Barney McKenna obituary
Banjo player and an original member of the Irish folk group the Dubliners
Barney McKenna, who has died aged 72, was the last surviving founding member of the Irish folk group the Dubliners. While Ronnie Drew's gravelly voice gave the band its memorable vocal sound, it was McKenna's playing of the tenor banjo, coupled with John Sheahan's fiddle, that gave the Dubliners their original instrumental quality. In the process, McKenna redefined the role of the banjo in Irish traditional music. His distinctive playing can be heard on the Dubliners' two UK hit singles in 1967, Seven Drunken Nights and Black Velvet Band, as well as on group favourites such as The Wild Rover and McAlpine's Fusiliers. When the Pogues brought the Dubliners back to the vanguard of Irish music in 1987, their joint recording of The Irish Rover has his banjo well to the fore.
McKenna was born in Donnycarney, Co Dublin, and started to play the banjo because he could not afford a mandolin. He was rejected from the Irish army band because of his poor eyesight. In Dublin in the late 1950s and early 60s, there was just a handful of folk musicians, often playing informally in a variety of combinations. McKenna was initially a member of a short-lived group fronted by the uilleann piper Paddy Moloney, who cited that lineup as the first incarnation of the Chieftains.
Meanwhile, Drew was asked by the actor John Molloy to perform at the Gate theatre in Dublin, and he invited McKenna to join him on stage. On Fridays, Drew and McKenna would meet Molloy at O'Donoghue's pub to get paid. One night, with the landlord's permission, they played some tunes in the bar. The music sessions became a regular event — a rarity in pubs at the time — and the two musicians were joined by Luke Kelly, newly returned from England, and Ciarán Bourke. Known as the Ronnie Drew Folk Group, they soon changed their name to the Dubliners.
When RTÉ banned the band's bawdy single Seven Drunken Nights, the pirate station Radio Caroline helped propel it into the British charts. The group's hard-living, hard-drinking image was seemingly confirmed by album titles such as A Drop of the Hard Stuff (1967). Concert tours in the US led to further international touring for a band whose matching bushy beards made them immediately recognisable.
McKenna was enormously influential and his GDAE tuning was copied by countless banjo players in Ireland and beyond, making it the standard for Irish music. The tuning was an octave below the fiddle, opening up the banjo to a wide range of traditional music. The broadcaster and banjo player Mick Moloney told me: "His very gentle, subtle picking style, along with the beautiful swing in his playing, were an absolute revelation to the Irish music scene." The Dubliners' concerts invariably included banjo solos from McKenna, such as, in recent years, The Maid Behind the Bar and The High Reel. In addition, McKenna played the mandolin and the melodeon.
Throughout his 50 years with the Dubliners, McKenna made a vocal contribution to their concerts and albums on love and sea songs, often with minimal instrumental accompaniment. A favourite was John Conolly's Fiddler's Green. He was well known as a raconteur, both on and off stage, and his funny sayings became known as Barneyisms.
Both Kelly and Bourke died in the 1980s. Drew, who died in 2008, had periods away from the band. New members joined, such as Seán Cannon and Eamonn Campbell. But it was McKenna — alongside Sheahan, who joined in 1964 — who provided the continuity in a band that defied the changing tastes of Irish traditional music to build a worldwide fanbase for the good-time, occasionally raucous, street songs of Dublin.
McKenna had recently completed the Dubliners' 50th anniversary tour of England, as well as concerts in Germany and Dublin. In February, the band was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards. McKenna, with failing eyesight, looked frail but still performed with style.
McKenna's wife, Joka, died in the 1980s. He is survived by his partner, Tina, his sister, Marie, and brother, Sean.
Bernard Noel McKenna, folk musician, born 16 December 1939; died 5 April 2012
Barney McKenna, who has died 72, was the last surviving original member of the folk band The Dubliners, and almost single-handedly introduced the tenor banjo to the forefront of Irish music.
A dazzling instrumentalist, acclaimed for the electrifying speed of his fingerwork, McKenna was also an accomplished mandolin and melodeon player; and while there were times when The Dubliners’ unashamedly populist ballad style was ridiculed, McKenna’s artistry always earned respect.
