Follow us on Facebook/Twitter


Join our 12,000 Twitter Followers and 14,000 Facebook friends

Barney McKenna – musical genius and great man

Barney McKenna

Barney McKenna

I was shocked and so sad to hear of the death of the great Barney McKenna.

I grew up listening to him. He and The Dubliners helped to create and shape my love for Irish music. It’s perhaps hard to imagine the kind of impact The Dubliners had on the world way back in the 1960s.

Nowadays, we take it for granted that Irish folk music is well respected and has fans all across the world.

It wasn’t always like that. At the start of the 1960s, Irish folk music was thought of as old fashioned and dull.

Death of Barney McKenna

For most people, Irish music meant Paddy McGinty’s Goat, or perhaps an over-sentimental version of Mountains of Mourne or Galway Bay.

Barney and Dubliners at forefront of folk revival

The folk revival changed all that – and The Dubliners with Barney McKenna were right at the forefront of that change.

They swept through the folk scene like a whirlwind. They had no time for the folk purists of the day and reached out to a new and broader audience. They appeared on pop programmes and had top ten hits. Not only that, they could be a bit risqué, singing bawdy songs like Seven Drunken Nights on TV and having major hits with them.

They had long hair and beards. The Dubliners were cool and they made it fashionable again to like Irish music. They didn’t do it all on their own. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem also played a major part.

The two bands were very different though: The Clancys were smooth and highly polished showbiz performers; The Dubliners were more like rough diamonds – a little irreverent, unconcerned about image and totally focused on their music.

Barney had a God given gift for music

Nowhere was that focus more apparent than in the work of Barney McKenna. His playing was magical. Fellow Dubliner John Sheahan tells a story of how in the early days, the band were approached by an old man who said to them: “do you read music lads, or are ye’s gifted.”

As Sheahan points out, Barney certainly was among the gifted.

He was largely self-taught and paid huge attention to his technique and style. He was a perfectionist and a big fan of technically brilliant classical musicians like Segovia and Julian Bream.

But Barney was technically brilliant himself. While presenting The Dubliners with a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award, the folk singer Ralph McTell described Barney as the virtuoso of the band.

Barney would have liked that; it certainly sums him up.

Capturing the spirit of the music

I’ve mentioned his flawless technique but there was more to him than that. He had the gift of capturing the spirit of a tune and bringing it to life. He could move from the heart-rending sadness of a great Irish ballad, to the infectious joy of some great jig or reel.

And all the time it seemed effortless to him.

I saw Barney and The Dubliners several times over the years. In the early days he tended to stay in the background and let the big personalities of Luke Kelly, Ciaron Bourke and Ronnie Drew take centre stage.

His presence was always felt though as his wonderful banjo playing wove magical patterns around the melodies of the songs.

Most concerts would feature at least one session when the spotlight fell on Barney as he performed a solo. Sometimes he would be accompanied by one of the band members on guitar. This would prompt to him to joke that as “this is an Irish solo, there ‘ll be two of us”.

A great musician and a great sense of humour

The Dubliners from the Plain and Simple album

The Dubliners from the Plain and Simple album

Barney had no problem having a laugh at his own expense.

In later years, he came to the fore a lot more at concerts. He spoke and cracked a few jokes with the audience. “What’s the difference between an Irish wake and an Irish wedding,” he’d ask.

Then he’d pause a second before bringing the house down with the punchline: “One less drunk.”

Barney McKenna – the occasional singer

Barney would often sing the occasional song at Dubliners concerts, especially in the latter years.

He was a keen fisherman and loved singing that great song Fiddler’s Green – about the heavenly place where fishermen go “where there’s never a gale and the fish jump on board with one swish of the tail”.

Another of his standards was, I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me – a song that became particularly poignant for him following the death of his wife Joka.

A Man You don’t Meet Everyday

Barney also loved singing the ballad, I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday, about a landowner who spends a day buying drinks for everyone in the pub.

It was the last song I heard Barney sing when I saw the Dubliners for the last time in Nottingham last year. I’m glad he did that song because it seems sort of fitting now.

Barney McKenna was a great musician and a great storyteller – and very definitely “a man you don’t meet everyday.”

Death of Barney McKenna

Written by Patrick Kehoe

Patrick Kehoe

Pat Kehoe is a writer for Irish Music Daily.
His favourite Irish music bands are the Dubliners and Planxty
You can follow him on

We hope you enjoyed this article. We’re constantly adding new articles so why not bookmark our blog home page and come back to see our new posts! Blog News Home Page

Check out more stories on Irish Music Daily

George Donaldson Street Team exceeds fund-raising target
Down to earth father of 1D star refuses son’s money
Fundraiser for Keith Harkin’s favourite charity
George Donaldson – why fans wanted to help his family
Dolores on her battle with cancer and booze
Irish rock legend speaks about his demons
Young Irish talent begins to shine
Star Wars wedding for The Wanted star
CT creator holds auditions for new band
Folk stars Villagers scoop Irish album award
Sinead O’Connor to renew her wedding vows
Dylan appears in Chrysler’s SuperBowl advert
Why Ireland is number one for Garth Brooks
Keith Duffy’s splash for cash
U2 scoop Golden Globe award for Mandela song
Line up for TradFest 2014 revealed
Bono hopes to get better and better
Wire creator set to make Pogues musical
Last Call – Mary Black farewell world tour
Choirs gather for world record attempt in Dublin
Charity single races up Irish charts
Connolly got punched defending Christy Moore
Cranberries star sings for the Pope at the Vatican
Bono: personal tribute to Nelson Mandela
Jagger a great-granddad – don’t call him granpa
Museum to honour 1D star Niall Horan
Justin Timberlake’s Auld Triangle splits the fans
Lonely Sinead prefers America to Ireland
Councillors keep hold of Van Morrison tickets

