Barney McKenna was a highly skilful banjo player and his solos were often a highlight of a song or even a whole concert.
The instrumental parts of The Dubliners songs were provided by McKenna and guitarist, Eamonn Campbell. When he got into a banjo solo, the audience and his band mates would yell ‘C’mon Barney!
He was one of the first prominent musicians to tune his banjo, GDAE. It was unusual at the time but such was the influence of McKenna that the younger musicians copied him and it is now seen as a standard tuning in Irish music.
Banjo player, Mick Moloney said: “His very gentle, subtle picking style, along with the beautiful swing in his playing, were an absolute revelation to the Irish music scene.”
Other instrumental performances in the group’s set would often include mandolin duets with McKenna and Sheahan with backing from Campbell on guitar. McKenna would say: ‘It’s an Irish duet so there are three of us playing it’.
The Dubliners had some big hits in the early days with Seven Drunken Nights and Black Velvet Band. Seven Drunken Nights was banned in Ireland for being too rude but it was a hit in the UK after getting lots of airplay on pirate radio.
The exposure they got helped to make them stars and they released several hit albums and spent years performing all over the world. Despite the ever increasing audiences, McKenna remained down to earth and when he saw the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall in London he exclaimed: “Oh my Jayzus, have you seen the size of this place?”
When McKenna wasn’t with the Dubliners he was in high demand from other musicians. He worked with the Chieftains, The Pogues, Christy Moore and Boys of the Lough among many others. He would also spend time with young up and coming musicians and share his expertise and give them advice.
Irish singer, Andy Irvine, wrote a song called O’Donoghue’s about the traditional music scene in Dublin in the early 1960s. McKenna was mentioned throughout the song.
McKenna died in April 2012 after collapsing in his home in Howth, Co Dublin. He was the last surviving member of The Dubliners’ original line-up.