Carmel Quinn obituary: Irish singer and storyteller who regaled New York audiences

The Dubliner’s sold-out Carnegie Hall performances featured tales and tunes from Ireland

Carmel Quinn
Born: July 31st, 1925
Died: March 6th, 2021

Carmel Quinn, a blue-eyed, flame-haired Irish singer and storyteller who packed Carnegie Hall, in New York City, on St Patrick's Day for a quarter-century and regaled her audiences with tunes and tales from Ireland, died on March 6th at her home in Leonia, New Jersey. She was 95.

The cause was pneumonia, her family said. Quinn, who was born and raised in Dublin, came to the United States in 1954 and won an audition on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts the next year. Those auditions were famous for their rigour: others who passed them included Pat Boone, Tony Bennett and Connie Francis; those who flunked included Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Quinn became a regular on another Godfrey television show, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, for six years while rotating through other popular variety shows of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show and many more. Much later, she showed up on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.


Holding pride of place for Quinn were her concerts at Carnegie Hall, which began when she was approached by a group looking to raise money for a hospital in Ireland

With the gift of the gab and a voice that some compared to Judy Garland's, she performed at the White House, first for John F Kennedy and then for Lyndon B Johnson. The standard Irish songs in her repertoire included The Whistling Gypsy, Galway Bay and Isle of Innisfree. In later years she filled out her act with a patter of anecdotes about life in general and amusing relatives in particular. One was her aunt Julia.

As Quinn told the story, Aunt Julia always wore her hat in the house so that if someone came to the door whom she didn’t want to see, she could say, “I was just on me way out.” Quinn disapproved of bachelors. “Make you sick, they would,” she would say, “out there sowing their wild oats and praying for a crop failure.” And her way of bringing people back down to earth if they got too big for their britches was to call out loudly: “Sorry to hear about the fire in your bathroom. Thank God it didn’t reach the house!”

But holding pride of place for Quinn were her concerts at Carnegie Hall. They began in 1955, when she was approached by a group that wanted to raise money for a hospital in Ireland. Godfrey built an audience for her that first year, instructing his radio listeners, “Now, you get out there and go to Carmel’s concert.” But after that, she was draw enough on her own. She gave benefit performances each St Patrick’s Day for more than two decades, and they all sold out.

“The night of the concert, you couldn’t get in the place,” she told the New York Times in 1975 on the eve of the 20th anniversary of her first St Patrick’s Day show. Hers was initially a solo act, but she later included groups such as The Clancy Brothers and The Chieftains, their spirited performances turning Manhattan’s prestige concert stage into an old-fashioned Irish music hall.

Writing after her St Patrick's Day show in 1969, Robert Sherman of the New York Times called her "a breezy hostess and a totally engaging singer". Her music, he said, would "warm the cockles of any son, daughter or passing acquaintance of the auld sod".

Quinn was born on July 31st, 1925, and grew up in Phibsborough, on the northside of Dublin. Her father, Michael, was a violinist and a bookie. Her mother, Elizabeth (McPartlin) Quinn, a home-maker, died when Carmel, the youngest of four siblings, was seven.

Quinn continued to perform until she was 88. One of her final performances was in November 2013, after the death of Seamus Heaney

Carmel sang with local bands and studied for a while at a teachers college, but she dropped out when she started winning singing engagements. Then she left for the United States. She married Bill Fuller, a colourful Irish music impresario, in 1955. As more Irish were coming to the US, Fuller opened ballrooms in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and she sang in many of those venues. The couple initially lived in the Bronx, but they would take Sunday strolls over the George Washington Bridge and soon found a small brick house in Leonia, just across the Hudson River. They separated in the early 1970s, and she lived in the same house for the rest of her life.

Quinn is survived by two daughters, Jane and Terry Fuller, and a son, Sean Fuller; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son Michael died of a heart problem in 1988.

Her love of being on stage took her to cabarets, clubs and off-Broadway. She starred in several musicals, on the road and in summer stock, including The Sound of Music, Finian's Rainbow and The Boy Friend. She also presented revues of her own work at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan: Wait 'Til I Tell You in 1997 and That and a Cup of Tea in 2001, in which, Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times said, she demonstrated "a Jack Benny-like gift for comic timing".

Quinn continued to perform until she was 88. But it wasn't all laughter and song. One of her final performances was in November 2013, after the death of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Quinn took the stage at the Irish Repertory and recited his poems Aye and Old Smoothing Iron, evoking the working women she knew so well. She received standing ovations. – New York Times