Heaven will have a Hooley when Barney McKenna meets Luke, Ronnie and Ciaran.
By Bob Tallent
5th April 2012
This article is to commemorate the passing of one of Ireland’s greatest banjo players, Barney McKenna. Barney passed this morning 5th April 2012 around 11am. The word ‘legend’ is often misused, but in Barney’s case it is entirely fitting. He was a superstar among musicians. I hope you enjoy these ten videos to your right that show Barney as as a master musician and singer. He had his own sense of humour. For example, when he was singing "I wish I had someone to love me" he said "for those of you who have never heard this song before tonight, this will be the first time". Barney, we miss you already.
His family released the following statement: “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.”
Barney’s wife, Joka, died 28 years ago. He is survived by his partner Tina, his brother Sean Og and his sister, Marie.
Barney McKenna was born Bernard Noel McKenna on 16th December 1939 and was brought up in Donnycarney (another great north Dubliner, like U2 and Jerry Fish). His parents hailed from Ulster, both having a strong musical background. Also known as Banjo Barney, his entire life has been involved with music. Because of his poor eyesight, he was turned down for the Irish No. 1 Army Band. He earned his living as a labourer before he met with Ronnie Drew in 1962, following a Gate Theatre show with John Molloy, and was one of the founding members of The Dubliners..
When he was quite young, Barney learned the mandolin from his uncle and then learnt the banjo. At 14 years old, he had mastered the tenor banjo so well that he embarrassed most other musicians who attempted to play it.
He emigrated to England at 14 when he left school. After returning to Dublin he got a job laying telegraph poles with Posts and Telegraphs. During this time he played the banjo at concerts and cabarets. He played in a quartet with Martin Fay and Paddy Moloney, who were forming The Chieftains. He once remarked “I should have been a Chieftain but instead I grew a beard and became a Dubliner”.
Barney is a renowned tenor banjo and mandolin player. In The Dubliners' stage shows he sang sea shanties and love songs to minimal instrumental accompaniment. Barney was a great favourite with live audiences, and some of the loudest and most affectionate applause followed the tunes and songs on which he is the featured performer. He is well known for his unaccompanied renditions of songs such as 'South Australia' and 'I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me' – which was played by Derek Mooney on RTE1 this afternoon in remembrance of Barney on his show in 2009. His banjo solos on tunes such as 'The Maid Behind the Bar', 'The High Reel' and 'The Mason's Apron', where he is usually accompanied by Eamonn Campbell on guitar. Another featured spot in Dubliners performances is the mandolin ‘duet’ that Barney plays with John Sheahan on fiddle and Eamonn Campbell on guitar. As Barney often pointed out to the audience: "It's an Irish duet, so there's three of us going to play it".
Barney was remembered all day today on the radio and TV. Our new President was a friend of Barney’s and said Barney had made a major contribution to music and song throughout his life. “His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense,” he said. He remembered Barney’s “huge commitment” to the Irish abroad as well as at home.
John Sheahan, fiddler for The Dubliners, commented that “when they made Barney they threw away the mound” and that his death would be a universal loss. “He was like a brother to me, as were the other former members of the Dubliners. Over the years we became very much a family, I suppose, in our own right. “He’ll be a huge loss to everybody.”
Barney fell ill at his home this morning and was rushed to Beaumont Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Lifelong pal and guitarist Michael Howard was with him when he passed away and said he had been in great form right up until his death. Barney had been due to catch a bus out of the city to Trim, Co Meath, this morning. Michael said that at around 9 o’clock this morning “He was having a cup of tea sitting up at the table ready to go but he hadn’t finished so I made a cup of coffee and we were chatting away,” he said. “All of a sudden Barney’s head fell into his chest – it looked as if he had nodded off.
He checked on Barney and called the ambulance immediately. They talked him through what to do and they arrived quickly. He was brought to Beaumont Hospital and was pronounced dead around 11am.
“The comfort that I take from it is that he passed away peacefully sitting at his own breakfast table having a cup of tea and a chat. It’s probably the way he would’ve wanted to go I think.”
Ciaran Hanrahan - musician and broadcaster - said top banjo players in both Ireland and the UK during the 1960s and 1970s all owed a debt to McKenna. “Every single one of them would have pointed to an influence by Barney McKenna,” he said. “He was the single most important figure in tenor banjo playing in Irish traditional music.”
Ciaran said that Barney started interpreting traditional music on the banjo like old traditional fiddle players, flute players or pipers. “He also had a technique of playing with his plectrum with his right hand which no-one had seen before,” he said. “The beauty of all that and the beauty of Barney McKenna as a gentleman – to me, the most influential man – it did not matter who you were, 65 years or five, if you showed an interest in the banjo, he’d sit down with you and show you what he was doing.”
Barney used GDAE tuning on a 19 fret tenor banjo, an octave below fiddle/mandolin and, according to musician Mick Moloney, is single-handedly responsible for making the GDAE tuned tenor banjo the standard banjo in Irish music.
Barney, you have enriched this earth with your genius and you have single handedly turned the tenor banjo into a musical instrument of renown today. We are sorry to see you go and know that Heaven will have a Hooley tonight when you meet Luke, Ronnie and Ciaran. Our loss is Heaven's gain.
"Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam"
Thanks to Ciara for getting the videos for me
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