Banjo player a key figure in Irish folk music

“Banjo” Barney McKenna, the last original member of Irish folk band the Dubliners, died Thursday, April 5, while having a morning cup of tea with a friend. He was 72 and had just marked his 50th year with the troupe; McKenna had continued to perform despite suffering from diabetes and a mild stroke.

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 U.K. tour with the Dubliners last month and performed the night before he died at a Dublin funeral.

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.

In 1962, Drew recruited him in for impromptu concerts at O’Donoghue’s, a pub near the Irish parliament. 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.

Despite the traditionalism of the Dubliners’ music, the group made significant inroads into the mainstream pop realm, appearing in the top 20 of the Irish and U.K. singles charts on several occasions. In the mid-1980s, the group even collaborated with raucous Celtic punk outfit the Pogues, to the chagrin of some of their contemporaries. The group received a lifetime achievement honor at the BBC 2 Radio Folk Awards in February of this year.

“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.

McKenna is survived by his partner Tina, sister Marie and brother Sean, also a top Irish banjo player.

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