Friday, April 06, 2012

So. Farewell Then, Barney McKenna

There's a case to be made that Barney McKenna was the champion drinker of the Dubliners. Drink killed Ciarán Bourke, it made Ronnie Drew leave the group for five years, and it killed Luke Kelly.

But McKenna outlived them all and, although his death was sudden, he was spared his comrades’ mortal suffering. Yesterday, the day before Good Friday, he nodded off to sleep in his own chair in his own kitchen, and never woke up again. Would that we all are afforded such a luxury.

Kieran Hanrahan said yesterday that it was McKenna’s virtuosity that made the banjo popular as a traditional instrument in Irish music. It was not considered a “proper” instrument before that.

The banjo’s great virtue is also its great vice – it’s loud. You can hear a banjo at the back of the pub, above the roaring and the gulping. But when you’re that loud, it’s hard to be particularly tender. Steve Martin, no bad man on the banjo himself, once remarked that you can never play a sad song on the banjo, because it always comes out happy.

He never heard Barney McKenna play Ar Éirinn Ní Neosainn Cé hÍ.

I saw the Dubliners, once. It was in the Gaiety, ten years ago, when all the surviving members assembled to do their thing. They were old men then, and there was a strong sense of nostalgia in the hall, but there was also the odd crackle, the odd taste of what it might have been like to hear them in their roaring boy prime. That would have been something.

The band always liked to make a fuss over Barney McKenna, and his virtuosity. McKenna addressed this that night in the Gaiety – before playing his solos he said that he knew he had a reputation or drink and nights out, but he wanted to make clear, to anyone listening in the audience, that he didn’t become a virtuoso in the pub. He learned to play at home, by practicing, practicing, practicing. He would view a title like “champion drinker of the Dubliners” with a jaundiced eye.

Barney McKenna was a hero of Irish music, and his loss grieves our battered nation. He was first and last a Dubliner of course, in every sense of the word, but we should also remember his short but stunning TV series with Tony MacMahon, The Green Linnet. The two men toured Europe in a small green Citreon Fourgonette van in the summer of 1979, echoing the footsteps of the wild geese of the 18th Century. It wasn’t an easy trip, and neither man spoke to the other for twenty-five years after it.

Happily, the made up in 2006, each man being big enough to admit his own fault. Life is short and brittle. Only the art survives.

Here are Mac Mahon and McKenna playing My Love is in America, somewhere in Germany, on The Green Linnet TV series in that warm European summer of 1979. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas síoraí ar anam usual Barney McKenna, ceoltóir, ealaíontóir, Bleá Cliach. Rinne sé a chuid ar son na hÉireann.