OBITUARY: Remembering Kevin Quinlan, Donegal town - ‘a force of nature' who will be hugely missed by so many

Kevin Quinlan, Donegal town, October 1, 1932 - March 26, 2020

Kevin Quinlan

Kevin Quinlan - small in stature, in every other way, he was a colossus

Some people live very full, fascinating lives right under our noses, but very often it is only when they leave us that we begin to fully appreciate the rich, wonderful life they have led and the positive impact they have had on so many. 

Very often we opt for shorthand and use the words “a character” to define a person we know to be special, but we’re not exactly sure why they are just that.

Kevin Quinlan, 87, who passed away on Thursday last, March 26, in his family home at Doonan, Donegal town, surrounded by those who loved him most, was indeed “a character.”

Small in stature, in every other way, he was a colossus.

He was a force of nature, a spinning top of ideas, a driver of people and projects, a muse, a messer, a worker. He was the original ‘Mr Motivator.’

His mind was a busy street; he was ‘Bord Fáilte’ before the concept was invented. He loved people, to listen to them, to talk to them. He was multi-lingually gifted. He was great company. Quietly generous to many who needed a hand up, a start, he mentored many who went on to enjoy great success in life and business. He wasn’t afraid to put his hand in his pocket to help people.

Kevin understood loyalty, he was committed in every way to those he loved. He adored his family and family-life was the cornerstone of what made him happy, fulfilled.

He loved to laugh with people, not at them. Crucially, he had an endearing quality so many lack - an ability to laugh at himself.

A master of self-deprecation, it underlined how comfortable he was in his own skin. He never felt the need to sugar-coat his beliefs/opinions; what you saw was what you got, but he had a charm, an ability to agree to disagree and retain friendships with polar opposites.

Letter writer

His letters to newspapers over the years on disparate topics, but more often than not sport, were the stuff of legend. He wasn’t shy to hold or to offer an opinion whether in his shop on The Diamond or on the letters pages of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent. Google his name and some of those letters will confirm his subtle penmanship, his sharp, observant mind and his clarity of thought. He knew what he was about.

As you talk to each person who knew him, there is a memory or a kind gesture to be shared about how he touched their lives. 

His daughter Orla alluded to her father’s talent for conversation and meeting people: “He appreciated everyone he encountered and his gift was to make every single person feel as if they were the most special person in the world.” 

He loved languages. He could speak German superbly, had good French, had some Italian, and a smattering of Russian and Polish for good measure.

He welcomed people from all over the world into his home. Hans Peter, the first to respond to an international advertisement, came to buy a little cottage in Donegal and secured a friend for life.

Kevin loved music of all genres, listened to and sang with Pavarotti until his end. Stories abound of songs and tunes enjoyed in the old McCafferty’s Bar, in the Reel Inn. Many will remember, some, but perhaps not all, with fondness, his penchant for playing Irish music on speakers outside his shop. That tradition is still continued elsewhere on The Diamond, to mixed reviews, but he liked it. In a tourist town he felt it created an atmosphere.

To many Kevin will be remembered as the local auctioneer and businessman whose shop was a treasure trove of quaint looking pipes, hats, flags, sweets and newspapers. His window was a poster stop for good causes and his own passions.

He was an early promoter of carrying kidney donor cards, an active Amnesty International letter writer for prisoners of conscience and a supporter of many charities, including Concern Worldwide.

The shop was as much a hub for social connection as for business. He was never slow to take up the offer of a cup of tea with his old friend Conor Sinclair (RIP), whose friendship consisted of healthy competition in wit and humour that not many, beyond the two themselves, understood.

With Joe O’Rourke (RIP), another close friend, he shared many interests particularly that of quietly helping others whenever possible. Others will trace him back further, to forestry work in the Cashelard area while he lived in digs provided by Nora Grimes in Ballyshannon, a town that remembers him fondly too. Many of those who left comments on refer to those happy days with the Grimes family.

But, to understand what drove Kevin Quinlan, a self-made man, a successful businessman, a wonderful husband, father and grandfather, you need to go back to Tipperary and his formative years there.

Early Years

His son-in-law, Professor Robert Van Niekerk, writing from South Africa, put it eloquently: “A man of gentleness and humility who had no interest whatsoever in material comforts for himself but deeply understood the meaning of their absence and was thus driven to provide the best he could for the family of his wife Betty, and children Orla, Rory, Ciara, Diarmuid and Sive that he so adored and loved beyond any expression that words could ever adequately capture.

“Born into and growing up on a farm in Bawnard, near Clonmel in Tipperary, during the hardship of 1930s Ireland, he learnt from his parents the importance of ‘self-reliance’ and of doing much with very little.

“At age 10 in the deepening hardship of the war years of 1942 his parents bought a pub and shop in Lismolin, which was about 23 miles away from the farm and which would be commuted to with a pony and trap or a bicycle.

