The county of Clare has produced many notable sons and daughters, none more so than the great traditional musician Willie Clancy who died 50 years ago on January 24th. He came from an area rich in traditional music and his family background was steeped in various aspects of that tradition.
He was born on Christmas Day, 1918, in Moy, Miltown Malbay, into a large family. His father, Gilbert Clancy, was a carpenter and musician from Islandbawn, and his mother, Ellen Killeen, came from an Ennistymon family who were famous singers. Following attendance at the national school in Miltown Malbay, Willie took up his father’s trade.
Music was in his blood from his family background. His mother was a singer and concertina player. He began to play the tin whistle when he was only four and his father, who played the flute and concertina, influenced him to imitate the style of Garret Barry, a famous blind piper from Inagh, near Ennis in Co. Clare, who had died in 1899. Willie also took up the flute and played that instrument to the highest of standards until loss of teeth later in life caused him to give up playing it.
He was also an able fiddle player, according to William Murphy who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, but “it was as an uilleann piper that he was most famous”. As the Clare County Library website puts it: “He was particularly known for his mastery of that most complex of wind instruments – the uilleann pipes.”
He was 17 when he first saw the travelling piper Johnny Doran play at the Miltown Malbay races. “He was so excited by this rare and expensive instrument that he and his lifelong friend Martin Talty travelled around Clare listening to Doran,” William Murphy tells us. Acquiring his first set of pipes from Doran’s brother Felix in 1938, he practised assiduously until in 1947 he won the Oireachtas piping competition.
A shortage of work in his native Clare caused him to move to Dublin in 1951. There he got to know and play with Leo Rowsome, 15 years his senior and third generation of an unbroken line of uilleann pipers. Two years later, he had to move to London to look for work, where he got to know and became very friendly with Séamus Ennis. Ennis greatly influenced his music and also caused him to develop an interest in the Irish language.
When his father died in 1957, Willie returned home and he married Dóirín Healy in 1962. By the time of his return, he had become well known as a musician and “he became the focal point for large gatherings of traditional-music enthusiasts in Miltown Malbay each summer”, according to William Murphy. Séamus Ennis and the Cork musician and composer Seán Ó Riada frequently visited him, as did many other young musicians who afterwards became famous, such as Liam Óg Ó Floinn. He was influenced by Ennis to collect songs and folklore, which provided him with a wide stock of songs and stories with which to entertain audiences.
Among the Irish-language manuscripts that he copied and preserved was a version of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) by the 18th-century Clare bard, Brian Merriman.
As well as performing, recording and collecting, he did radio and television broadcasts, preferring the former medium. He was a competitions’ adjudicator around the country and was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. He was anxious to promote traditional music but “the elitist nature of piping encouraged his purist leanings, which objected to what he saw as the growth of an ‘undesirable element’ with ‘an abuse’ of tambourines and guitars,” William Murphy has pointed out.
Na Píobairí Uilleann, of which he was a founder member, was established in 1968 to promote the playing and making of uilleann pipes. The craft of pipe-making greatly appealed to him and he put together a workshop for it at his own home. His sudden death, at only 55, was widely mourned. He is buried at Ballard Cemetery, just outside Miltown Malbay.
The Willie Clancy Summer School was set up in his honour within six months of his death by his friends, including Muiris Ó Rocháin, Séamus Mac Mathúna, Martin Talty, Paddy Joe McMahon and Junior Crehan, and quickly became a major event in the annual calendar for traditional-music lovers from all over the world. He was also the subject of a major television documentary, Cérbh É? Willie Clancy, on TG4, first broadcast in November 2009, in which Peter Browne traced his life and outstanding legacy.