Monday 27 January 2020

'Banjo Barney' was a man of charm and wit whose passion inspired countless musicians

BARNEY McKenna was remembered as much for his famous 'Barneyisms' as his formidable skills on the banjo.

Aside from music, the man who sported a greying beard, and was known for wearing a flat peaked cap, would enthrall friends with his legendary witty one-liners.

Known as 'Banjo Barney', the 72-year-old was the last surviving member of the original Dubliners.

While the late Ronnie Drew was known for his trademark deep, gravelly voice, Mr McKenna's banjo talents also wooed their audiences and helped secure the renowned folk group their spectacular worldwide fame.

He has been bringing the banjo into the world of Irish folk music, where its tones had previously belonged only to Dixieland. He was also adept at the mandolin.

He is fondly remembered as a man of intense charm and wit who had inspired countless Irish musicians.

Although battling diabetes and suffering from eyesight difficulties, his death yesterday was sudden and unexpected.

Friends spoke yesterday of how he had been in good form, finishing a recent extensive tour as part of the celebrations marking the band's 50th anniversary.


The half-century accolade was marked last January with two concerts in Christ Church cathedral.

The formation wasn't quite as pious back in 1962, with the band formed in O'Donoghue's pub on Dublin's Merrion Row, where they went on to play frequently.

While music was always his passion, fishing was a close second. Some have wondered which took prominence in his life.

Mr McKenna lived in Howth since 1968 where he was close to the water and his boats, but with losing one eye and having only partial sight in the other, he could no longer go out to sea by himself.

In an interview with the 'Sunday Independent' in 2004, Mr McKenna spoke of his regret at losing his sight.

"I would give anything, and I mean anything, to have my sight back, to be able to walk down the road, normally," he said.

Mr McKenna was born in the Donnycarney district of Dublin in December 1939.

His parents had been living in England when World War Two broke out, but his father sent his mother back to Ireland on a cattle boat. It was during that journey that she went into labour.


Luckily, he waited until his mother arrived at the Coombe before he decided to come into the world.

The first half of his childhood was spent in Co Meath, where his father was from. It was here that he learned to play music.

"Music was no great bother to me because my family played music. My grandparents were musicians. My father played the squeeze box and my aunt Maggie played the whistle and the fiddle. My uncle taught me the mandolin," he said in 2004.

He emigrated from Dublin to England during the poverty-stricken years of the 1950s, where he worked putting up telegraph poles.

Eventually he returned to Ireland, where he met Paddy Moloney, John Sheahan, Finbar Furey, and, eventually, the other band members Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke and Luke Kelly.

Mr McKenna is survived by his partner Tina, along with his brother Sean Og and his sister Marie. His wife Joka predeceased him.

Irish Independent

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