McKenna, John (1880–1947), flute player, was born 6 January 1880 in the townland of Tents near the village of Tarmon, Co. Leitrim, the son of Pat McKenna from Arigna and Cecily McKenna (née Ward), who was from Tents. The area was, and still is, closely identified with flute playing. McKenna played the flute with local musicians including Mick Conlon, Hughie Byrne, Jamesy McManus, and the Gallagher brothers from Creevalee, not far from Tarmon. He spent some time as a weighmaster in the Arigna mines, but in September 1909 he married Mary Jane Keaveney, a local girl. They immediately honeymooned in Scotland (where some sources say they spent weeks, others two years), but on their return they departed for New York, where they spent the rest of their days.
The couple lived on East 97th Street: McKenna played the flute and from 1920 worked for the New York City fire department. Some of his early records refer to him as ‘Firepatrolman John McKenna’. He is closely identified with the 1920s revival of Irish music in America, making at least thirty disc recordings between 1921 and 1937 on a number of labels, including Columbia, Decca, New Republic, O'Byrne Dewitt, and Gennett. Many of these were and are extremely influential, confirming McKenna as a significant musician who played a major role in the establishment of the concert flute as a vehicle for Irish traditional music. Although he returned only once to Ireland, in August 1938, and made a live radio broadcast, his recordings found their way to Leitrim and to other parts of Ireland. Because of his recordings, a number of Leitrim tunes, such as ‘Leitrim town’ and ‘The Corry boys’, became part of the repertoire of traditional musicians. McKenna was a member of the Rosaleen Quartet and preferred duets to playing solo. His best-known duet partner was the Sligo fiddler James Morrison, who was originally from Riverstown and died in New York in 1947, though he also played with Sligo man Eddie Meehan on flute, Michael Gaffney (from near Arigna) on banjo, and Barney Conlon (from Co. Roscommon) on fiddle. The recordings included piano accompaniment, which was the custom at the time. McKenna ran slip jigs and double jigs together, and his polkas and barn dances are especially lively. His style had a distinctive ‘lift’, with a pulsating, breathy rhythm.
When Mary McKenna died in 1926 she had had nine children, of whom six survived. In March 1927 McKenna left the fire department to devote attention to his young family. He did not remarry and died in New York 26 November 1947. A monument in his memory was erected in Tarmon by the John McKenna Traditional Society, which was established in 1980. The society holds an annual commemorative festival.