“When walking around the comfortable, large and incredibly welcoming home that he made for his family with Betty in Donegal, it is these roots of material sparseness that must be remembered as forming the early foundation of Kevin’s life, by way of contrast. It is also here that the existential dilemma that motivated Kevin was perhaps felt most acutely for him when stacking the shelves in the shop.

“While working so selflessly and tirelessly in the forestry and the shop, many years later, to provide the best possible home for his family his mind was filled with the world of ideas, writing, history, travel and people in distant lands – an insistent curiosity about his world and what motivated human beings.

“Kevin had the temperament of a scholar and a passion for learning and had he afforded himself the luxury of pursuing this interest into the university education which he so dearly desired; perhaps a different life would have unfolded for him. Instead he chose a path of loving commitment to his family and for which there was no shred of regret, indeed his family was the fullest expression of his happiness in life.

"The pictures of all the children in the family lounge holding their university degrees at their graduation is still for myself the most striking image in the room – it is through the incredible educational success and achievement of his children that Kevin found the further and formal educational affirmation he denied himself.

“The man of immense personal warmth and self-deprecating humour who we knew and loved so much as Kevin Quinlan was a man who made some of the really big choices in life in the interest of those he loved and not himself.”


Kevin went to Clonmel High School, his second level education was with the Christian Brothers in Callan and, in 1951, he went to Avondale in County Wicklow, where he studied forestry for three years. In Avondale, he met some of his closest friends and went travelling with them on the continent, at a time when few were so adventurous. His closest friend Tom Lynch RIP went on to be a priest in India and would send back letters and articles which Kevin shared with his family igniting their imaginations and inspiring them to learn about and to travel to other places. 

Kevin loved sport, in particular rugby and played with town teams all over Ireland as his work brought him nationwide, his most notable success came in his time in Roscommon, but he also played at a high level with Tullamore RFC.

In 1960 Kevin moved to Ballyshannon to continue his forestry work, staying with the Grimes family, who his daughter Ciara says were like a second family to him.

In 1962 he married Betty McMullin and they moved to Cluain Barron in Ballyshannon. Courtesy of convincing Mr Simpson, a local bank manager at the time, that he was worth backing, they bought the former Collins Shop on The Diamond, living above it for six years, as their family grew. The new business owners inherited the kind and popular Renee McGonigle RIP, as a shop assistant; who became a hugely important person in the Quinlan family life. 

The Quinlans moved to Doonan in 1976. Quinlan's shop continued for 50 years, closing in 2012. During this time Kevin also operated as an auctioneer/estate agency having graduated first in his class from the MIAVI. He was also a Commissioner for Oaths.  In 2010 he retired from auctioneering.

Town Twinning

Another friend, Paddy Meehan, a former Mayor of Donegal town, recalls Kevin’s willingness to support his community: “Kevin was always keen to support Donegal town, he was involved directly in many groups and organisations, he was in the drama club, he was a huge support to me in the Chamber of Commerce and he was someone you could rely on. If he said he was going to do something, it would be done.”

Patricia Callaghan (another former Mayor) has fond memories of Kevin’s support and love for the town twinning project in Séné, northern France. 

Patricia reflected on a memorable trip with Paddy Meehan, Kevin and her husband Vincent to Séné: “Kevin said he would drive from Donegal town, so we headed off in his Opel Astra. Kevin driving was quite an experience, but the trip will live forever in the memory.

“Eventually Paddy, whose nerves and (Kevin’s driving) were getting the better of him, took over the steering wheel, perhaps just as well. We just laughed from start to finish and eventually arrived in Séné. I think we were a little late, but Kevin was president of our committee and he was treated like a royal visitor. He loved it and he was brilliant with the French people when they returned here.”

Paul Greene, retired accountant, whose friendship with Kevin emerged from that 1996 trip, remembers Kevin as a unique individual, someone who had no interest in material things. He says he loved quizzes and engaging his brain, thinking and planning: “Kevin was different. I remember when he got his Opel Astra car, one of the first things he did was remove the radio and replace it with the radio he had in his old car, that was the way he was.

"He had no interest in material things; family, community, talking to people, making them feel welcome, those are the qualities that stand out for me. We have lost a very special person.”

Kevin always looked forward to retirement so as he could read more books and write. He kept a diary and a proliferation of little notes with his musings. In one of his last pieces, he wrote about his love for his grandchildren. He was a man who believed in living to your fullest potential and making every day count and was true to his beliefs to the end.

Kevin retained his humour, his kindness, his compassion, his gratitude and his courage to the end and, when asked how he was three days before his death, he replied “I suppose you could say I am making the most of the situation.”

In line with current restrictions, Kevin’s private Requiem Mass was held on Saturday, March 28 in St Patrick’s Church, Donegal town. He was laid to rest in Clar Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

He is survived by wife Betty, children, Orla, Rory, Ciara, Diarmuid and Sive and grandchildren Caolan, Caoimhe, Nia, Sáerlaith, Charlie, Oisín, Sean, Alex, Sophie and Emily, daughters in law Berni and Emma and sons in law Freddie and Robert. He was predeceased by his brother Eddie and sister Philomena (Dolly).

May he rest in peace.

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