John McKenna (1880-1947)

24 November 2006, 9:11 PM GMT

John McKenna was born on January 6th 1880 on the shores of Lough Allen near Tarmon in Co. Leitrim, near the Arigna Coalfields and it was here John got his first job. The area was rich in traditional music and musicians plied their trade at the usual house dances and American wakes. The flute was the predominant instrument in the area and it was nothing unusual to find eight or nine flute players at such a gathering. John married a local girl Mary Jane Keaveney in 1909 and set sail for New York. They had nine children, and after his wife’s death in 1926, he left his fireman’s job to care for his family. John found consolation in his music, made many recordings up to 1937 and in fact continued to do other recordings till he was 60 years of age. While he has some solo recordings, he very often played duets with, many others, the likes of James Morrison fiddle, and Michael Gaffney banjo.

His last recording was with the Rosaleen Quartet in the company of Larry Redican, fiddle, from Boyle, Eddie Meehan flute from Sligo, and Frank Fallon from McKenna’s own area. McKenna’s many 78 records started to filter back to Leitrim from 1922 onwards and caused quite a stir just like the Coleman and Morrison records did elsewhere. John McKenna was in fact the only flute player to make a major impact on the fiddle-dominated scene. O’Neill’s ‘1001 Gems’ published in 1907 was regarded as the bible among musicians. The advent of the Gramophone with the 78’s provided the aural mode for musicians to emulate.

John did make one lengthy return visit to Ireland in 1938 which went unnoticed by the local press but he had some great nights of music with his old comrades, especially in Dublin in the company of the Liddy brothers, JJ Gardiner, Mrs Harrington and others and had one broadcast with Radio Éireann. John returned to New York and died on the 26th of November1947. The John McKenna Traditional Society unveiled a memorial to him in 1980 and hold an annual festival with emphasis on flute playing.

His Music

It was predominantly for dancing so it had a fine lift and expressive rhythm. He favoured short phrases punctuated by stops which gave it a great staccato punch, devoid of over ornamentation.

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