The current Leitrim traditional group in residence, Dónal Lunny, Seamus Begley and John Carty recently paid a visit to the restored home of the legendary flute player John McKenna in Tents, near Tarmon. These present masters of the tradition were visiting to hear about an exciting project to produce for the first time, through digital remastering, the total and complete discography of John McKenna.
The recordings span from 1921 to 1937 and some of this music is extremely rare and has never been heard before.
The legendary John McKenna is one of the most influential flute players in the history of Irish music. John was born in Tents in 1880, emigrated to the USA in 1909 and from 1921 to 1937 whilst living, working and raising a family in New York, he recorded an extremely important body of work in total forty four 78 rpm’s record sides. McKenna was a true master in his field and during his lifetime, his raw, earthy dynamic Leitrim style, allied with a rich tone, subtle melody variation and a beautifully unforced driving rhythm set a new benchmark for excellence. McKenna is of one of the most influential flute players in the history of Irish music and he attained an impact globally.
The John Mc Kenna Society was founded in 1978 by members of the local community to honour his memory. This involves a commitment to the ongoing development of Irish traditional music in the area, through music classes and also their hosting of the annual John Mc Kenna Music Festival every June. The Society also run an Artist In Residence scheme under Leitrim County Council’s “ Leitrim Arts Strategy “ in conjunction with the Arts Council. The Artist in Residence has the use of John Mc Kenna’s ancestral cottage and previous holders of this position were fiddle player Jesse Smith and flute player Niall Keegan. The current Artist in Residence is Ballinaglera flute player, Seán Gilrane.
Seán is working on this extremely important project to produce a double CD of John Mc Kenna’s total discography in one place, in the form of 44 individual digitally remastered tracks on double CD. Currently John Mc Kenna’s music is only accessible in the original 78 rpm records, cassette tape format or on various compilation album releases. Seán’s work so far has been the sourcing and gathering together of John Mc Kenna 78rpm records from collectors worldwide. He then meticulously catalogues and classifies them to obtain those of the very best quality. Sixteen of the tracks sourced are extremely rare and have never been heard before by the public at large. These new gems are a hugely significant find because they capture Mc Kenna at the very beginning of his recording career when he was at the absolute peak of his powers. Seán owes a huge debt of gratitude to musician and musical historian, Mayo man Alan Morrisroe, for immeasurable assistance in this regard.
In addition Seán is also busy sourcing biographical information and other material which has come to light through contact with John Mc Kenna’s surviving family in the USA. All this new fascinating information together with some outstanding new photographs will be interweaved with the existing research in an accompanying booklet which will provide a closer insight into the fascinating life of John McKenna.
The imminent release of this project is not just great for John Mc Kenna’s family, the John Mc Kenna Society, the flute playing tradition of Co Leitrim and the wider traditional music world it is also of immense importance both culturally and historically, not just for Leitrim but worldwide. Check out the John Mc Kenna Society website for more details; http://www.johnmckenna.ie