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Obituary: Carmel Quinn

America's 'favourite Irish lass' filled Carnegie Hall every year with her songs and story-telling, writes Liam Collins


SONG AND STORY: Carmel Quinn packed New York’s Carnegie Hall every St Patrick’s Day

SONG AND STORY: Carmel Quinn packed New York’s Carnegie Hall every St Patrick’s Day

SONG AND STORY: Carmel Quinn packed New York’s Carnegie Hall every St Patrick’s Day

With glorious red hair, bright blue eyes and a ballad on her lips, it didn't take long for Carmel Quinn to become America's "favourite Irish lass".

Beginning on St Patrick's Day 1955, she filled New York's famed Carnegie Hall to capacity - and continued to do so every year for the next quarter of a century.

"My parents loved her," an Irish-American friend who saw the show told me when he heard that the singer had died of pneumonia at her home in Park Avenue, Leonia, New Jersey, at the age of 95.

She bought the red-brick, green-roofed house with the proceeds of that first New York concert and lived there for the rest of her life, raising four children by her husband, the Kerry-born entertainment magnate Bill Fuller.

Her stage-Irish repertoire, her Maureen O'Hara looks and humorous stories of her childhood made her one of the best known Irish figures in America within a year of arriving with her husband in 1954.

While he was back in Ireland on a business trip she entered Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television show, a US version of Opportunity Knocks, which she won with the song How Can You Buy Killarney?

"I did what I had done at home in Ireland, where people just said, 'Oh well, she's fair enough.' When I finished - I was the last act - the meter went all the way over and there was so much noise you couldn't hear the orchestra," she said years later.

Arthur Godfrey knew he was on to a good thing and booked her for the next three days, broadcasting her simultaneously on radio and television. Her appearances on the show would last for the next eight years with songs that included Galway Bay, The Old Bog Road, Mother Machree, Danny Boy, How Are Things In Glocca Morra? and The Last Rose Of Summer.

Almost 50 years later, in 2001, the New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger conceded that while her voice was weak, "Miss Quinn can still invest an Irish lament with plenty of melancholy."

Her one-woman shows at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Wait 'Til I Tell You and That And The Cup Of Tea (co-written with her son Sean Fuller), were a mixture of singing, stories and humour from 'the old sod'. The same critic added that she had a "Jack Benny-like gift for comic timing." She continued performing until she was 88.

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She was born in North Circular Road, Dublin, the daughter of Michael Quinn, who combined playing classical violin with earning a living as a bookie. Her mother died when she was seven.

After leaving school she intended becoming a teacher, but took a variety of jobs before going to an audition in the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street, Dublin in 1951.

Probably influenced by her father's classical training she sang Brahms' Lullaby, according to a history of the theatre by Tom Myler, and band leader Jimmy Campbell was so impressed he gave her a spot the following week.

But she switched her song to The Lake Isle Of Innisfree, later made famous by John Ford as the soundtrack of his film The Quiet Man, and was an instant hit.

She later performed with the Johnny Devlin Orchestra, but after marrying Fuller, she temporarily gave up singing, moving to London and later New York.

Fuller was an enigmatic and restless figure, always on the look-out for the next big thing, whether it was band, a venue or a lover.

He opened a travel agency in New York and a pub called the Old Sheiling, a venture he would later replicate in Raheny, Dublin, during the so-called 'Ballad Boom' and where Carmel Quinn would return for triumphant appearances.

After they divorced in the mid-1970s, he moved to Las Vegas, bringing Brendan Bowyer and later The Big Eight showband to what was fast become the entertainment and gambling capital of the United States.

He later found himself in the unwelcome glare of the limelight as Svengali to Sandy Murphy, the Vegas good-time girl, standing bail and bankrolling her successful appeal against a conviction for murdering her former lover, the multi-millionaire Ted Binion.

Meanwhile Carmel Quinn was back in New Jersey raising their family, touring and doing musicals like Finian's Rainbow and her own one-woman shows.

She came back to Ireland frequently, making appearances on The Late Late Show as the guest of Gay Byrne.

"I love performing, it's my life," she said. She also performed at the White House for presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson.

For many years Brendan Ward, of Foxford, Co Mayo, who now lives in Florida, was her musical arranger.

Born on July 31, 1925, Carmel Quinn died aged 95 on March 6. She is survived by her daughters Jane and Terry and son Sean. Another son, Michael, died of heart problems in 1988.

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