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The best of The Dubliner’s bearded banjo player Barney McKenna

Barney McKenna from the Dubliners at Maureen Potters funeral at St Birdgets Church in Killester Dublin. 10/4/2004 Photo Leon Farrell/
Barney McKenna from the Dubliners pictured in 2004 (Photo Leon Farrell/

BARNEY MCKENNA – ‘Banjo Barney from Donnycarney’ – was one of the founder members of the Dubliners, the world-famous Irish folk musicians and singers who in 2012 celebrated fifty years on the road as a band.

For dyed-in-the-wool Dubliner’s fans, Barney’s name immediately conjures up the image of the burly, bearded banjo genius who dazzled the audience with his virtuosity while charming them with his folksy, no-nonsense personality.

However, Barney was famous for another reason, particularly within show business: he was capable of bringing any conversation to a sudden stop by simply uttering something so completely unexpected, and at the time so incomprehensible, as to reduce everyone present to a bemused silence.

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These surreal verbal gems have become known simply as ‘Barneyisms’.

Here are a few brilliantly Barney examples: 

1. Barney the Philosopher 

‘It’s a very strange thing,’ said Barney. ‘Everyone in me life that I love starts with a “B” – me boat, me beer, me banjo and me bollix.’

2. Wordplay with Luke Kelly

One of Barney’s more endearing traits was his habit of picking up on a word that he’d heard, and using it at every opportunity – until he got bored with it. The thing is, he wasn’t always quite sure of the exact meanings of these words, but he could get very defensive if challenged on his usage of them. One such word was ‘amphibious’, which was his favourite for a while. He and Luke were once having a verbal battle over something now forgotten and, in exasperation, he yelled at Luke, ‘Anyway, you’re only an amphibious thinker!’ ‘You don’t even know what that word means,’ Luke sneered. ‘Yes I do. “Amphibious” means on top of the water and under the water at the same time,’ Barney snapped back. ‘And that’s the way you think,’ he added triumphantly.

barney live
Illustration by Wendy Shea, taken from An Obstacle Confusion

3. Nighthawks

One of the Dubliners’ earliest managers was London impresario Phil Solomon, and it was well known that Barney had no love for the man. One evening, after the TV show Nighthawks, a sorely missed late-night satirical show featuring current affairs and music, Arthur Murphy, one of the presenters, was chatting to Barney in his artless way. ‘Whatever happened to Phil Solomon?’ Arthur asked. ‘I don’t know,’ said Barney. ‘But I hope it was somethin’ horrible.’

4. Nervous Flyer

Barney was, according to himself, a nervous flyer. On a journey from Dublin to a folk festival in Belgium, he was seated beside the piper and singer Finbar Furey. The flight was carrying about thirty of Ireland’s most famous musicians and singers, all bound for the festival, and someone joked aloud that if the plane went down, the professional folk music scene in Ireland would be finished. There was much ribald comment thrown around, and comparisons were drawn with the famous crash of the plane carrying the Manchester United football team. All this served to make Barney very nervous, and he was closely examining the wings, and jumping at every change in the plane’s engine noise. Finbar decided to reassure him. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘there’s absolutely no point in worrying. If your number’s up, then your number’s up, and there’s nothing you can do about it!’ This was not really what Barney wanted to hear. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but what if the pilot’s number is up?’

Illustration by Wendy Shea
Illustration by Wendy Shea

5. Another day, Another Breakfast

One day, Barney was looking rather dishevelled, and one of the others took him to task over his appearance. ‘For God’s sake, Barney, you should tidy yourself up a bit,’ he said. ‘You’ve even got some of this morning’s breakfast in your beard!’ Barney tried unsuccessfully to look down at his beard, and then asked, ‘What is it?’ ‘It looks like egg,’ he was told. Barney shook his head. ‘No,’ he said judiciously. ‘That’d be yesterday’s.’

6. Old Romantic

This same lady friend often used to accompany Barney to O’Donoghue’s pub. Frequently, after they arrived, she wouldn’t see him again for the rest of the evening. He would be at the centre of a crowd of musicians in the back room, enjoying one of the wonderful sessions for which that pub became famous. As was usual in those days, the pub was so full that moving around was almost impossible. One night, Barney shouldered his way through the crush and, to the lady’s astonishment, triumphantly placed a creamy pint of Guinness in front of her. Her astonishment was understandable, as Barney was not known for such solicitude towards his guests or, indeed, for buying drinks. ‘Oh, thank you, Barney,’ she said, with a degree of bemusement. ‘That’s very sweet of you.’ ‘No problem,’ Barney said gallantly. ‘It wasfor Joe Leary, but he’s drinkin’ Beamish.’

Taken from An Obstacle Confusion by Jim McCann. Out now, £10.99, ISBN 9781910742150. Available in all good bookshops and online at or from Amazon


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