McKenna, Barney (Bernard Noël; 'Banjo Barney') (1939–2012), folk musician, was born on 16 December 1939 in the Coombe Lying-in Hospital, Dublin, eldest of two sons and two daughters of John ('Jack') McKenna, a labourer soon to become an army cook, from Trim, Co. Meath, residing at the time in Nash Street, Inchicore, and Kathleen McKenna (née Corcoran), a Dublin native. In Barney's childhood the family moved to the northside Dublin suburb of Donnycarney. Frequently visiting his relatives in Trim, where his paternal grandparents had settled c.1920, Barney developed a strong attachment to the locale, and was taught by ear to play the mandolin by his uncle Jim McKenna. (His father played the melodeon, an instrument Barney would also master.) Unable to afford a mandolin, his mother bought him a Glee Club banjo in Goodwin's of Dublin's Capel Street.
Leaving school at age 14, McKenna worked at various jobs, employed by the early 1960s as a glassblower. From the early 1950s he haunted such city-centre havens of traditional Irish music as the Pipers' Club on Thomas Street and the Fiddlers' Club on Church Street, mingling with other devotees of the genre. He played banjo at concerts and cabarets with Paddy Moloney and Martin Fay (both to become founding members of the Chieftains). During 1962 he often played banjo accompaniment to ballad singer and guitarist Ronnie Drew (qv) at the latter's curtain-raising and interval sets in John Molloy's Gate theatre revues. McKenna and Drew were the nucleus of a collection of musicians and balladeers performing from winter 1962–3 at informal sessions in O'Donoghue's of Merrion Row and other pub venues, out of which evolved a four-man combination including Luke Kelly (qv) and Ciarán Bourke (1935–88) that began playing a steadily increasing number of scheduled gigs in pubs, hotels and theatres. Originally billed as the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, as bookings multiplied and a recording contract was secured, they were renamed the Dubliners. Amid a 1964 line-up change occasioned by Kelly's temporary departure, the group was augmented by fiddler John Sheahan (b. 1939), who remained after Kelly's return, thus completing the classic Dubliners fivesome of 1965–74 that attained Irish and international stardom.
While the Dubliners were renowned primarily as a ballad group, the twinning of McKenna's banjo and Sheahan's fiddle was the core of their instrumental sound; the pair's solos and duets on both dance tunes and slow airs were popular elements of the group's repertoire. For years, Dubliners' concerts opened with a pair of reels: 'Fermoy lassies' and 'Sporting Paddy'. Other reels with which McKenna was especially associated included 'The mason's apron', 'The high reel' and 'The maid behind the bar'. An accomplished and imaginative musician, McKenna revolutionised the technique of the nineteen-fret, four-string, resonator tenor banjo, thereby establishing the instrument's place within the genre of Irish traditional music. Prior to McKenna, the few tenor banjoists playing Irish music employed the standard jazz tuning (CGDA) to play a rhythmic, chordal accompaniment to the melody. McKenna introduced the radical innovation of stringing his instrument with heavier gauges tuned to the lower octave of GDAE (an octave below the fiddle), allowing fingerings identical to those of the fiddle and mandolin, and better suiting the keys and modes most commonly found in Irish traditional music. He thus transformed the tenor banjo into a melodic instrument, capable of playing the melody of a tune in unison with the standard melodic instruments, and taking solo turns. Employing varied techniques of ornamentation – most importantly, rapidly plucked triplets – he was able to replicate the articulation and phrasing of Sheahan's fiddling. His style and technique spawned a vast school of emulators; GDAE is now commonly described as 'Irish tuning'.
McKenna was also known for a distinctive plectrum technique, known as the 'McKenna grip'. He would explain that gripping the plectrum was akin to handling a fledgling bird: too tightly, and one will choke it; too gently, and it will fly away. Besides the tenor banjo, McKenna also played mandolin and melodeon. While never the Dubliners' lead vocalist, he occasionally sang to his own single-note banjo accompaniment, immersing himself in the spirit of such songs as 'I wish I had someone to love me' and 'I'm a man you don't meet every day'. His vocal repertoire also included sea shanties and nautical ballads (such as 'Three score and ten'), bespeaking his deep love of the sea and seafaring.
