Death approaches. Be dignified.
It was August, but an unseasonably chilly wind nipped at the ankles. Dark, threatening clouds darted across the sky and before it was all over, cold raindrops splashed down on the crowd gathered around the grave.
I first met Michael J. Quinlan at Shannon Airport in Co. Clare, Ireland.
My group and I arrived from the States, bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, but happy to be in Ireland. It was my first group tour and I was anxious for everything to run smoothly. Much of that depended on the tour bus driver. And that driver was Michael J. Quinlan.
I spotted him immediately as we exited the baggage claim area. He held a placard with my name on it. “You must be Deirdre,” his blue eyes twinkled as I approached. “And you must be Michael,” I replied, immediately charmed.
I had no idea that at that moment I had met one of the most interesting, educated, fascinating and yes, charming individuals I would ever have the pleasure to know.
Over the next five years, Michael carted my groups all over Ireland. He was so much more than a driver and guide. He shared stories of his teaching career that spanned more than 30 years. He always referred to himself as a teacher – never once did he mention that he was actually principal of the local school. I only found that out much later.
He was a masterful shanachie – a storyteller. Whether a ‘story’ (joke), folklore or a legend – Michael could spin a yarn that kept his audience rapt. He had farmed land and milked cows. He showed us the village in Co. Cork where his grandparents had lived. He shared tales of his volunteer experiences teaching the people of Belize how to grow potatoes.
Michael loved to sing. And loved getting others to sing as well. As we traversed the winding backroads of Ireland, he would find any opportunity to break into song. “Come on now, Deirdre,” he’d say. “Let’s have a song!” My feeble protests were no match for Michael’s enthusiasm. Even I, who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, sang my heart out! I am pretty sure that he might even have gone out of his way as we were driving through Co. Kerry, to detour through the town of Castlemaine – just so he could share this familiar song with his guests:
There was a wild colonial boy
Jack Duggan was his name.
He was born and raised in Ireland
In a place called Castlemaine
Michael once asked me if I spoke Irish. “Sadly, no,” I replied. My mother, who completed her entire education in Irish, told me my pronunciation was awful so I never pursued it. Michael encouraged me. He gave me book titles, tips on how to learn the grammar and assured me that I was quite capable of learning to speak it. He pushed me to try and then patiently corrected my horrid pronunciation.
A Renaissance Man
As my groups traversed Ireland with Michael at the wheel, we learned snippets of his life. He was always more interested in talking to and about his visitors, but occasionally he would share some of his own stories as well. We learned that he had a lovely wife, Anne and six grown children scattered all over the world. After he “retired” from the primary school in Bruff, he earned a degree in Archeology and loved working on site excavations throughout Ireland. Like all Irish, he passionately followed hurling and was thrilled to watch his grandson play.
No site in Ireland was too remote for Michael to find or visit. No matter where my guests asked to go, he would always figure out a way to get us there. On time. And be waiting for us upon our return.
We often wondered what he did during all the “down” time of driving us around. Some drivers get coffee or chat with other drivers. Maybe polish the fenders.
He read. Avidly. He always had three or four books with him on a trip and he would spend his free time devouring them.
He also wrote. Every single day. For years, he had kept a journal. Once I asked him what he wrote about. Thinking – presumptuously – it was probably accounts of his travels with tourists, he said, “Today is my daughter’s birthday. So I’m writing about her.” Poetry, songs, anecdotes, stories, memories, Michael kept journals for more than twenty-five years. He joked that they would probably make a great bonfire – but I highly doubt that anyone will be burning them.
This year, when I rang to make my coach/driver arrangements for my tour group, the young woman quietly told me that Michael was not available to drive. My concerned queries were, as is so typical of the Irish, answered very vaguely. “Oh, he isn’t well.” “No, we’re not sure when he’ll be driving again.” “Yes, actually it is a bit serious.”
I had planned to ring him when my guests left Ireland.
I was one day too late.
Sadly, Michael J. Quinlan slipped into a coma and died on August 4, 2018.
I could not leave Ireland without going to the funeral. Despite going alone and knowing no one there, I felt compelled. Michael brought such joy and laughter to my groups of visitors; I had to represent them.
St. Patrick’s Church in Loch Gur is a tiny, wooden, country church and yard that stands next to the Honey Fitz Theatre at a crossroads in Co. Limerick. The entire parish turned out to help it seemed, with men in neon yellow safety vests, directing traffic into adjoining fields that local farmers had opened to allow parking. Ladies stood in groups, chatting quietly. Guests waited patiently in the queue to sign the guestbook before filing into the church. Surprisingly, there were lots of young people. Former students, I guessed.
As is the tradition, the casket was already at the front of the church, having been brought there from the home the evening before to remain in the church overnight. I was early, but nearly every seat was already filled. I paused in the back for a few minutes, then walked up the aisle to pay my respects to the family.
On top of the casket was a photograph of Michael, all decked out in cycling gear and grinning out from under his bike helmet. It was perfect.
I introduced myself to Anne. At first, she looked puzzled, as of course, she did not know me. But when I explained that Michael had been our driver for so many trips, her face broke into a great smile, she hugged me and said excitedly to her children, “Dad was their driver for their tours!” By then I couldn’t hold back tears anymore, but I was so glad I’d come.
As the time approached for the Mass to begin, the church was bursting at the seams. The ushers found me a seat much nearer to the front than I wanted, but in the end, I was happy to be able to see and hear Michael’s children and grandchildren speak and sing as we celebrated his life. The songs and prayers were in both English and Irish.
I learned so much more about this amazing man that day. The choir, which he founded and led at St. Patrick’s aptly dubbed him “The Master.” I discovered that he had been guiding tourists for more than 30 years. I realized that he was the driving force behind having his beloved Lough Gur established and developed as a World Class Heritage Center. He had personally trained all the guides.
His friend, Fr. Liam Holmes, said that Michael’s accomplishments were so great that he fitted two lifetimes into his 80 years. He spoke of Michael’s writing and the pages of words he would produce every day. However, on the day that Michael learned about the aggressive cancer that was attacking his body, he wrote only four words:
Death approaches. Be dignified.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the men took their turns under the casket, shouldering Michael’s mortal remains on the final journey to the tiny churchyard outside. As the large extended family surrounded the grave, scores of mourners braved the unseasonable wind and stood back a bit, making room. Everyone joined in praying the Rosary and the graveside prayers. Songs followed. The family members tossed the traditional handfuls of sod into the grave. The raindrops fell. It was, as they say, a fitting send-off.
Oh! I long to see that churchyard
By Lough Gur’s romantic shore,
Where the shamrock and the ivy ever grow;
Where the wild dove and the raven like protecting spirits soar
O’er the green graves of silent Teampall Nua.