil Ned was not only a stalwart supporter but also a touchstone of the many festivals of the folk arts across the island. Seemingly from a forgotten time but right there in front of you, his natural storytelling beautifully performed is about everyday people and places that are familiar and always punctuated with laughs. A live experience that you feel lucky to witness, be it in a small country bar or a festival stage.
Watch: Mick Quinn tells the story of smuggling the sausages
Mick Quinn sadly passed away in 2015 and when I approached the family about a programme around him, they were more than generous with their time and trust. Luckily, there are recordings and archive of Micil that were made available by family and friends that demonstrate his skill and passion for the tradition, including of course his storytelling. I am very thankful to those who by sharing their experiences of him provided guidance in the making of a programme that I hope captures in a fleeting hour something of the master storyteller and singer, much loved practitioner and lifelong supporter of the traditional arts, Micil Ned Quinn of Mullaghbawn in the fair county of Armagh.
The Bard of Armagh is a Raw Nerve production for RTÉ Lyric FM funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the Television License fee. Produced and presented by Otto Schlindwein. Contributors were Kate, Brian and Mícheál Quinn, Patricia Flynn, Jim Flynn, and Grace Toland.
The Bard of Armagh airs on the Lyric Feature, Sunday 19 March at 6pm on RTÉ Lyric FM or listen to the podcast now.
Archive courtesy of the Brian Doyle Collection at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Additional material courtesy of the Quinn family, Bobbie Hanvey, The Blackwater Céilí Band, Kevin McGonigle and Rita Gallagher.
Sound recordists: Gerry Tracey
Studio mix: Rory Donaghy
Series producer: Eoin O Kelly
Production Coordinator: Peter Curtin
Image: Mick Quinn with his father John Ned ( Pic: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives at the John J Burns Library, Boston College)