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James Friel and Harry Hughes in Friel's pub, Mullagh road, Miltown Malbay. Photograph by John Kelly

Building the legend and legacy of the great Willie Clancy

Fifty years after his death, this week in 1973, Willie Clancy’s legacy and name has never been stronger, writes Joe O Muircheartaigh, who spoke to the driving force behind the festival in the great piper’s name, Harry Hughes

WHEN Harry Hughes saw Willie Clancy for the first time it was in his carpenter’s overalls when he walked around Miltown Malbay, with the rule that was one of the tools of his trade in the breast pocket of the dungarees he wore — he was going from one job to the next, or else up to his house on the Flag Road.

There he was — the renowned musician, that Harry saw before he ever heard him on the uilleann pipes, or before he spoke to the man who 50 years after his death is revered as one of the professors emirati in the sky when it comes to the pipes.

Because you can trace a line from Willie through to the hundreds of pipers around the country who were influenced by him even if they never knew him, but also because the line goes in the other direction back the ages to his father Gilbert Clancy, to traveling piper Johnny Doran and to the blind piper from Inagh Garret Barry, who was the original foundation stone and keeper and cultivator of a flame that now burns in everyone making music with their pipes.

There he was — the unassuming and jolly ‘giant’ of music walking among the people of Miltown in those overalls — admired, respected, loved, even if it really took his death at the young age of 54 for those friends, associates and people of Miltown and beyond to finally realise how much of a prophet he was in his own land among them every day.

“People in Miltown knew him as a carpenter and as a friend and a neighbour”, Harry Hughes told The Clare Champion this week, “but they had begun to realise his importance before his death when they could see how people of the stature of Seamus Ennis and others held him so highly.

“Ennis was calling to him, as were other aspiring musicians like Liam O’Flynn and Pat Mitchell, people saw that. They saw what a hugely important individual he was in traditional music.

“It was Martin Talty that introduced me to Willie first and it was at a session in Friels that I first saw him play,” he continued, “and a few private houses in Miltown. The first time I heard him he was on his own — he also played with Martin Talty.

“Gradually contacts grew from there and it got to the point where I used to call into himself and Doreen. At once stage there was a family festival in Ennistymon — Willie had an engagement to play in a little pub in there and I brought him up and down over the course of the few days,” he added.

Harry started teaching in St Joseph’s, Spanish Point in 1970 — he came from his native Foxford in Mayo, while a year later Muiris Ó Rocháin came from the opposite direction in Dingle to join him on the teaching staff.

From there you could say that the course of traditional music history in Miltown Malbay changed, because between the Mayoman and the Kerryman, with help from local man Martin Talty, they became the driving forces that established Scoil Samhradh Willie Clancy — a festival that’s now a phenomenon known the world over.

Before that, though Harry and Muiris though newcomers to Miltown quickly recognised how precious Willie Clancy was — just by hearing him play, but also by what he had to say in the informal chats they had around the sessions in Maise O’Friels and beyond.

“He was softly spoken and a quiet man but he had a tremendous sense of humour,” revealed Harry.

“He enjoyed fun, he enjoyed the craic, but could talk about other serious issues, affairs in the country, people’s attitude to things and he was deeply interested in history,” he added.

This is why when Harry and Muiris established Dal gCais — a magazine about the people of Clare and its culture — in 1972 they didn’t need to stray far from Maisie O’Friels to find the perfect subject matter for their maiden voyage into publishing.

“It was from meeting him informally that we decided to do it,” revealed Harry. “Both Muiris and myself would be meeting at different times and we felt that when we were starting the magazine that it certainly should involve Willie Clancy.

“We had heard so much in casual conversation from him about people like Johnnie Doran and Garret Barry and from other people who came to the town like Seamus Ennis.

“It was a straight-forward thing to do for us — that we should interview this man himself and make the article the centre-piece of the magazine, which we did. We felt it was important because this man had a lot to say about Irish traditional music, and a great amount of important things to say about the uilleann pipes and the art and the craft of uilleann piping.

“We went down to his house over several nights in February and March of 1972 — at that stage we had no idea that Willie Clancy would be gone from us inside a year.

The magazine appeared sometime in July 1972 and he was gone from us the following January,” he added.

The interview is a timeless window into the world of Willie Clancy — where he came from and what made him a part of traditional music folklore.

“I would really have grown to know the man and his music in that interview,” revealed Harry, “learning about his musical inheritance if you like and what the music meant to him. A few short years before that, in 1968 there were only about 100 pipers left, not in Ireland, but worldwide. Piobairí Uilleann was started in 1972, headed up by Breandán Breathnach and Willie Clancy would have been part of the first tionól.

“In other words, the man was committed to promoting uilleann pipes whenever he possibly could. Fifty years later we now know that the success of piping is phenomenal and now there are pipers in their thousands. Going from being endangered to being now a linchpin in Irish traditional music is something Willie Clancy would have been delighted with.

“It was a matter of regret that he hadn’t learned Irish and wasn’t fluent in the language. In the interview, he came out with the phrase that the Irish language is the greatest music of all. I’m sure he said it numerous times before but that’s the first time it was put down on paper.”

It’s there for all time, just like Harry’s and Muiris’ famous interview is; just like Willie Clancy’s music is; just like the Scoil Samhradh Willie Clancy that he spawned and inspired is.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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