Bernard Noel “Banjo” Barney McKenna, the last original member of the Irish folk band The Dubliners and widely considered the most influential banjo player in Irish music, died at his kitchen table on April 5 while having a up of tea with a musician friend, He was 72 and had just completed a UK tour with The Dubliners in March to help mark the group’s 50th anniversary. McKenna also performed at a Dublin funeral the night before he died.
A self-taught banjo player, who reportedly mastered the instrument by age 12, McKenna joined Ronnie Drew, who had one of the most recognizable voices in Irish folk music, and other friends playing some famously raucous informal sessions on Friday nights at O’Donoghue’s Pub in Dublin’s Merrion Row in 1962 . These sessions, which customarily packed the small pub, marked both the start of the Irish ballad revival and the birth of The Dubliners.
Initially known as The Ronnie Drew Folk Group, The Dubliners’ original members also included Luke Kelly and Ciarin Bourke. Recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in February, the group, which toured internationally and released more than 30 albums, was, perhaps, best known for its bawdy 1967 Irish hit single “Seven Drunken Nights,” as well as renditions of such rousing folk songs as “Black Velvet Band,” “Finnegan’s Wake,” “McAlpine’s Fusiliers” and “The Wild Rover.” Based on Child Ballad #273, “Seven Drunken Nights” contained risqué lyrics that initially caused it to be banned from radio play in Ireland. The Dubliners’ latest release was a two CD set, The Dubliners – A Time to Remember, recorded live in Vienna in September 2009.
Although McKenna had diabetes, was blind in one eye, and had experienced some difficulty walking following a stroke, he continued to perform with the group.
Noted Irish musician Mick Moloney credits McKenna with being single-handedly responsible for making the GDAE-tuned tenor banjo the standard banjo in Irish music, while Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s president, hailed McKenna for having “made a major contribution to music and song,” noting that “His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense.” He’s been immortalized in Andy Irvine’s song “O’Donoghue’s, which describes the Irish traditional scene of the 1960s that was centered there.
(Here’s a link to a video of Barney McKenna playing the banjo in concert, accompanied by Eammon Campbell on guitar: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scawc6Q9heI)
Although the tenor banjo was his primary instrument – and he also can be heard playing it on recordings by Boys of the Lough, the Chieftains, Christy Moore, and The Pogues — McKenna also was adept on the mandolin and melodeon. He also sang comical songs, sea shanties and other crowd favorites on occasion and was noted for the tall tales and funny yarns – often illogical anecdotes that became known as “Barneyisms” – that he shared with audiences during The Dubliners’ concerts.
“The band, his family and friends would like to thank everyone for their kind words and support,” McKenna’s bandmates declared in a prepared statement posted on its website. “Words cannot describe how we all feel. He was one in a million. The greatest tenor banjo player of his generation. Barney spent his life traveling the world playing Irish music. He loved it. The world loved him. May he rest in peace.”