“Banjo” Barney McKenna died at his home in Howth, Dublin, on Thursday morning while enjoying a cup of tea with an old friend. He was the last surviving member of the much loved Dubliners Irish folk band, which was started 50 years ago.
McKenna was having a cup of tea with an old friend, Irish classical guitarist, Michael Howard, when he died. His friend told the Associated Press “all of a sudden Barney's head dropped down to his chest. It looked as if he'd nodded off.” Paramedics attempted to revive him but Howard said he “was pretty much gone”.
He said, “The comfort that I take from it is, he passed away very peacefully sitting at his own breakfast table having a quiet cup of tea and a chat."
Guitarist and singer Eamonn Campbell, McKenna's Dubliners band mate for a quarter-century, commented "What a lovely way to go."
Last month McKenna completed a UK tour and on Wednesday night he performed at a Dublin funeral. Howard, who had also performed, said McKenna's music had stirred the crowd so greatly that, “When he finished there was a spontaneous, thunderous round of applause in the church.”
McKenna was one of the most influential banjo players in the Irish folk music scene. He spent 50 years performing, recording, and touring.
The Dubliners was founded in 1962 in O’Donoghue’s pub, on Baggot Street, Dublin. The other three founding members - Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke, and Luke Kelly – are all now dead.
In 1939 he tried to join the Irish army but was rejected due to his bad eyesight. He busked on the streets of Dublin and in pubs and developed a good reputation as an innovative performer on a specially tuned, four-string tenor banjo, which became a favorite of Irish folk music.
Drew recruited McKenna to the Friday night “sessions” in O’Donoghues’s, which soon became the top venue in Ireland for live folk music. There, the Dubliners performed alongside the Chieftains and the Fureys.
Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins saw him perform last month. He said, “His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense.”
His friends remembering McKenna retold anecdotes and “Barneyisms”.
Fiddle player John Sheahan said, “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.”
Sheahan joined the Dubliners in 1964 and remains with the band today. He said his favorite “Barneyism” was calling an optical illusion and “obstacle confusion”.
Campbell said, “He was very droll man and great company. You'd never know what he'd come out with next. My favorite song that he sang was, “I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day.” And that was true about Barney.”
In a statement, Brian Hand, agent for The Dubliners, said the band, McKenna’s family, and friends wanted to thank everyone for their kindness and support.
“Words can not describe how we all feel, he really was one in a million…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.
Here’s an online tribute to “Banjo Barney”:
Here’s Barney McKenna singing “I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”: