Banjo Barney - the man who plucked our heart strings

Published: 12 Apr 2012 09:290 comments

BLIND in one eye, diabetic, and prevented by the aftermath of a stroke from getting on and off stage unaided, but exactly four weeks ago tonight 72-year-old Barney McKenna, last of the founding members of The Dubliners folk group, held an audience at Reading's Hexagon in the palm of his hand.

His stories, historical snippets, self-deprecating jokes, a few solos in that distinctively wavering voice and, of course, the musical mastery which made him arguably the world's finest exponent of the tenor banjo, reinforced Barney's regular introduction from close friend and fiddle player John Sheahan as "the last of the great survivors".

But last Thursday morning, sitting at his breakfast table in the fishing village of Howth, north of Dublin, the great survivor peacefully closed his eyes for the final time. The President of Ireland, no less, led the mourners at Monday's funeral. Hopefully Sheahan and The Dubliners will carry on, but for us whose sixties involved Guinness and the revival of Irish folk music inspired by a bunch of bearded rascals, rather than illegal substances and rock and roll, 'tis the end of an era.

And for the man whose fingers plucked reels, jigs and laments with the touch of an angel, I'll wager that first session reunited with Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke and Ronnie Drew was quite a night.

THE only thing more certain than the rain's arrival was that the drought order would be accompanied by a rash of snooping.

Newbury MP Richard Benyon's hosepipe is already destined to become legend, with all sides of the political and environmental arguments determinedly squeezing out the last drop of propaganda.

But, rest assured, we'll all be at it soon; checking why the neighbour's lawn looks greener than it should, the reason for those rosier than thou tomatoes, or that rather too shiny car. And once you've started, you'll only be a phone call away from becoming a (pun intended) grass.

Mind you, recollections of 1976 would suggest that some will show the drought regulations the same contempt currently reserved for using mobile phones while driving, or leaving seatbelts unbuckled.

Back in that long hot summer 36 years ago a national newspaper ordered me to tour a 'posh' area (ie Caversham Heights) in the early hours seeking water sinners.

It was easy. Sniff the air for newly damp soil, identify the midnight waterer and pop back in daylight to confront them. Until at 2am I caught a gent red-handed, hosing down his car. "Tap's broken," he spluttered, "Didn't want the water to waste."

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