Amiable in personality and rotund in physique, with a droll wit, and given to idiosyncratic observation and meandering anecdote, McKenna was renowned among Dubliners' fans for a free-spirited eccentricity of mind and behaviour. The quirky utterances to which he was prone (in fact or apocryphally), and for which he was especially beloved, were termed 'Barneyisms', and included such stage announcements as: 'This next number is a solo. We'll play it on banjo and guitar'; or his instructions to a London taxi driver when he was rushing to a gig at the Albert Hall, but had forgotten the venue's name: 'Take me to the big Roundy Room'. When the Dubliners were invited to a St Patrick's Day celebration in the 1980s on Capitol Hill in Washington, McKenna, presented to Edward Kennedy, earnestly took the senator's hand with the words 'Terribly sorry to hear about the brudders'. With an elastic sense of time as well as occasion, McKenna often extended an instrumental solo well beyond its pre-planned length, having introduced it with an impromptu discourse on whatever subject was foremost on his mind (the environment, marine life, the ancient Celts), the relevance of which was apparent only to himself. While McKenna's penchant for such 'Barneyisms' was utterly guileless, over time the mass media constructed his persona around them, thus tending – especially in the latter years, when the Dubliners were elevated to the dubious status of 'national treasures' – to obscure in the casual public eye the quality of his musicianship. In addition to the bushy beard sported by every Dubliner, McKenna wore a trademark Breton fisherman's cap. He preferred in all settings to play his instrument seated, a posture less associated with the concert hall than with a pub session.
McKenna married (1965) Joka Oldert (d. 1984), of Dutch birth. In later years his partner was Tina Hove, who survived him. He was the godfather of Ronnie Drew's son, the actor Phelim Drew. He was long resident at 15 Church Street, Howth, Co. Dublin, one street away from the Abbey Tavern, a venue with which the Dubliners had a prominent early association. The location in a seaside town facilitated his passion for fishing. He also had a small house in Trim. A lover of nature in all its guises, he had an empathy for animals, especially birds, the many of which he kept in his kitchen were prone to burst into song to the sound of his banjo. He had a special interest in Native American lore, the people he believed to live in the closest harmony with nature.
Through many line-up changes over the years – occasioned initially from the mid 1970s by the illnesses and premature deaths of Bourke and Kelly, and by Drew's five-year departure, and then by assorted comings and goings of personnel – McKenna and Sheahan were the constant Dubliners, each remaining with the group for uninterrupted tenures, ceasing only with McKenna's death and the subsequent disbandment of the group. McKenna was thus not only the last surviving member of the original foursome, but also the longest-serving member of the group. Outside the Dubliners, he occasionally gave jazz performances on banjo. He was featured in a six-part RTÉ television series, The Green Linnet (1979), in which he and accordionist Tony McMahon travelled from Co. Clare through Europe to Florence in an eponymous green Citroën 2CV van. He shared a headline bill at the 2004 Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival, Longford town, with the American bluegrass banjo maestro Earl Scruggs (d. 28 March 2012, eight days before McKenna).
In his latter years McKenna suffered from the effects of a mild stroke, and from diabetes, which caused him to lose sight in one eye from 2006. In 2012 the Dubliners scheduled a series of engagements to mark the group's fiftieth anniversary year. McKenna participated in concerts in Dublin's Croke Park and St Patrick's cathedral, and in tours of Germany and Great Britain, the latter including presentation of a lifetime achievement award to the group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Plans for the late spring and summer included a tour of Denmark and a week's run in Vienna's Metropol. On 5 April 2012 McKenna lost consciousness over breakfast in his Howth home with a friend, the classical guitarist Michael Howard, with whom he was planning to drive to his house in Trim for the day; he was pronounced dead upon arrival at Beaumont Hospital. His remains reposed on successive days in the church of the Assumption, Howth, and a Trim funeral home, before removal to St Patrick's church, Trim, for the funeral mass, followed by burial locally, by McKenna's wishes, in St Loman's cemetery. He was replaced in the Dubliners' line-up by banjoist Gerry O'Connor. John Sheahan's retirement from the Dubliners upon completion of their scheduled anniversary dates in December 2012 marked the end of the group. The remaining members (O'Connor, Seán Cannon, Eamonn Campbell and Patsy Watchorn) continued to perform as the Dublin Legends.