DUBLIN - “Banjo’’ Barney McKenna, the last original member of the Irish folk band The Dubliners, died Thursday while having a morning cup of tea with a friend. He was 72 and had just marked his 50th year with the troupe.
Irish classical guitarist Michael Howard, who was with Mr. 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 talked him through emergency revival procedures over the phone, but Mr. McKenna “was pretty much gone.’’
Mr. McKenna was considered the most influential banjo player in Irish folk music. He spent a half-century performing, recording, and touring with the band 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.
Mr. McKenna completed a United Kingdom tour with The Dubliners last month and performed Wednesday night at a Dublin funeral.
Born in Dublin in 1939, Mr. McKenna tried to join the Irish Army band but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He busked in the streets and pubs of the capital and developed a reputation as an innovative performer on a specially tuned, four-string 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 Mr. 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 Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who saw Mr. McKenna perform last month in a Dublin cathedral at one of The Dubliners’ many 50th anniversary performances.
His Dutch wife, Joka, died 28 years ago, and the couple had no children. Mr. McKenna leaves his partner, Tina, a sister, Marie, and a brother, Sean, who is also a top Irish banjo player.