The music of John McKenna, for many years known only to specialist collectors, has recently become widely available on a
cassette of remastered 78rpm discs which he originally released in the United States in the 1920's and 30's. The
following account of his life and music is a revised and greatly enlarged version of the inlay card notes to the
cassette, and is compiled from interviews recorded in 1982 with Mary Flynn, Joseph Mooney, Tommy Gilmartin, Arthur
McGrail, Frank Flynn, Joe Liddy, Paddy McGowan, and Hughie Gillespie.
It is a grim paradox that one of the factors which aided the remarkable renaissance of Irish traditional music in
this century was the depopulation of the Irish countryside and the flight of huge numbers of Irish people, among
them their musicians, to the United States. Particularly in the 1920's and 30's, traditional players found audiences
in the taprooms and dance halls of America, as well as opportunities to record-and broadcast their music: opportunities
they could never have had, however accomplished they were, in the struggling Ireland they left behind.
Among the most significant of these emigrant musicians was John McKenna, a master traditional player whose remarkable
achievement was, through his recordings, to establish the flute as a major instrument in Irish music. The recent reissue
by the John McKenna Traditional Society in his native Leitrim shows that age has not dimmed the brilliance of his driving,
extrovert, rhythmic style. His playing, more than ever today, exerts a huge influence on traditional music. His settings
have been reproduced with great fervour recently by De Danann, particularly on their "Star Spangled molly" album. Frankie
Gavin's subsequent solo flute album, "Up and Away", is designed specifically as a McKenna tribute: the title derives from
one of McKenna's best known polkas. Among other musicians who are exponents of the McKenna style or who have prominently
featured McKenna settings on their recordings are Willie Clancy, Charlie Lennon, Seamas Mac Mathuna, Mick O'Connor, Seamas
Tansey, and many others; Matt Molloy of The Chieftains has fused many strands with McKenna's to produce his own unique blend.
In the Ireland of the turn of the century, folk music revivalists saw themselves as antiquarians whose job was to document
the last throes of a dying culture: in a memorable phrase they spoke of "music of archaeological interest". Across the
Atlantic, however, where millions of Irish flocked, the outlook was less hopeless. A Chicago policeman, Francis O'Neill,
collected the music of the restless Irish in his city: his 1907 collection of dance music, "1001 Gems", was a popular success
among musicians and was regarded by them as their bible. The repertoire of Irish folk instrumental music was, for the moment,
standardised in O'Neill's book; it remained to establish a standard style in which this repertoire could be played. A new mode
of communication, the gramophone, provided this musical idiom for musicians to emulate. On the ethnic labels of American record
companies a living, breathing style came into prominence, a style which, by its energy, expressiveness, and excellence of technique,
became a broad, dominant musical dialect for Irish traditional dance music.
This style which came to dominate Irish traditional music for many decades was led by a brilliant school of emigrant musicians
from County Sligo and the surrounding area, which included McKenna's birthplace, an underprivileged region in north Connacht in the
west of Ireland. This Sligo style was spearheaded by fiddleplayers Michael Coleman and James Morrison, John McKenna was the pre-eminent
fluteplayer among these musicians and, in fact, was the only fluteplayer to make a major impact on this fiddle-dominated movement.
John McKenna was born on January 6th 1880. His father, Pat, was from Arigna; his mother Cecily Ward, was from Tents, Tarmon, midway between
Drumshanbo and Drumkeeran, small towns in north County Leitrim, and here, on the shores of Lough Allen, was where the McKenna family
lived and where John was born. "The last place that God made" is how that scenic and rugged area is decribed by the farmers who
struggle with its rocky land. One feature, unusual for rural Ireland, which gave an economic viability to this locality which nestles
among the Arigna Mountains was that it had for centuries been a coal mining area. It was with the local coal mining company that McKenna
found his first job.
Leitrim's Master of the Concert Flute
Harry Bradshaw and Jackie Small