Barney McKenna: Founding member of the Dubliners

 

When they made Barney, they broke the mould," said fiddle player John Sheahan shortly after hearing of the sudden death of Barney McKenna, his close friend and much-loved musical colleague in The Dubliners for nearly half a century.

His grief was swiftly shared with the rest of Ireland, where McKenna was a household name – a gifted musician but a modest man whose idiosyncracies and surreal use of the English language were attributed the tag "Barneyisms". With his round face, unkempt hair, wild beard and baffled expression – plus a penchant for telling tall stories and singing comedic songs – his humorous image belied an outrageous talent as one of the world's finest banjo players.

Indeed, the tenor banjo was little heard in Ireland until McKenna took it up – initially because he didn't have enough money to buy his preferred instrument, the mandolin – and his explosive style, playing traditional tunes in a manner more commonly associated with fiddle or accordion, catapulted the instrument to the forefront of Irish folk music. The Dubliners conquered the world following their rise from sessions in the snug at O'Donoghue's bar in Dublin in 1962 to international acclaim as one of the world's most famous folk groups, but Barney's greatest pride was knowing that he'd played a key role in popularising the banjo in modern folk culture.

Brought up in Donnycarney in Dublin – earning him the epithet "Banjo Barney from Donnycarney" – he was self-taught and had already been through a succession of manual jobs by the time he met Ronnie Drew. With Luke Kelly and Ciaran Bourke, they initiated the music sessions at O'Donoghue's which lay the groundwork for the lovable monster that became the Dubliners. Without any game plan, they seamlessly transferred their informal "ballads'n'booze" sessions at O'Donoghue's into a concert environment and their booming chorus songs and aggressive instrumental approach resonated with ordinary folk. It may have been formulaic, but their natural approach served the Dubs well in a 50-year career, which took off internationally following their surprise 1967 hit single, "Seven Drunken Nights", although their greatest success came two decades later when they collaborated with spiritual successors The Pogues on another hit single, "The Irish Rover".

The group was full of colourful characters and McKenna was one of its biggest, conforming to their popular image as renegade entertainers with a huge thirst. In truth, this was in part self-perpetuated and their drinking sessions were never quite as relentless as legend insisted, although McKenna stories are legion. Once he attempted to drive the group home from a gig without realising that the car was an automatic. After a succession of jolting stops, the group was arrested and spent the night in cells. Waking up, Drew is reputed to have said, "Jaysus Barney, this is a terrible hotel you've booked us into."

Singers Drew and Kelly inevitably got most of the attention, but, as the line-up changed – Drew left the band for the first of several times in 1974 while Kelly and Ciaran Bourke died in 1984 and 1987 respectively – McKenna became the group's essential heartbeat, renowned for the speed and dexterity of his playing, on mandolin and melodeon as well as banjo. He wasn't much of a singer, yet could still bring the house down with a daft comedy ditty and invested well-known material like "Fiddler's Green" and "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day" with such personality that he made those songs his own.

Outside music his main passions were fishing and sailing, perhaps explaining his fondness for sea shanties, but he was happiest in the company of other musicians. As the pressures of touring took their toll, the other band members asked whether they should consider retiring. McKenna's response was, "It's too late to stop now" – a comment that became one of his catchphrases and the title of a 2006 compilation album.

He was true to his word, too, playing with less speed but still no little skill as the Dubliners embarked on a busy schedule this year to mark their 50th anniversary. In February they won a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Folk Awards and continued to entertain deep into the early hours at the after-show party. Last month they completed a triumphant UK tour, including a sell-out show at London's Royal Albert Hall and future plans included a new album and DVD, with McKenna central to it all. A born musician, he will be remembered as one of Irish music's all-time greats.

Bernard Noel "Barney" McKenna, musician: born Donnycarney, Co. Dublin 16 December 1939; died Dublin 5 April 2012.

Suggested Topics
News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence