6 Apr 2012
Barney McKenna (r) with Ronnie Drew in 2006 as Drew’s handprints are cast in bronze at the Gaiety Theatre.
BARNEY McKENNA, the last surviving member of the original Dubliners, died yesterday, leaving behind a lasting legacy as a musician and band member.
McKenna (72) had not been in good health in recent years, having suffered a stroke, loss of sight in one eye and diabetes.
The jovial musician, who transformed the tenor banjo into an essential instrument of the Irish traditional scene, was in the kitchen of his Howth home yesterday having breakfast with a friend, classical guitarist Michael Howard, when he appeared to fall asleep. Attempts to revive him failed and he died on the way to Beaumont Hospital.
His death comes in the Dubliners’ 50th anniversary year. They held two atmospheric concerts at Christ Church Cathedral in January.
He regaled the audience on those nights with stories of how music was his only solace growing up, when there wasn’t “Space Invaders and things like that”.
Only a few weeks ago he was involved in the making of the official Irish single for Euro 2012, which is inspired by The Rocky Road to Dublin, a song made famous by the band.
He was born into a musical family in Donnycarney on Dublin’s north side and took up the tenor banjo because he could not afford a mandolin.
He was working as a glassblower when he met Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke in O’Donoghue’s pub, Merrion Row, in 1962.
Together they formed arguably the most enduring and influential folk group in Irish musical history.
Yesterday his fellow Dubliners John Sheahan, who is now the longest-serving band member, and Eamonn Campbell described McKenna as a “brother”.
Fiddle player Sheahan said he had been overwhelmed with messages of sympathy from fans.
“I feel like I could just be as easily sympathising with them,” he said. “It’s a universal loss. Everybody is going to miss him hugely.”
His sudden death means The Dubliners’ planned 10-date tour of Denmark next month is in doubt.
The Dubliners remain one of Ireland’s biggest cultural exports. Their itinerary this year also included a seven-night stint at Vienna’s prestigious music hall the Metropol during the summer.
Campbell said he was “completely devastated” by McKenna’s death. “I can’t come to terms with the suddenness of it,” he said. “He was unique. There will never be another Barney.”
McKenna was famous for his “Barneyisms” – quaint sayings that made sense only to him – and his storytelling abilities.
“He was a very droll man and great company,” added Campbell. “You’d never know what he’d come out with next. He was just a great guy. My favourite song that he sang was I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day, and that was true about Barney.”
Broadcaster and banjo player Kieran Hanrahan said McKenna was the “single most important figure” in the development of the tenor banjo in traditional music.
Tributes were paid by President Michael D Higgins, who counted him as a friend and said his influence on and generosity to other musicians was “immense”.
Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan described him as one of “life’s gentlemen”.
McKenna was predeceased by his Dutch wife Joka. He is survived by his partner, Tina, his sister Marie, his brother Seán Óg, who is also a musician, and his nephews and nieces.