Tuesday 19 November 2019

Nuggets of wit and wisdom back in the rare aul' times

The cult of Barneyisms finally finds its voice in the words and art of Jim McCann and Wendy Shea, writes Liam Collins

Barney McKenna
Barney McKenna
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Barneyisms is a word created in the music business to accommodate the unintentional wit and weird logic of Barney McKenna, the famous Dubliners banjo player.

My own favourite takes place during a flight from Dublin to Belgium, where the cream of Ireland's music talent is due to perform at a folk festival.

A nervous Barney McKenna (he had a fear of flying) is sitting beside Finbar Furey when the plane is hit by turbulence.

Reassuringly, Finbar tells him: "There is absolutely no point in worrying. If your number's up, then your number's up and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it!"

Barney McKenna cogitates for a second before replying: "Yeah, but what if the pilot's number is up?"

Before he died earlier this year, long-time member of the Dubliners Jim McCann put together a collection of 'Barneyisms' under the title An Obstacle Confusion with illustrations by artist Wendy Shea, which will be published next week. I won't explain the title, but the story in the book reveals all.

Subtitled 'The Wonderful World of Barney McKenna', it captures the enigmatic nature of a man who made his banjo talk and, as one of the other members of the band, probably Luke Kelly, told him, "had a head full of rubbish".

John Sheahan called him when he was in the Mater Hospital recovering from a mild stroke, asking: "Did you have any tests or anything today?" to which Barney McKenna replied: "Oh yeah, I had a brain scan this morning, but they found nothing."

Such yarns have been polished and possibly embellished, but they do capture a man who had the ability to conjure unintentional humour out of any situation.

As those who knew him can attest, Barney wasn't the most sartorially elegant or fastidious of men, which wasn't something that bothered him unduly. When one of the Dub-liners urged him to tidy himself up saying, "You have even got some of this morning's breakfast in your beard" Barney asked, "What is it?" and was told it was egg. He thought for a moment and replied: "That'd be yesterday's."

Most people who met him have their own 'Barneyism and most of them are in this book.

Finally, one of his many hotel escapades.

Barney is locked out of his hotel room and can't find a staff member to let him in, so he is braced against a wall, kicking the door.

"Where are your shoes?" one of the Dubliners wobbling along the corridor asks. "I took them off, I'm trying to kick the door in quietly," replies Barney.

In the foreword to this book, which has beautiful illustrations by Wendy Shea, Jim McCann is at pains to point out that Barney too would have enjoyed seeing his 'Barneyisms' in print - after all he used to egg on the Dubliners and other friends when he came across them huddled together exchanging the latest, saying, "Jim, tell them the one about Australia" or some such.

It is just a pity that neither Jim McCann nor Barney McKenna are here to see the book launched in the Mansion House, Dublin this week.

'An Obstacle Confusion' by Jim McCann, illustrated by Wendy Shea is published by Liberties Press.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss