President leads tributes to Dubliner McKenna

Barney McKenna

President Michael D Higgins has led tributes to folk musician Barney McKenna, the last surviving member of The Dubliners, who has died, aged 72.

Renowned banjo player McKenna – affectionately dubbed Banjo Barney – passed away this morning in his beloved Dublin, after collapsing at his home in Howth.

He was the last remaining member of the original line-up of The Dubliners, celebrated worldwide for their revival of Irish folk songs, their raucous sound and their hell-raising.

President Higgins, a friend of McKenna, said he had made a major contribution to music and song throughout his life, and above all to the banjo as an instrument.

“His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense,” he said.

President Higgins recalled McKenna’s “huge commitment” to the Irish abroad as well as at home, and the band’s popularity in Britain, where The Dubliners played a packed Albert Hall in 1967 and again more than four decades on last month.

Fiddler John Sheahan, who joined The Dubliners just two years after it was formed in 1962, said McKenna’s death would be a universal loss.

“He was one of these unique characters,” he said.

“He was like a brother to me, as were the other former members of the Dubliners. Over the years we became very much a family, I suppose, in our own right.

“He’ll be a huge loss to everybody.”

A clearly emotional Sheahan said he felt he should be sympathising with others.

“People have been phoning me sympathising, but I feel I could just as easily be sympathising with them,” he said.

“I think it’s a kind of universal loss, I think everybody is going to miss him hugely.

“We are all very sad.”

McKenna fell ill at his home this morning and was rushed to Beaumont Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Guitar player and lifelong pal Michael Howard was with him before he passed away and revealed he had been in great form right up until his death.

McKenna had been due to catch a bus out of the city to Trim, Co Meath, this morning.

“He was having a cup of tea sitting up at the table ready to go but he hadn’t finished so I made a cup of coffee and we were chatting away,” he said.

“All of a sudden Barney’s head fell into his chest – it looked as if he had nodded off.

“The comfort that I take from it is that he passed away peacefully sitting at his own breakfast table having a cup of tea and a chat. It’s probably the way he would’ve wanted to go I think.”

Brian Hand, agent for The Dubliners, said the band, McKenna’s family and friends wanted to thank everyone for their kindness and support.

“Words can not describe how we all feel, he really was one in a million,” they said, in a statement.

“The greatest tenor banjo player of his generation, Barney spent his life travelling the world playing Irish music, he loved it, the world loved him, may he rest in peace.”

McKenna is survived by his sister Maria Fuller and his brother Sean Og McKenna.

No funeral arrangements have yet been made.

One of McKenna’s last public performances was yesterday when he played at the funeral of RTÉ floor manager Dara O Broin in Dublin.

Playing to the very end, he was among the latest line-up of The Dubliners, who recently finished a 12-gig UK leg of their 50th anniversary tour, including dates in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Cardiff.

They also toured Switzerland in February after their two homecoming concerts sold out at Dublin’s Christchurch cathedral at the end of January.

Other late founding members Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke and Luke Kelly, who have died since the band famously formed in the snug of O’Donoghue’s pub on Merrion Row, were remembered during emotional scenes at the gigs.

Born in 1939 in Donnycarney in north Dublin, McKenna also played the mandolin and the melodeon.

But he was renowned among fans as much for his often hilarious story-telling as well as his musicianship.

Musician and broadcaster Ciaran Hanrahan said top banjo players in both Ireland and the UK during the 1960s and 1970s all owed a debt to McKenna.

“Every single one of them would have pointed to an influence by Barney McKenna,” he said.

“He was the single most important figure in tenor banjo playing in Irish traditional music.”

Hanrahan said McKenna started interpreting traditional music on the banjo like old traditional fiddle players, flute players or pipers.

“He also had a technique of playing with his plectrum with his right hand which no-one had seen before,” he said.

“The beauty of all that and the beauty of Barney McKenna as a gentleman – to me, the most influential man – it did not matter who you were, 65 years or five, if you showed an interest in the banjo, he’d sit down with you and show you what he was doing.”

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