Irish classical guitarist Michael Howard, who was with McKenna when he died, said he was talking with his longtime friend at his kitchen table, when “all of a sudden Barney’s head dropped down to his chest. It looked as if he’d nodded off.” Howard said paramedics over the phone talked him through emergency revival procedures, but McKenna “was pretty much gone.”
“The comfort that I take from it is, he passed away very peacefully sitting at his own breakfast table having a quiet cup of tea and a chat,” Howard said.
“What a lovely way to go,” said McKenna’s Dubliners bandmate for a quarter-century, guitarist and singer Eamonn Campbell.
McKenna was considered the most influential banjo player in Irish folk music. He spent a half-century performing, recording and touring with the band ever since its 1962 creation in the Dublin pub O’Donoghue’s. The other three founders – Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke and Luke Kelly – died in 2008, 1988 and 1984, respectively.
McKenna completed a United Kingdom tour with The Dubliners last month and performed Wednesday night at a Dublin funeral. Howard, who also performed there and drove McKenna home afterward, said his friend performed “absolutely beautifully. When he finished there was a spontaneous, thunderous round of applause in the church.”
Born in Dublin in 1939, McKenna tried to join the Irish army band but was rejected because of bad eyesight. He busked in the streets and pubs of the capital and developed a reputation as an innovative performer on a specially tuned, four-stringed tenor banjo, then a virtually unknown instrument in Ireland that he made an Irish folk favorite.
The gravel-voiced Drew recruited him to Friday night “sessions” – impromptu barside concerts – at O’Donoghue’s, a diminutive pub near the Irish parliament so famously packed that its barmen had to stand on stepstools to take orders. It soon gained a reputation as the country’s top venue for live folk music, with The Dubliners performing alongside such other rising folk stars as The Chieftains and the Fureys.
Many noted how McKenna always made time to help younger musicians learn the art of the tenor banjo, particularly the intricacies of his own strumming and tuning techniques.
“His influence on and generosity to other instrumentalists was immense,” said Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who saw McKenna perform last month in a Dublin cathedral at one of The Dubliners’ many 50th anniversary performances.
Friends and bandmates told anecdote upon anecdote Thursday of the many off-the-wall, comically illogical comments made by McKenna over the years.
“He was like a brother to me,” recalled fiddler John Sheahan, who joined The Dubliners in 1964 and remains in the band today. His favorite Barneyism: calling an optical illusion an “obstacle confusion.”
“He was very droll man and great company. You’d never know what he’d come out with next,” Campbell said. “My favorite song that he sang was ‘I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.’ And that was true about Barney.”
His Dutch wife, Joka, died 28 years ago and the couple had no children. He lived alone in the upscale fishing port of Howth and spent spare time tinkering with his boat and fishing on the Irish Sea. He continued to perform, despite suffering from diabetes and a mild stroke.
McKenna is survived by his partner Tina, sister Marie and brother Sean, who is also a top Irish banjo player. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.