DUBLIN -- It was only a year ago when the Temple Bar Trad Festival helped launch the 50th anniversary year of the Dubliners, the iconic music group that not only helped define Ireland’s capital city but also gave it a distinctive voice.
No one could imagine then how important those two celebratory concerts in the venerable Christchurch Cathedral at the edge of Dublin’s Temple Bar were, given what happened later in the year.
The death occurred on April 5 of Barney McKenna, the last of the original group of Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and Ciaran Bourke who formed the Dubliners out of days and nights in O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row, adding fiddler John Sheahan two years later.
In the aftermath of McKenna’s passing, Sheahan and others decided it was time to bring the band’s performances to a halt and call it a day for the influential trad folk band that covered all of Ireland’s most memorable ballads and spawned generations of singers and musicians, including many who ply their trade all around Temple Bar all year long.
So it was most appropriate that one of the major concerts in the gorgeous City Hall Rotunda on the last day of six-day 2013 festival last Sunday would be a grand occasion for remembering Barney.
McKenna not only lived up to the role of a colorful character that was the Dubliners stock in trade, but also was the trailblazing tenor banjo player in Irish traditional music.
In fact, he inspired the artistic director of the festival, and Stockton Wing’s and Temple House Ceili Band banjo player Kieran Hanrahan, who organized a wonderful tribute capturing the life and times of McKenna.
A large screen showed images of the multi-faceted McKenna and even shared a couple of live “voice from the grave” renditions of two of his favorite songs, “I Wished I Had Someone to Love Me” and “Fiddler’s Green,” the later mirroring his joint pleasures of music and maritime sailing and fishing.
Des Geraghty was a long-time friend of Barney’s who traveled by land and sea on occasion with him, and spoke of his interest first in Native American beliefs and that “you don’t die but simply move onto another form.”
McKenna’s spirit was very much in the hallowed hall that night as it seemed like all the Dublin faithful friends and fan were in attendance, making it a very hot ticket.
Jimmy Kelly, brother of Luke who died 29 years ago next month, first gave a stirring version of “The Night Visiting Song,” remembered as the last one Luke ever sang on TV before his death. He then recited a poem later written by John Sheahan after Barney passed (as he did for the others). Sheahan himself missed the event due to a brief hospitalization on the weekend.
Fifty years ago in Dublin another famous band with staying power arrived on the scene when the Chieftains were formed, and two very good friends in Matt Molloy and Dub James Keane played a duet in McKenna’s memory.
Michael Howard followed with more Native American lore with the Seven Teachings of Tecumseh that McKenna adhered to through his life.
Howard was with McKenna the day he died and also at bereavement where Barney conveyed his sorrow, saying “the blackbird lies heavy on my heart” which inspired Howard to write a song of the same title to evoke similar sentiments after McKenna’s demise.
To further elaborate on the massive impact that McKenna’s banjo-playing had on Hanrahan as a musician and now an instructor at the Dublin Institute of Technology’s growing music program, students of Hanrahan all performed on banjos. They were followed by a group of McKenna family members on banjo, including Barney’s brother Sean Og McKenna, and they finished up with the tune “The Ships are Sailing” to recall one of his favorite pastimes.
Noel O’Grady opened the program singing “The Last Rose of Summer” and later on “Donal Og.” The evening would come to a close with Sean Cannon and Eamonn Campbell, who played in the Dubliners for many years, and one of Ireland’s greatest banjo players Gerry O’Connor performing in honor of their friend. Cannon gave us another of Barney’s favorites with the classic song of departure from this world, “John of Dreams,” written by Bill Caddick.
The remembrance lasted over two and half hours on a cold blustery Sunday in Dublin Town, and his many friends and fellow musicians fondly recalled the wonderful voyage that Barney McKenna took through his life. Many will look forward to meeting up again in Fiddler’s Green someday.