Willie Clancy, an introduction

by Peter Laban, July 2002

Willie Clancy was born on Christmas Eve 1918 in the townland of Illaunbawn, some four miles east of Miltown Malbay, Co Clare1. His father Gilbert was a fluteplayer and his mother sang and played the concertina. At a very early age Willie showed a keen interest in the music and Gilbert started him off on the whistle at age five.

The area was full of music then as it is today. When Gilbert was young the blind piper Garret Barry would call to the house on his circuit of West Clare and stay for weeks, enabling Gilbert to absorb his music. The next house east from Clancy's, in the townland of Faha, was that of Peter Smith, concertinaplayer and father of concertinaplayer Kitty Hayes. Kitty is full of memories of her father playing with Gilbert and the musicians of the locality and is able to give some wonderful glimpses of the music as it was when she was growing up. Up towards Miltown there were several houses that had music in them, Talty's in Tooreen2, where Garret Barry also used to call. Further up there were Lenihan's in Ballinoe and many others remembered to this day for their music and housedances.

Throughout his life Willie was always trying to find better settings or unusual versions of tunes, seemingly even at a very young age. Piper and fluteplayer Martin Talty from Glendine remembered his first encounter with Willie. He was sitting in the classroom in primary school. The teacher had left the room and Martin was trying out a little polka on the whistle. After going over the first part a voice behind him suddenly said "I think it goes actually like this," followed by the correct phrase on the whistle. This was Willie and the two became lifelong friends3.

Although remembered mostly as a piper, the whistle was Willie's first instrument; some would even argue his piping didn't come up to the superb standard of his whistle playing, Breandan Breathnach for one held that opinion. The late Martin Rochford, fiddler, piper and whistler from near Bodyke in East Clare was a firm friend and musical companion of Willie from the 1930s onward. On several occasions he remembered how Willie started coming to East Clare during that time and made quite an impact as a whistle player, playing at housedances and absorbing the East Clare repertoire. In an interview with Noel Hill, Martin said "He was a powerful whistleplayer" 4. When Hill asked about Willie seemingly pursuing the music full-time (Hill actually asked "was he a man of leisure"), Rochford replied, "Well, he didn't get too excited."

In yet another interview5 Willie himself admits the music meant everything in his life and little time - too little maybe - was given to work or more academic pursuits. Junior Crehan6 is reported to have remarked that one day during the 40s, when he was driving a few cows to market, he found Willie sitting outside the caravan of traveller piper Johnny Doran, parked off the Crosses of Annagh. The two were playing pipes, talking, drinking tea seemingly without a worry in the world.

While the music was his life, his music was, as all good music, a total reflection of his personality. Willie is generally described by the people who knew him well as a man with a sharp associating mind with an immense sense of fun, resulting in him be of very sharp wit, given to wordplay, jokes and general (innocent) mischief . The former postmistress of Miltown Malbay, quite a character herself, when interviewed on Clare Fm7, described Willie as "a lovely man, a big child really". All these qualities stand out in Willie's music: often he starts a tune off in a fairly basic setting, and you can almost feel him develop ideas on the spot, pursuing variations on a whim, developing them as the tunes goes along, going deeper into the music each time, finding corners not explored before8. At the same time there is a sense of fun, a streak of mischief woven through the music which gives tremendous lift to the enjoyment of listening to his playing.