30 April 2012 Edition
Barney McKenna, The Dubliners
He was an unassuming working-class Dub, a man of culture and refinement, an obsessive boatman and fisherman, a republican and, above all, a superb musician
EASTER 2012 will be long remembered as the time we said goodbye to Barney McKenna of The Dubliners. Barney had not been in good health in recent years and he was a fair age, yet his death came a shock. His music was such a presence in so many people’s lives that it was hard to believe he was gone.
We sometimes talk of a particular song or piece of music being a ‘sound-track’ to a certain period of time. For many Irish people and lovers of Irish music all over the world, the Dubliners provided such a sound-track over the space of 50 years. When Ciaran Bourke, Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew passed on, the original voices were gone; with Barney’s passing, the beating banjo heart of the Dubliners has stopped.
What a character Barney was. He was an unassuming working-class Dub, a man of culture and refinement, an obsessive boatman and fisherman, a republican and, above all, a superb musician. All his airs and graces were in his music, none in his manner. He lifted the banjo and played as easily as he lifted a cup of tea or a pint. But that ease was the result of a prodigious talent, an apprenticeship with some of the greats of traditional music in Dublin in the 1950s and early 1960s and long years on the road.
To Barney must go the honour of introducing the banjo to Irish traditional music. He made it his own and gave a great gift to our music and to the world. And when he occasionally sang a song, every word was valued.
My best musical memory of Barney is the night he played with Tony McMahon at the Dublin Hunger Strike 20th anniversary gig in The Cobblestone pub in Smithfield in 2001. He was in great form that night. He told us a story, possibly apocryphal, about how The Dubliners played a concert against internment in 1971 or 1972 and were presented with certificates by the Chiefs of Staff of both the Official and Provisional IRA! But Barney also spoke movingly about how much the Hunger Strikers meant to him and he played at other republican events over the years.
Thousands bade farewell to Barney in Howth and in Trim, County Meath on Easter Monday when he was laid to rest. He made his final journey to the music of some of Ireland’s finest musicians and received his final round of applause.
In a tribute to Barney, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who attended the funeral, said:
“Barney McKenna, through his 50 years on the road with The Dubliners, made an enormous contribution to Irish music and culture. Barney’s patriotism was seamless and as well as a being a giant of Irish music he was an Irish republican. Tá Barney ar slí na fírinne anois ach mairfidh a cheol go deo.”
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
• Barney McKenna and Tony McMahon playing at the Hunger Strike 20th anniversary gig in The Cobblestone pub in Smithfield, Dublin