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Michael Howard: 'If we can take comfort, it is that he passed away peacefully, having a cup of tea and a chat'


Dubliners' banjo legend Barney McKenna

Dubliners' banjo legend Barney McKenna

Dubliners' banjo legend Barney McKenna

TO sit down and write this so soon after my great friend Barney McKenna has passed away is hard, because the reality of his passing has not fully sunk in yet.

Over the past few days, Barney and I had occasions to spend quite a bit of time together. On Wednesday, he, John Sheahan and I played the music at the funeral of Dara O Broin, a much-loved friend and floor manager at RTE.

Sadly, it was to be Barney's last performance, but it was still a very memorable one nonetheless.

His wonderfully soulful rendition of a traditional air, 'Ar Eireann Ni Neosfainn Ce Hi' was simultaneously moving and comforting in helping people come to terms with their grief. At the time, Barney could have had no inkling of his own impending mortality.

Yesterday morning, Barney rang me in Howth to ask for a lift to the bus station. He was to catch a bus to Trim, Co Meath, where he has a house, and to pick up some fish from Wrights of Howth on the way.

When I called in shortly afterwards, he was sitting at the kitchen table, having his breakfast. I made a coffee and we chatted away. Barney was in great form, talking about the plot of land he had recently bought.

When his head dropped onto his chest, I initially thought that he had nodded off momentarily, but when he didn't respond, I became concerned and immediately called the emergency services.

I have to thank the emergency people who worked on the phone, as they kept me focused on what to do until the fire brigade and ambulance service arrived.

When they took over, they did everything in their power to bring Barney back -- but sadly it was not to be.

If I can take any comfort from the situation, it is that he passed away peacefully and quietly in his own home, having a cup of tea and a chat.

Naturally, my heart goes out in sympathy to his partner, Tina, his sister Marie, his brother Sean Og, his nephews and nieces and extended family, his colleagues in the Dubliners and his legions of friends and fans worldwide.

I salute Barney as a friend, a mentor, a fellow musician, a fisherman, a man who lived life to the full through music, comradeship and a sheer free-spirited lust for living.

It was a privilege to know him, to learn from him, to share a stage with him, simply to be in his presence.

As a banjo player, he was legendary. Legend is a much-abused word, but in Barney's case it was entirely apt. In a way, I think of Barney as someone who did for the banjo what the great Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia did for his instrument, so that people like myself were inspired to take up the guitar by Segovia.

Music and fishing were the two main strands woven into the tapestry of Barney's life.

Each one offered a counterbalance to the other. Given his hectic touring schedule with the Dubliners, Barney liked nothing more than to spend some time on the ocean wave, "messing around in boats".

On a personal level, he struck a chord with people everywhere, and was someone with a great gift of empathy and feeling for people. People recognised this and were immediately put at ease in his presence. He is unforgettable and indeed he will never be forgotten.

He gave us all so much to celebrate and to remember. He was a one-off, a unique individual, someone whose like we shall never see again. I sent Barney a card a while ago with a short message in haiku form, which is all I can think of by way of summing up: "Barney McKenna/ Tenor, banjo, Zen master/ Trawling jigs and reels."

God bless you, Barney, and may you rest in peace.

Irish Independent