Quinn, Hubert (1902–72), clergyman and writer, was born in Manchester, son of Joseph Quinn, carpenter and master builder from Hillhall, Co. Down, who married a Welsh methodist, Jane Williams. Quinn had one full sister (four years his elder) and a half-brother thirteen years older by his mother's first marriage. Some years after his birth the family moved back to Lisburn at his father's behest; Joseph Quinn was a presbyterian, and the children attended methodist and presbyterian churches on alternate weeks. Joseph Quinn had business difficulties because of failing health and died of heart failure some years after the family's return. Quinn's mother then opened a confectionery shop (strategically sited near the main cinema) which throve for some years but had to close when she developed cancer. After her death when Hubert was about eight, the family was supported by his older half-brother David Williams; although Hubert (and his mother) had already conceived the ambition of his becoming a preacher, he had later to leave Friends' School, Lisburn, and work as a clerk in the statistical section of a local linen mill.
Quinn continued to study and remained active in church affairs; after some time the Methodist Church offered him a scholarship to enable him to study for the ministry at Edgehill College, Belfast. (He continued to revisit his relatives in Lisburn, and appears to have witnessed the sectarian riots which followed the assassination of District Inspector Oswald Swanzy on 15 August 1920; these are described in Quinn's fictionalised account of his childhood, Hold back the shadows (1947), though Quinn makes his fictional alter ego much younger than he was at the time.) Quinn's theological education (and earlier conversations with an agnostic workmate) led him to abandon evangelical orthodoxy for theological liberalism.
Quinn also possessed literary ambitions, and while a student contributed a number of stories about a hymn-singing methodist preacher to the Irish Christian Advocate. These were collected and published as The singing parson (1928). Like most of Quinn's later writing, these were examples of the 'kailyard school' particularly associated with Scotland and promoted by the nonconformist British Weekly founded by William Robertson Nicoll (1851–1923); Quinn also became a contributor to this journal. Kailyard literature celebrated the displacement of orthodox Calvinism by a style of emotional and non-dogmatic religion based on general fellow-feeling, seen as incarnate in the everyday life of an idealised rural and small-town Scotland. It is generally seen as evading both the darker aspects of rural society and the extent of urbanisation and industrialisation; from the beginning of the twentieth century it came under attack from naturalists such as the novelist George Douglas Brown (1869–1902) and from the progenitors of the nascent Scottish renaissance. A provincial offshoot of the genre survived in Ulster into the mid-twentieth century, well after its eclipse in Scotland; Quinn was one of its most prominent figures. The kailyard aesthetic was generally associated with political liberalism, but could also reflect a form of Christian socialism (as with Alexander Irvine (qv), a significant influence on Quinn; Irvine wrote an introduction to Quinn's 1934 collection of linked sketches Dear were the days).
In the mid 1920s, Quinn spent some time as an assistant minister with the Dalkey methodist congregation in Co. Dublin. Deciding that he would be unable to combine the demands of moving every few years (as required of methodist ministers) with his literary aspirations, he decided to join the Presbyterian Church, whose ministers remained with the same congregation once 'called' unless they chose to move. This decision involved considerable financial liability, since he had to repay the money spent on his education by the Methodist Church.
After further study at the presbyterian theological college in Belfast, Quinn was ordained for the congregation of Grange, Co. Antrim (including Toomebridge, where Quinn settled), on 25 June 1930. Much of his fiction is set in this area, ranging from the shores of Lough Neagh to the Glens of Antrim and the Sperrin mountains; a recurring theme is the alleged spiritual superiority of poor, mountain farming folk over those displaced and corrupted by town and city life.
Around the time of his ordination, Quinn married Margaret Campbell. From his autobiography, Diary of a vagrant heart [n.d., c.1950), which concludes with his marriage and installation, and the dedications of several of his books to her, it appears that Margaret was a piano teacher and church organist (music as religious experience is a favourite Quinn theme), a lifelong presbyterian less religiously sceptical than her husband, and that she was his first reader and encouraged his literary endeavours; it appears that he saw her as his muse and that several of his heroines represent idealised versions of her. Margaret outlived Quinn; they had one son, Ellis, (b. 1934).
