Our Cousin Quinn

This is a story that has been passed down, and around, my family for donkey’s years. As far as I know, it is the first time it has been written down and shared outside the family and I am curious to know if any of your readers have a similar story in their own family.

The last time I gave our cousin Quinn a thought was as passing mention in a paper for school. The subject was ‘The Good People’ (as we called them at the time) and their influence in County Galway, where my family had lived for many generations.

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My family moved from Ireland to Ottawa, Canada, 20 odd years ago but I was reminded of the story this past fall by my sister, who just returned from a visit to Ireland herself.

The story was always told by my Father, and not often, perhaps once a year at Christmas or Halloween. Now, my father was a pragmatic man, an Engineer in fact, not prone to sentimentality or melancholy, but when he told this story a change came over him. He spoke with a great reverence, as though every word were of enormous importance. (I also had a sense, even as a child, that he knew more than he told us and I wish now that I had pressed him to tell me more.)

Father always began by telling us that it was told him by his own Grandfather (on his Mother’s side) and that his Grandfather swore on the honour of his own Mother that every word of it was true.

Well here it is anyway, make of it what you will.

The story goes that in the year 1845, when the potato blight, or the Famine as it is commonly known, first struck, the Kelly’s (my Great Grandfather’s maternal ancestors), lived very near their cousins the Quinn’s. Both families were tenant farmers to the same landlord and by all accounts, they enjoyed a friendly association.

One thing of which Father was always adamant: the Kelly’s had no cause to speak ill, or muddy the name, of the Quinn’s. Then or now.

The two families, and their other neighbours, weathered the failed harvest of 1845 but disaster struck in 1846 when they were evicted from their cottages and forced to live on the road. The Kelly’s and the Quinn’s bid goodbye and travelled separately, scavenging for food as they went.

Months later, the Kelly’s and the Quinn’s crossed paths at a temporary ‘soup-kitchen’ provided by a wealthy landlord. (His generosity it is said, was dependent on the people promising to leave his lands once they had been fed.)

The Kelly’s were grieved to learn that Quinn’s wife, who was pregnant at the time of their eviction, had succumbed to hunger and died, leaving her husband to care for their 5 children. Worse still, was the state of Quinn himself. The story goes that he was half-mad with delirium.

Statue of Man in Dublin Famine Memorial.

We all know it is not uncommon for law-abiding, God-fearing people to make ‘uncharacteristic’ decisions at desperate times but as 1847 approached, and with the country on verge of catastrophe, Quinn came to Kelly with a crazy, and ungodly, offer.

(At this point in the story, and I remember this well, Father would pause, gaze down at the floor and say “we must not judge him harshly. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If it were not for Quinn, we would none of us be here today”.)

Quinn, he told Kelly, had been visited by the Wee Folk. The Good People. The Faerie.

fairy-tale-1376064 (2)He said the Faerie had come to him that very morning as he kneeled beside the river, his children asleep on nearby grass. There were 2 of them and Quinn described them to Kelly as naked, with red skin and very long legs. The Faerie spoke to him in Irish and with great pity in their eyes asked after his suffering.

As Quinn explained his troubles, the Faerie edged closer and closer until they were crouching close beside him. Quinn told Kelly he felt no fear and did not shy when they each placed a red hand upon the skin and bone of his back. Indeed, he said he felt a great warmth pulse through his body and closed his eyes as he listened to the Faerie hum in harmony with each other.

On opening his eyes, Quinn saw the Faerie were now sat in front of him and his children, who were wide awake and curious. “You may come with us” they said to Quinn, “You will work and eat and dance and be safe from pain and suffering”.

Quinn and Kelly knew of the Good People and their ways and their dangers. Every descendant of Kelly to have told the story has said that under normal circumstances Quinn would never have risked his children’s lives to the Faerie but we must remember, those were far from normal circumstances.

Quinn excitedly told Kelly that the Faerie extended their invitation to his ‘kind and worthy’ kin and invited Kelly and his family to join him. But no amount of impassioned pleading could convince Kelly to leave off his chances on the road, and in the hands of his God, to join the land of the Faeries and so it was, Quinn and Kelly parted ways. This time forever.

But, that was not the end of the story. Before he walked his starving children back to the river, Quinn whispered something into Kelly’s ear.

That whisper not only saved the lives of the Kelly family, but secured the prosperity of their descendants.

It is said, and long believed, that Quinn told Kelly if he would not go with the Faerie, they would offer him a gift to save his family from starvation. Kelly was told to go, under cover of darkness, to the old Oak tree standing at the curve of the river and there, dig to a shallow hole where there was buried a small wooden box filled to brim with coins.

Kelly did this, and following Quinn’s advice, took his family across the waters to England. There Kelly bid his time until the year 1855 when they returned to County Galway and bought a cottage and parcel of land.

The Kelly’s, and their descendants, farmed this land until the 1970’s but it has since been sold off and the Kelly’s scattered across Ireland, Canada, America and Australia too. But, I’m happy to say there are still some of the old family there, in Galway. They welcomed my sister recently and reminded her of the tale of ‘mad’ Quinn who they still say is ‘off with the Faeries’.

Mad or not, isn’t Quinn still remembered some 170 years later? As for descendants of the Kelly’s, we are going strong and I think all of us (privately or openly) are grateful to Quinn, and the Faerie of Ireland.

From John – Ottawa, Canada.

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