New PVC look for Sinead’s new album
Auditions for Irish stage show receives worldwide interest
Singers hit back at critics after weight slurs against Tara Erraught
Spotify playlist that could save lives
Fans raise money for George Donaldson’s daughter
Paul Simon and wife cleared of disorderly conduct
Damian McGinty set for solo US tour
U2 echo Beatles with rooftop gig
Sinead on ‘danger’ that made her shave head
Dropkick star helps fight against substance abuse
Bono says U2 are becoming irrelevant
McGinty and Carlin represent Derry
Magic Pie, would you like a Roll With It?
Rock star poses for pics at Dublin wedding
Enya’s in the money despite no new album
Bono busks Dublin on Christmas Eve
Fairytale of New York ‘special’ for Coronation St
Niall Horan to learn guitar from Stones legend
Chieftains to give master class in Irish music
Susan Boyle bullied after incorrect diagnosis
Irish teens hit #1 with tribute to teacher
U2 felt pressure on Mandela song
Ronan: "Tour after Gately’s death was mistake"
Irish star is Britain’s 3rd most influential Tweeter
Irish Spanish musical set in 16th century Ireland
Paul Byrom private concert

Sign up for Ireland Calling Newsletter
Once you have filled in the form, you should receive a confirmation email which you will need to click. Please check your junk mail folder in case it gets sent there.

powered by MailChimp!

Check our archive for great stories

Slap on the wrist for Bono over handshake
Cranberries star joins The Voice
Sinead turns her fury on Simon Cowell
James Galway's lifetime achievement award
Sinéad O’Connor hits back at Miley Cyrus
Sinéad’s ‘motherly’ warning to Miley Cyrus
Celtic Thunder -the kings of Social Media
Barney McKenna – genius and great man
The Dubliners' Barney McKenna dies aged 72
All the Way Home – Cathy Jordan
Folk &rock stars play Rory Gallagher Festival
International stars at the Temple Bar TradFest
Join in open trad sessions at Temple Bar
Mary Black Stories from the Steeples Review
Why do we love Fairytale of New York

Paul Byrom – Kickstarter for PBS Music special
Paul Byrom – raising money for a PBS special
Anuna: Behind a Fan’s Eyes
Irish trad sessions – sharing music and the craic
Festivals in Ireland
Irish American dream set to hit the road
Irish piano students make a big impact
Padraig Lalor – Ismay’s Dream
Arlene Faith – Spirit of the Celtic Violin
New album by Celtic Tenors – Feels Like Home
Van Morrison – the ten million airplays man
Death of Bert Jansch – inspirational folk guitarist
Times Past from JH – melodic, thoughtful songs
How Ralph McTell twisted my fingers
Online social forum for Irish traditional musicians

More great blog posts on Irish Music Daily

Loud earphones damaging children’s ears
Chasing the American Dream
Royal Opera House goes Gaelic
Irish singer Bob Geldof leads Live8
Music At the Heart of Ireland’s Renewal
Tara O’Grady’s magical fusion of jazz and folk
Ireland’s new Musical World Champions
Supporting Magdalene survivors
Magdalene charity video

Christmas bonus for MacGowan from Fairytale
Martin Hayes concert
Michael William Balfe – Ireland’s Mozart
‘Minstrel Boy’ writer Thomas Moore
Tara O’Grady – Irish music fused with jazz
Moonrakers – Celtic music that ‘oozes quality’
Gaelic Harmony
Calling musicians from Ireland’s 32 counties
Singer Oonagh Cassidy joins our video showcase

Great stories on the Irish Music Daily blog

Brendan O’Loughlin – Irish singer-songwriter
A listener’s guide to Irish song
Showcase your videos on our website
Derry wants to host Irish music festival
Singing in Irish – The Sean-nós tradition
Singing in Irish: yes – it’s a language
Fureys take mother’s advice
Kate Bush turns to Irish novelist James Joyce

Irish composers honoured by music academy
Did Wild Rover have a raunchy English cousin?
Irish singer Geldof honoured by Israeli university
When Ronan Met Burt album released
The Dubliners – flying the flag for Irish music
Is the Wild Rover an anti-drinking song?
The folk hero appeal of Whiskey in the Jar
When Ronan Met Burt

Elsewhere on Irish Music Daily

Bob Dylan tops the bill at Irish music festival
Singer Christy Moore backs forest campaign
Fields of Athenry – Irish song and football anthem
Dropkick Murphys evoke wild Irish wake
Ronan Keating to release Bacharach songs
Dubliners take a breather ahead of next tour
Dropkick Murphys back workers
BBC documentary on Irish rock band Thin Lizzy

Frankie Gavin Up Close and Personal
Irish songwriter sets Mandela speech to music
Gary Moore – An Irish music legend
Classic Irish fiddle music straight from the kitchen
What The Dubliners really drank back stage…
How Raglan Road came to be written
The death of Gerry Rafferty
Oh no…Hitler was a fan of Irish music