McKenna was an effective, if not technically gifted, occasional singer. Meanwhile, his eccentric construction of sentences introduced the term "Barneyisms" into common usage. He referred to an "optical illusion" as an "obstacle confusion", and, on his way to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall, once attempted to direct a taxi driver to "that big roundy thing in the park". His tall stories won him a special place in Irish hearts.
Bernard ("Barney") McKenna was born on December 16 1939 at Donnycarney, Co Dublin. He had mastered the banjo by the age of 12, having managed to get hold of a cheap instrument and teaching himself to play. It was a time when it seemed unimaginable that anyone could make a professional living playing traditional tunes on a banjo — musicians were discouraged even from playing in bars in Ireland. After leaving school, Barney was turned down by the Irish Army Band due to his poor eyesight, and worked variously as a glass blower, kitchen porter and labourer. There seemed to be no obvious outlet for his musical talent beyond busking.
That all changed, however, in 1962, when Paddy O’Donoghue agreed to allow Ronnie Drew and a couple of his friends play a few tunes ("as long as you do it quietly") at his pub in Dublin’s Merrion Row. Barney McKenna was one of the friends Drew called upon to join him, and the "quiet" tunes quickly grew into famously raucous sessions which became the focal point of the Irish ballad revival. It was the launch of The Dubliners, who over the next 50 years would take Irish music all over the world.
The joint front men in the band’s vintage years of success were the ebullient singers Drew and Luke Kelly, but McKenna’s banjo and John Sheahan’s fiddle were its musical heart. McKenna’s playing on party-piece tunes such as The Mason’s Apron and The Maid Behind The Bar invariably lifted the roof at concerts, and he inspired a new generation of banjo players in Ireland.
The group’s forte was traditional Irish music, but occasionally McKenna and Sheahan would veer off into jazz and play a standard like Sweet Georgia Brown. McKenna sometimes talked wistfully of making a jazz album, but never did.
The Dubliners achieved their international breakthrough in 1967 with the risqué hit single Seven Drunken Nights. The success came primarily on the back of heavy airplay from the pirate station Radio Caroline, and they maintained their popularity with big chorus songs such as Black Velvet Band and The Wild Rover. McKenna remained entirely unaffected by celebrity. The first time the group played the Royal Albert Hall, he walked on stage, looked out at the audience and said: "Oh my jayzus, have you seen the size of this place?"
From time to time he would take centre stage to sing the odd comic song and crowd favourites like Fiddler’s Green and A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day. Following the deaths of the group’s founder members Kelly (in 1984), Ciaran Bourke (1988) and Drew (who had already left when he died in 2008), McKenna remained.
Happiest when playing his banjo, sharing tunes and talking about music, McKenna was famously generous with his time, always keen to give aspiring musicians the benefit of his experience. Oddly for such a virtuoso musician, he never recorded a solo album — although he was often asked to play with other musicians and appeared on records alongside The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Boys Of The Lough and The Pogues.
Failing health may have blunted his ability in later years, but it never affected his enthusiasm. Despite diabetes, blindness in one eye and difficulty in walking following a stroke, he continued to play a full role in The Dubliners’ continuing success.
In February this year, at the BBC Folk Awards held at Salford’s Lowry Theatre, The Dubliners were presented with a lifetime achievement award, which the rest of the band gave to McKenna. The audience accorded them a rousing reception that night as they blasted out some of their most popular numbers , but the biggest applause erupted when McKenna burst into a blistering banjo solo.
They then embarked on a major UK tour and recorded the Irish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.
Barney McKenna, who is survived by his partner, Tina, died suddenly at his Dublin home while drinking a cup of tea.
Barney McKenna, born December 16 1939, died April 5 2012
Barney McKenna of The Dubliners dies at 72
The death has taken place of folk musician and founding member of The Dubliners, Barney McKenna. He was 72.
Mr. McKenna collapsed at his home on Thursday morning and was later pronounced dead at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.
