Barney McKenna was the last surviving founding member of the Irish folk group the Dubliners. With Luke Kelly’s powerful voice and force of nature on stage, Ronnie Drew’s gravelly memorable vocal sound, it was McKenna’s playing of the tenor banjo, coupled with John Sheahan’s fiddle, that gave the Dubliners their original instrumental quality. In the process, McKenna redefined the role of the banjo in Irish traditional music. His distinctive playing can be heard on the Dubliners’ two hit singles in 1967, Seven Drunken Nights and Black Velvet Band, as well as on group favourites such as The Wild Rover and McAlpine’s Fusiliers. When the Pogues brought the Dubliners back to the vanguard of Irish music in 1987, their joint recording of The Irish Rover has his banjo well to the fore.
McKenna was born in Donnycarney, Co Dublin, and started to play the banjo because he could not afford a mandolin. He was rejected from the Irish army band because of his poor eyesight. In Dublin in the late 1950s and early 60s, there was just a handful of folk musicians, often playing informally in a variety of combinations. McKenna was initially a member of a short-lived group fronted by the uilleann piper Paddy Moloney, who cited that lineup as the first incarnation of the Chieftains.
Meanwhile, Drew was asked by the actor John Molloy to perform at the Gate theatre in Dublin, and he invited McKenna to join him on stage. On Fridays, Drew and McKenna would meet Molloy at O’Donoghue’s pub to get paid. One night, with the landlord’s permission, they played some tunes in the bar. The music sessions became a regular event, a rarity in pubs at the time, and the two musicians were joined by Luke Kelly, newly returned from England, and Ciarán Bourke. Known as the Ronnie Drew Folk Group, they soon changed their name to the Dubliners.
When RTÉ banned the band’s bawdy single Seven Drunken Nights, the pirate station Radio Caroline helped propel it into the British charts. The group’s hard-living, hard-drinking image was seemingly confirmed by album titles such as A Drop of the Hard Stuff (1967). Concert tours in the US led to further international touring for a band whose matching bushy beards made them immediately recognisable.
McKenna was enormously influential and his GDAE tuning was copied by countless banjo players in Ireland and beyond, making it the standard for Irish music. The tuning was an octave below the fiddle, opening up the banjo to a wide range of traditional music. The broadcaster and banjo player Mick Moloney told me: “His very gentle, subtle picking style, along with the beautiful swing in his playing, were an absolute revelation to the Irish music scene.” The Dubliners’ concerts invariably included banjo solos from McKenna, such as, in recent years, The Maid Behind the Bar and The High Reel. In addition, McKenna played the mandolin and the melodeon.
Throughout his 50 years with the Dubliners, McKenna made a vocal contribution to their concerts and albums on love and sea songs, often with minimal instrumental accompaniment. A favourite was John Conolly’s Fiddler’s Green. He was well-known as a raconteur, both on and off stage, and his funny sayings became known as Barneyisms.
Both Kelly and Bourke died in the 1980s. Drew, who died in 2008, had periods away from the band. New members joined, such as Seán Cannon and Eamonn Campbell. But it was McKenna, alongside Sheahan, who joined in 1964, who provided the continuity in a band that defied the changing tastes of Irish traditional music to build a worldwide fan base for the good-time, occasionally raucous, street songs of Dublin.