By Mattie Lennon
John Sheahan is a musician, a composer and a poet. He is also a born gentleman in the truest sense of that word. He must have a portrait in his attic because he is twenty years older than he looks. He has been a member of The Dubliners ballad group for fifty years. When Barney McKenna, a founder member, unexpectedly joined Ronnie, Luke and Ciaran in that great celestial concert hall on Thursday 05th April this Barney year John put on his poet’s hat and wrote Banjo Barney.
But who was Barney McKenna? He was born in Donnycarney, Dublin in 1939 and was interested in music from an early age. He joined The Dubliners , along with John Sheahan in 1962. Barney was considered one of the finest banjo-players in the world. He was known world-wide for his musical ability and his love of fishing but was also famous for his “Barneyisms.”
What is a “Barneyism? John always, lovingly, described Barney as “living in a parallel universe” and I’m sure if you met him ten times a day for a year, he would have a “Barneysm” for each meeting.
Such as the time they were on tour in Germany and the following dialogue took place at breakfast.
BARNEY; I’m tired. I wasn’t in bed until two o’ clock
JOHN; Barney, you weren’t in bed until five o ‘clock. I heard you coming in.
BARNEY; You shouldn’t have told me that; now I’ll be knackered all day.
And, when, at the start their Australian tour, they were met at the airport by a friend of Barney’s. Barney immediately started to complain about the heat only to be told that that was nothing, later in the day it would be “forty in the shade.” “Be Jaysus” says Barney “I’ll be keeping out of the shade today.” On Good Friday 1977 while in Australia John Sheahan celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary. John is a non-drinker but Barney tried to convince him to drink a glass of champagne to mark the occasion. “Ah come on John” says Barney, “ After all it’s not every year you celebrate a wedding anniversary”.
During a London concert-tour, having done a sound-check early in the evening, in the Royal Albert Hall they all went their separate ways. When it was getting close to curtain-up Barney couldn’t remember the name of the venue but he wasn’t beaten. He explained to a taximan that they were a ballad group from Dublin and they were playing “ . . in a big roundy place near a park.”
It was on the same trip that John and Barney were looking out through a hotel window on the second floor They saw a taxi heading straight for the hotel with no sign of slowing down. It disappeared as if it had ran into the front of the hotel but there was no sound of a crash. Barney, being a man of enquiring mind, went down to investigate. He discovered that there was an archway running under the hotel and that was where the taxi had gone. He reported back to John that it was “an obstacle confusion.”
After 48 years on the road John suggested to Barney that they retire, only to be told, “It’s too late for that.” As John Sheahan parted with his old friend for the last time in St. Loman’s Cemetery, Trim on Monday 09th April, perhaps his pain was eased slightly by the hundreds of “Barneyisms” going around in his head.
Your plectrum, a fledgling bird,
Squeezed too tightly, it chokes;
Too lightly, it flies away.
Cosy in your care,
It nests between finger and thumb
Heeding your touch
To wake wonders on string.
Dancing fingers paint pictures in air,
Barneyisms embellish the craic,
And your love song steals the limelight.
In tune with yourself
Jigging for mackerel,
Wind-song in the rigging,
Rhythm of Rolling wave.
Heave and haul of Shanty,
Audience lashed with salty foam,
You, on the quarter deck
Guide us round the dreaded Horn.
Without fuss or warning
You heed a whispered call,
Adrift in the doldrums,
You succumb to the long sleep.
Your hands, fixed in death,
Your fledgling bird now flown.
Your cap, tilted to the north star,
Your sails, rigged for a far horizon,
Heave away, haul away,
Sail away to the music of silence.
©John SheahanMarino Music.