Obituary: Bernard ‘Barney’ McKenna; a constant feature of The Dubliners who transformed the banjo’s role in Irish folk music

Barney McKenna performing live in Switzerland in 2009. Picture: AP
Barney McKenna performing live in Switzerland in 2009. Picture: AP
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Born: 16 December, 1939, in Dublin. Died: 5 April, 2012, in Dublin, aged 71.

Barney McKenna, founder member of The Dubliners and banjo player in the group, only became a banjo player by accident.

He had originally wanted to play the mandolin but, after finding the cost of the instrument beyond the means of a 13-year-old from Donnycarney in Dublin’s Northside, settled on the tenor banjo and, with lessons from his Uncle Jim, began a musical career that would help define modern Irish folk music.

He did, however, take the GDAE tuning of the mandolin and transfer it to the tenor banjo – at that time normally tuned CGDA – an octave lower and, in so doing, made the tenor banjo an essential instrument in Irish folk music.

In 1962, McKenna, working as a glassblower, was becoming known in the Dublin music scene. He played banjo with Chieftain’s frontman Paddy Maloney, another native of Donnycarney, before being drawn into the sessions that took place in the snug of O’Donoghue’s pub in the city’s Merrion Row.

It was here he met Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke and the Ronnie Drew Folk Group were born. Not long after, fiddler John Sheahan joined the line-up and the name of the band was changed to The Dubliners.

Ireland’s traditional music scene at the time was in some ways almost a nationalised industry. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Society of the Musicians of Ireland) had been formed a decade earlier to promote traditional music and dancing, with a particular emphasis on the preservation of the harp and uilleann pipes.

Ceili bands, drums, accordion and fiddle tended to offer a stiff, regimented version of traditional music and both fitted in with the nationalistic cultural view spearheaded by president Eamon de Valera.

The Dubliners, however, and their fellow pub singers did not really fit in with this rosy view of Irish culture. Songs about drinking, sung lustily in a pub’s backroom, with a banjo rattling out reels and jigs as pints of Guinness were knocked back, seemed a bit too unregulated for many.

While interest was growing in Irish traditional music, the tenor banjo was still not regarded as part of the traditional instrumentation, but McKenna changed that by taking fiddle tunes and reworking them with his then uncommon tuning, which has since become standard. The High Reel and The Mason’s Apron are now also regarded as standards, and are often played at sessions played on tenor banjo, which would not be the case without McKenna’s influence.

He essentially defined the voice of the tenor banjo in Irish music – a harder edged, plectrum-driven melody, as opposed to the slurred and sweeping, but no less fast, fiddle lines that were then common.

But for McKenna and the other Dubliners to take their garrulous pub sessions and live performances to a wider audience – which would see them become favourites of Ireland and of the Irish diaspora as far afield as the United States and Australia – needed a recording contract.

Already firmly established as the leading band of the Dublin folk scene, and having appeared on a compilation album with other artists, a visit to the Edinburgh Festival in 1963 led to them meeting Nathan Joseph, owner of Transatlantic Records, who signed them up and released their first album The Dubliners, which featured McKenna taking lead on Swallow’s Tail Reel and The High Reel. As the band’s popularity grew, their “backstreet ballads” seemed to overtake the more reserved traditional music, but McKenna maintained that link to tradition with his choice of reels and jigs that the band played.

He was also a vocalist whose interest in fishing pointed him in the direction of sea shanties and songs of a nautical nature, notably South Australia, a song claimed by both Ireland and Scotland.

As with all bands, The Dubliners’ line-up changed over time, either through members pursuing personal projects, retirement through ill-health or untimely deaths, but McKenna was a constant in the 50 years that The Dubliners, in one form or another, existed.

In February they received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and, the previous month, they had played two 50th anniversary concerts in Dublin.

McKenna had not been in good health in recent years, having suffered a stroke, diabetes and the loss of his sight in one eye but, with the rest of the band, he had been scheduled to perform a European tour later this year. Only a few weeks ago, he recorded the official Irish FA single for Euro 2012, which is inspired by The Rocky Road to Dublin – a very traditional Irish slip jig played in 9/8 time – made famous by The Dubliners.

McKenna died at his home in Howth. He was predeceased by his Dutch wife Joka. He is survived by his partner, Tina, his sister Marie, his brother Seán Óg, who is also a musician, and his nephews and nieces.