Willie Clancy was an iconic figure in the revival of the uillinn pipes and traditional music from the 1960s onwards. He was born in Miltown Malbay in west Clare on December 24, 1918. His father Gilbert played flute and concertina and had known and listened to legendary blind travelling Clare piper Garrett Barry. Willie played his first tin whistle at five years. He was also influenced by his grandmother, who had a keen ear for music. Like his good friend Junior Crehan, he was also influenced by the west Clare style of fiddler Scully Casey from nearby Annagh.
When Martin Talty caught him playing the tin whistle in his classroom, a friendship was struck up which lasted for a lifetime. Both played concert flutes at every available dance, wake and wedding to develop their craft. Martin Talty was with him when he first saw the pipes being played by Johnny Doran at the races in 1936. He wrote in Treor in 1973: “Straight away a friendship was struck up between boy and man which culminated in Johnnie becoming his first teacher – and what an apt pupil Willie turned out to be.”
Two years later, helped by Johnnie’s brother Felix, he bought a practice set. Around this time Martin Rochford learned the pipes, having being inspired by another travelling piper, Tony Rainey. In 1947 Sean Reid, who had done much to popularise the uillinn pipes in Clare, drove pipers Martin Rochford, Paddy O’Donoghue and Willie Clancy to Dublin to compete in the Oireachtas. Willie Clancy, who had by now mastered the full set, took first prize in the piping event.
In the 1940s he went to Dublin where he renewed acquaintance with John Kelly and met John Potts, an authority on the pipes originally from Wexford, and piper Tommy Reck. John’s son Tommy Potts, was a stylish, individualistic fiddle player. John Potts’ house in the Coombe was a gathering place for musicians isolated in a city willing to leave traditional music behind it. Around 1947 he joined the Tulla Ceili Band for a while.
After a spell in Dublin he went to work in England. At that time Irish music was in a much healthier state in London than at home and he played with Irish musicians in exile, including Bobby Casey, Seamus Ennis and Mairtin Byrnes.
On his father’s death he returned to live in Miltown Malbay in 1957. He married Doreen Healy. Many musicians enjoyed his company and playing with him. Paddy Moloney, later of Ceoltoiri Cualann and The Chieftains, recalled a long session himself and Michael Tubridy had in Miltown Malbay with both Willie Clancy and Martin Talty. Others to enjoy his company were singers Christy Moore and Paul Brady.
A master carpenter by trade, he explored pipe-making, reed-making and all things connected with the instrument. Breandan Breathnach took the view that he was a better flute player than piper. He commented: “His principal legacy lay in the fact that he had built up a repertoire of tunes found nowhere else and variants of tunes known outside Clare and in the fact that he was willing to pass them on.”
He died in January 1973. The Mass was sung the Cul Aodha Choir led by Peadar O Riada, eldest son of the late Sean O Riada. Willie Clancy had played at Sean O Riada’s funeral a little over a year ago earlier.
In a poem, Junior Crehan wrote:
There’s a gap in tradition that ne’er will be filled
A wide gap that ne’er shall be mended
On the hill o’er town we laid you down
‘Twas sad that your young life ended.
Perhaps Brian Vallely of Armagh summed him up best: “His combination of wit, deep humanity, musical interpretation and humility made him the object of almost veneration by all who met him.” © 2008
The Pipering of Willie Clancy (Two Vols), Claddagh
The Minstrel from Clare, Willie Clancy, 1967