In the 1930s, Quinn published several collections of sketches (as well as a small book of poems, Rhymes of a rustic (1939)). Although Jenny O'Neill (1930) was published by Hodder and Stoughton, and Dear were the days (1934) by Talbot Press of Dublin, in general he increasingly tended to appear from Belfast publishers such as Quota Press (which published several other kailyard authors). After 1943 (when his novel The soil and the stars was self-published with an introduction by Michael McLaverty (qv) and dedicated to Quinn's friend George Shiels (qv)) all Quinn's work appeared under his own Pentagon Press imprint. Of his early work, Mother Machree (1933; reprinted 1947 in one volume with his historical novel My lady of the glen), which describes the struggles of a new young minister to impose new styles of music and theology against the opposition of conservative elders, is of particular interest as it climaxes in a heresy trial which is clearly based on that of J. Ernest Davey (qv) in 1927.
Wartime and increasing literary experience seem to have increased Quinn's literary ambitions, leading him to produce his most substantial works, The soil and the stars and its sequel The land endures (1944), which depict a Co. Antrim farming family divided between those who are content to devote their lives to the hard task of improving their small farm, and those who are seduced by the attractions of city life and by motors, cinemas, cosmetics and other encroachments of modernity. The utter contempt and hostility which Quinn displays towards the latter are startling in their intensity, and help to explain why advocates of the pastoralist ideology of the southern state in its first decades, such as Aodh de Blacam (qv), cited Quinn and other kailyard writers as evidence that the 'real' Ulster of presbyterian small farmers was more culturally akin to the Ireland conceived by Éamon de Valera (qv) than to the 'alien' urbanism of Belfast or the 'morbid' writers associated with the Abbey Theatre. Hold back the shadows and Diary of a vagrant heart deserve more recognition than they have hitherto received as examples of the Irish genre of childhood memoirs, though the latter is flawed in its later sections by a bombastic and abstract rhetorical style in which Quinn preaches at old acquaintances rather than describing them. The poem collection Ragged heralds of democracy (1943) is of interest as a response to the Belfast blitz and for its hopes that the war's end will bring a more just and egalitarian (indeed, distinctly spartan) society in which the injustices of the pre-war order will be cleared away in a process inspired by Jesus as social revolutionary.
Quinn published a small literary digest, the Fireside Friend (1946–9), which offered readers extracts from Hold back the shadows, poems by himself and others, quotations from famous men, short accounts of distinguished figures such as Michelangelo, and summaries of great works such as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. This attempt to compete in a genre dominated by bigger Belfast and cross-channel publishers involved Quinn in some financial loss, and its failure may have contributed to the sense of discouragement mentioned in the preface to Quinn's last novel, Mine eyes have seen the glory (1953). This describes the experiences of a present-day Jesus whose career somewhat resembles Quinn's own (and is oddly reminiscent of the predictions of George Russell (qv) ('Æ') of an avatar born among the Irish peasantry), and who is rejected by both sides of the sectarian divide and finally summons his disciples and the artists of Ireland to inspire the nation by building a great temple among the uncorrupted mountain folk. The Easter rising is described with a great deal of sympathy; despite its pomposity and self-righteousness, the book is notable as Quinn's only extended treatment of the sectarian and political divisions of Ulster (which he usually ignores or treats evasively). He published no further books, though he may have continued to write for religious journals; his obituarist says that during his career he contributed to the Presbyterian Herald and Canadian church magazines in addition to those already mentioned.
After retiring as minister of Grange on 30 June 1957, Quinn spent eight years (1958–66) as supply to the congregation of Bellville (Moyntaghs) in Dromore presbytery, near Lurgan. This small congregation, founded after the 1859 revival, was unable to support a full-time minister after 1937 and was catered for by a series of students awaiting full-time congregations and by retired ministers who could supplement the collection with their pensions. On his final retirement, the Quinns moved to 57 Marlborough Park South, Belfast, where Hubert Quinn died 25 April 1972.