Irish Arts Festivals Archive: Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival
Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival
The Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival (2002 - 2012) was created in memory of the celebrated Irish banjo player, Johnny Keenan, It was held in Longford, Co Longford from 2002-2011, and in Tullamore, Co Offaly in 2012. The festival celebrated not only the four and five string banjos, but all Irish Traditional, American Bluegrass and Folk Music.
Each year during the festival, the town of Longford was transformed into a haven for musicians and music lovers, drawing thousands of visitors each year from Ireland, Europe, USA, Australia and Japan, There were workshops, jams, sessions, busking, and concerts featuring the top folk musicians of the world. The Festival was organised and managed by Johnny's wife, Chris Keenan, by Kathy Casey and a dedicated organisation committee.
The Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival was formed after the death of legendary Irish tenor banjo player, Johnny Keenan. Johnny was born into a strong musical family, and began playing while still a toddler. The Keenan household was a breeding ground for some of the finest music in Ireland. The nightly sessions at their Dublin home on Oranmore Road in Ballyfermot were legendary, with family members and visiting friends playing together, often throughout the night.
Johnny was able to turn his hand to, and master, any instrument he touched, although the banjo was his greatest triumph. Johnny embraced any style of music which he deemed ‘came from the heart’. He was particularly keen on bringing Irish and American traditional musics back together.
He was a master player, a ‘musician’s musician’, and musicians regularly travelled from far and wide to sit down and play with him at his favourite music spots. He was known for his generosity and encouragement with musicians of all levels, regularly seeking out the novice players, and inviting them to sit and join him. It is with this generosity of spirit that the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival was created.
Short biography of founding members
The Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival was founded by Chris Keenan and Kathy Casey.
Chris was the founder and managing director of the JKBF. Widow of Johnny Keenan, Chris started her music career at Chrysalis Records in Boston, handling radio promotion for label artists and recordings, later followed by CBS/Sony Music in New York as a copyright & mechanical licensing specialist. Simultaneously, Chris worked at the largest automated travel agency in the world, as a European and Asian specialist for traveling corporate clients. For the past 20 years Chris has freelanced as a festival & event producer, writer, lecturer, artist manager and tour promoter both in America and Europe.
Kathy was co-managing director of the JBKF. A well-known radio personality from Shannonside Northern Sound Radio, Kathy was drafted early on to help develop and bring the festival to fruition. With her significant local connections and her long-time experience as sales manager of the popular midlands station, Kathy was instrumental in fostering the event’s deep connection with the local community.
There are so many memorable moments throughout the years of the festival - most importantly the people who attended every year from all over the world, and the great Irish and international artists who gladly jumped on planes, cars, buses etc, in order to spend the weekend in a non-touristy town in the centre of Ireland. Fondly remembered highlights include:
The Inaugural festival 2002:
The Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival in 2022 was itself was a major highlight and sense of accomplishment. Firstly, because of the line-up of talented legendary Irish and American musicians and the national attention it garnered (RTE’s Nationwide featured the festival). But even more so, as it was an event that brought a large number of international visitors to a midlands town which had not previously been considered a tourist destination.
Presenting Earl Scruggs in Ireland in 2004:
At 81 years of age, the grandfather of the 5-string bluegrass banjo had never been to Ireland until he headlined the 2004 Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival. His Saturday night concert in a marquee at Slasher’s GAA Club on the outskirts of Longford Town became the largest seated music event in Longford’s history. Crowds of fans from around the world, and in particular Europe, attended the show, crying tears of joy and clutching Flatt+Scruggs albums. For most of those fans it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see their lifelong banjo hero.
The annual prayers and music by Johnny Keenan’s grave (2002-2011):
Each year in Longford, on the Sunday of the festival weekend, we held prayers and music by the grave of Johnny Keenan. It was a way to remind people of why the festival was created in the first place – to celebrate the life and music of Johnny Keenan. Each year, visiting musicians from America and all around Ireland, joined with family and friends at the cemetery and with pride, voluntarily performed beautiful music by his grave.
- Last Updated: May 10, 2023 12:35 PM
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