Michael J. Quinlan

Remembering “The Master” Michael J. Quinlan

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.

Michael J. Quinlan

Michael Quinlan

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.

The Shanachie

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. 

Michael explaining architecture

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.

Michael the teacher

The consummate teacher

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.

Not Michael.

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.”

Michael explaining stone circles

Michael explaining stone circles

Too Late

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. 

Sword fight

Sword (cane) fight

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.

Touring Washington, D.C. – Never a Dull Moment!

Besides being a teacher, an avid traveler, an aspiring writer and photographer, I am a tourist guide in Washington, D.C.  While we are winding down our busiest time of year, there are still a bazillion school groups coming to the Nation’s Capital.  It seems that every 8th grade in the entire country comes to Washington in the spring (and many 5th, 6th and 7th grades as well!). 

This week, I have had a group of adults from Finland and 5 different school groups; 4 from various places in Michigan and one from Texas.  While they generally all want to see the same things, there is variation based on time, weather and schedule.  But there is never a dull moment in Washington.  Something new and strange is always happening. 

Sacred Air Space

On Saturday, my Finnish adults stopped at the Capitol to take photos.  We had just gotten off the bus, when I noticed 20130928_133901that the Capitol police were shrilly blowing their whistles and seemed to be clearing people from the plaza immediately in front of the building itself.  I thought that perhaps one of the Honor Flight groups was coming and they wanted to give them space. 

But suddenly, the Capitol Police officer was running towards us, shouting at people to clear the area and urgently waving them away from the Capitol grounds. I ran back to our bus, which had not yet pulled away and asked our driver  not to leave as I thought we might have to re-board.  Then the police officer is up in front of the bus window telling the driver to “get that bus out of here!” (My guests were beginning to re-board as quickly as possible) So I asked the officer, “Can I please get my group back on the bus?”  His response?  (In a very LOUD voice)”There is a plane headed toward the Capitol.  Do you want this bus here when it arrives? Get it OUT of here!”  I just about shoved the last few people on the bus and our driver, bless his heart, moved it. 

Lunch was next on the agenda, so we proceeded there without further incident.  Many of the guests understood English, but some hardly any so I think that they really didn’t know what was happening. 

I did a little research during lunch and afterwards told them the story. 

Apparently a small private plane flown by a new pilot had violated D.C. airspace and didn’t immediately respond to calls for identification.  They went into emergency mode, scrambled F-16’s, and when the poor pilot, who was just flying to North Carolina to visit his daughter, landed, he was met by CIA and FBI.  Probably not a good day for him.

We were able to visit the Capitol (without incident) after dinner.  And they had a great story to tell when they got home! 


Wait – who was that guy?

 On Tuesday, I had a group of middle school students from Texas.  They had a scheduled tour inside the Capitol.  We unloaded the bus on the west side of the building and walked up to the Visitor Center, stopping along the way so everyone could catch up and I could explain all the sights.  We had reached the southeast corner, the House side of the Capitol, and they had a great view of the Library of Congress.  So I commented, “The green domed building you see behind me is The Library of Congress, and behind you is Senator Charles Rangle!” (D-NY)  As I was facing my group I suddenly noticed that he was walking behind them.  I didn’t actually mean to blurt it out, but he was literally a step away from my students. 

He smiled, waved and a few parents shook his hand. 

20140611_121609We proceeded into the Visitor Center for their tour.  I usually don’t accompany the groups on the tour – but the dome is under major renovation in the rotunda and I wanted to see for myself how it looked.  It was a very busy day – not just because of the tour groups, but there were hearings going on, television cameras and newscasters everywhere; the place was a buzz of activity. 

On the tour, the groups move from the Rotunda into Statuary Hall, through a narrow corridor, passing by the Office of the Speaker of the House.  As we passed through the passageway, who should approach from the House Chambers, but Speaker John Boehner himself (surrounded by the usual cadre of Secret Service).  He passed about three feet away from us!  One of the parent chaperones in the group got a photograph!  I wasn’t that quick. 

1, 2, 3 helicopters!

It is uncommon to see the President (or POTUS – President Of The United States, as he is commonly called in D.C.) out and about in Washington.  When he does ‘move’, it is generally in a large motorcade; streets are closed, traffic is snarled and everything generally comes to a halt.  But while stopped at a traffic light on Friday evening with a group of students from Michigan, we suddenly spotted the tell-tale triple helicopters flying low over the Mall.  Sure enough, Marine One was transporting the President from Andrews Air Force Base where he had just arrived back from France and the D-Day/Normandy Commemorations, to the White House.  The students were able to see the helicopter disappear below the trees as it landed on the south lawn.    imgres 

Thundering Hordes

One of the very special things to do while in Washington DC is to tour the monuments at night.  On warm evenings, it is a spectacularly beautiful city – the monuments and buildings are all illuminated; the fountains and pools are bathed in soft light.  Unfortunately, the hot, humid weather of the DC summer often gives way to an evening thunderstorm, some of which can be quite severe.  Last week, while on one of those idyllic evening tours with my group of students from Texas, I noticed the evening sky was darkening ominously in the distance.  Like a hen ushering chicks, I urged my young charges to move a little faster.  We rapidly crossed the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial and raced up the stairs just as the first gigantic drops of rain began to fall.  Safely beneath the sheltering marble pillars I explained the memorial and allowed the students some free time to explore while I figured out our next move in the rain and storm.  imgres Suddenly there was a flash of lightening followed immediately by a huge clap of thunder seemingly right above our heads!  But the subsequent piercing screams of pre-adolescent girls were far worse than any amount of thunder.  They echoed in the cavernous space of the memorial and made my ears ring! 

The downpour began in earnest and most of the noise created by the hundreds of people crowded into the Memorial was drowned out.  Some of the students wanted to make a “run for it” to the bus but fortunately sane adults prevailed.  The gift shop made a small fortune in the space of 20 minutes selling rain ponchos and anyone moving about was ducking and weaving to avoid being hit in the eye by an umbrella! 

After about 20 minutes, the thunder and lightning had moved away and the rain had abated slightly.  The 70 or so marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial are slick as ice when they are wet, so I guided my charges to the handrail with strict orders to “hold-on and don’t run” as they descended.  Across the plaza, through the trees and out to the waiting bus, all the while leaping and avoiding puddles and lochs of water (at least I was!), you could hear the exuberance of the kids after surviving their great adventure! 

Guests visiting Washington often ask me if I get tired of explaining or describing the same things over and over again.  Never!  Because it is never the same, there is always something new and different to see or tell about.  While the basic scenery may stay the same, the people, the activity and the ambiance are ever-changing.  There is never a dull moment!