Bernard Noël “Banjo Barney” McKenna, Irish musician and a founding member of The Dubliners, is born on December 16, 1939 in Donnycarney, Dublin. He plays the tenor banjo, violin, mandolin, and melodeon. He is most renowned as a banjo player.
McKenna plays the banjo from an early age, initially because he cannot afford to buy the instrument of his choice, a mandolin. He is a member of The Dubliners from 1962 and is the only living member of the original formation at the time of his death. Prior to joining the Dubliners, he spends a few months in The Chieftains. In addition to his work on traditional Irish music, he also plays jazz on occasion.
McKenna uses GDAE tuning on a 19-fret tenor banjo, an octave below fiddle/mandolin and, according to musician Mick Moloney, is single-handedly responsible for making the GDAE-tuned tenor banjo the standard banjo in Irish music.
McKenna remains a great favourite with live audiences, and some of the loudest and most affectionate applause follows the tunes and songs on which he is the featured performer. He is well known for his unaccompanied renditions of songs such as “South Australia” and “I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me.” His banjo solos on tunes such as “The Maid Behind the Bar,” “The High Reel” and “The Mason’s Apron,” where he is usually accompanied by Eamonn Campbell on guitar, are often performed to cries of “C’mon Barney!” from audience or band members. Another featured spot in Dubliners performances is the mandolin duet that he plays with John Sheahan, again with Eamonn Campbell providing guitar accompaniment. As he often points out to the audience, “It’s an Irish duet, so there’s three of us going to play it.”
McKenna’s tendency to relate funny, and often only marginally believable, stories is legendary amongst Dubliners fans and friends. These anecdotes become known as Barneyisms, and his friend and former Dubliners bandmate Jim McCann collects them for the book An Obstacle Confusion: The Wonderful World of Barney McKenna.
McKenna dies unexpectedly on the morning of April 5, 2012 after collapsing in the kitchen of his home in Howth, County Dublin. He is buried at St. Loman’s Cemetery in Trim, County Meath, on April 9, 2012. Initially it is unclear whether The Dubliners will continue their 50th Anniversary Tour in the wake of McKenna’s death. However they soon confirm that they would “do their best to honour all the concert dates for the rest of the year .”