He is survived by his partner Tina, along with his brother Sean Óg and his sister Marie. His wife Joka died 28 years ago.
His fellow Dubliners described him as "one in a million".
In a statement, they said: "The band, his family and friends would like to thank everyone for their kindness and support. Words cannot describe how we all feel.
"The greatest tenor banjo player of his generation, Barney spent his life travelling the world playing Irish music.
"He loved it. The world loved him. May he rest in peace."
President Michael D Higgins said Mr. McKenna "made a major contribution to music and song".
President Higgins added: "His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense."
The group, which recently marked its 50th anniversary, had been planning a tour.
They toured Switzerland in February after their two sold-out concerts at the Christchurch Cathedral at the end of January.
Other late members Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke and Luke Kelly, who have died since the band famously formed in the snug of O'Donoghue's pub on Merrion Row in 1962, were remembered during emotional scenes at the gigs.
Barney McKenna, Banjo Player in the Dubliners, Dies at 72
by Dennis Hevesi
Barney McKenna, whose racing, raucous and often lyrically haunting banjo playing helped propel the Irish folk band the Dubliners to fame, died on Thursday at his home in Dublin. The last of the original members of the band, he was 72.
Michael Howard, a classical guitarist who was with Mr. McKenna when he died, told Irish and British newspapers that they were at the kitchen table when Mr. McKenna seemed to have "nodded off."
"He passed away very peacefully sitting at his own breakfast table having a quiet cup of tea and a chat," Mr. Howard said.
Known as Banjo Barney, Mr. McKenna was a street performer in Dublin when he met the gravelly voiced folk singer Ronnie Drew in 1962. Mr. Drew was looking for someone to join him and two friends, Luke Kelly and Ciaran Bourke, in gigs at O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row, not far from the Irish Parliament. They were originally called the Ronnie Drew Group but soon changed their name to the Dubliners, after the collection of short stories by James Joyce.
Performing alongside other rising groups like the Fureys and the Chieftains, the Dubliners helped make O’Donoghue’s the hub of an Irish folk music revival throughout Europe. They had less success in the United States, although they did perform there on occasion and were highly regarded by folk aficionados. And they recorded prolifically: the band in its various permutations averaged about an album a year from 1964 to 2008.
"You can take the hardest rock band on the earth, and they sound like a bunch of girls next to the Dubliners," Bono, the lead singer of U2, once said of the group.
Two of the Dubliners’ earliest hits were "Black Velvet Band," which describes the deportation of a tradesman to Australia, and "Seven Drunken Nights," a bawdy tale whose last two verses were considered too indelicate for public broadcast, leading to a ban by Irish radio. Still, the hits earned the band a spot on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1968.
With his round face, bushy hair, scraggly beard and raspy voice, Mr. McKenna drew roaring ovations with his renditions of songs like "South Australia" and "I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me." His banjo features included "The Maid Behind the Bar," "The High Reel" and "The Mason’ s Apron."
The Daily Telegraph of London called Mr. McKenna "a dazzling instrumentalist" whose playing "invariably lifted the roof at concerts," and who "inspired a new generation of banjo players in Ireland."
Bernard Noel McKenna was born in Dublin on Dec. 16, 1939. He had taught himself to play the banjo by age 12. After high school, he tried to join an Irish Army band but was rejected because of poor eyesight. So he played on the streets and in pubs, while working as a glass blower and kitchen porter during the day, until Mr. Drew discovered him.
Mr. McKenna is survived by his partner, Tina Hove; his sister, Marie; and his brother, Sean. His wife, Joka Oldert, died in 1984.
New members joined the Dubliners over the years, with only Mr. McKenna remaining from the original four. Mr. Kelly died in 1984, Mr. Bourke in 1988 and Mr. Drew in 2008.
The Dubliners recently completed a 50th-anniversary tour, and in February, at the BBC Folk Awards, they were presented with a lifetime achievement award. "The audience accorded them a rousing reception as they blasted out some of their most popular numbers," The Daily Telegraph said, "but the biggest applause erupted when McKenna burst into a blistering banjo solo."