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Willie Clancy playing the pipes, while also in the picture is Séan Mac Donnchadha. Photograph courtesy of Duchas.ie

‘Don’t settle for the skim milk when the cream is at hand’


The interview conducted by Harry Hughes and Muiris Ó Rocháin with Willie Clancy for the first volume of Dal gCais was hugely important and is now a priceless piece of folk history as the great exponent of the art of piping talked about his music, great pipers of the past and the state of Irish music in the early 1970s.

Q: Willie Clancy, you are considered one of the greatest living exponents of the art of piping. Can you give us some idea of the background to your music?
A: I come from a very musical family, our family was part of the musical tradition of West Clare and that tradition included Garret Barry the blind paper from Inagh. Garret was a personal friend of my father and he influenced him to a certain degree. My father in time passed this knowledge and appreciation on to me. Apart from this, I came under the direct influence of the Travelling piper Johnnie Doran.

Q: At what age did you start playing?
A: I started playing the tin whistle at the age of five and went from that to the concert flute which I played, as the man said, ‘Till I lost my teeth’. All this time, of course, I had been listening to the pipes and with the tradition of piping so strong in the locality and so many good players around it was natural that I should take to playing them. I began, I would say, at around the age of 20.

Q: Was it easy to obtain a set of pipes in your youth?
A: No, pipes were very expensive. They were usually handed down from father to son or passed on from one piper to another. I got my first set of practice pipes from Felix Doran, Johnnie’s brother and I can tell you I was the richest man in the world that night.

Q: Who made the pipes of your youth?
A: Most of the old pipes in Clare were made by the Moloney Brothers, Thomas a blacksmith and Andrew a carpenter, from near Kilrush. There are I’m sure many of the Moloney pipes around the country. I know there is one in the National Museum and it is one of the finest masterpieces in the uilleann pipe family.

Q: You are considered one of the greatest slow-air players in the country. Do you think and knowledge of the Irish language is essential to bring out the real quality of the Irish air?
A: The Irish language is the greatest music of all. If I were to choose in the morning between my music and knowledge of the Gaelic tongue I would settle for the latter.

Q: You are also a traditional singer?
A: Yes, I like the sean nós or ballad style of singing. In singing, I would use more or less the same decorations as in piping.

Q: In your youth what was the usual setup for the dances and social gatherings?
A: Dances were held when people came home from abroad as there were what you would call benefit dances. These country dances, where the youth learned from their elders, kept the art of music, dancing, singing and storytelling alive. But what really gave these gatherings the spark of life was the competitive spirit; people tried to best each other in the traditional arts; and as well as this was strong competition between the different localities. It all added up to a flourishing music life.

Q: What were the principal types of musical instruments played?
A: Pipes, tin whistle, fiddle, melodeon and concertina were the most popular and if you hadn’t these you always had the puss music, or ‘jigging’ as they called it. The concert flute would be rare in those days.

Q: When you were young did your father make any comments about playing too fast and using much decoration?
A: He did. His saying was, ‘Some of finest tunes are the simplest; so are some of the finest people’ and to reinforce his point he would refer to Garret Barry who could turn a jig into a lament. Indeed, Garret’s saying was, ‘My music is not for the feet, but the soul’.

Q: You said your father was a personal friend of Garret Barry. Could you elaborate on this?
A: My father could never speak unemotionally about Garret; the man meant too much to him; he was everything my father felt was great in Irish music. Most of my information about Garret I got from my father. As you know there are many stories about him, some true, some false, but no wonder, wasn’t he one of the people? And that involves two things: the fame and the opposite. He used to stay at my father’s house and during the sessions they had together my father picked up a good deal from him and passed on what he could to me.

Q: Had he any preferences in music?
A: He felt that the cream of Irish music was in the jigs, slip jigs and laments.

Q: Is it true that Barry was a strong nationalist?
A: Politically he was very emotional and nationally minded. His favourite song — he sang in English and Irish — was one called ‘We’ll not give up on the old land yet without another fight’. His music was his nationalism.

Q: When was he born?
A: In Black ’47 and he died around the turn of the century. Some say he was blind from infancy, others claim he became blind later on in life, probably the result of an attack of smallpox.

Q: Where did he learn his piping?
A: He was apprenticed to Frank Cleary, a Limerick piper who lived in Ennis. Local lore has it that Frank did not give all he should have to his pupil. Maybe is was jealousy, he might have realised that the pupil had more talent than himself.

Q: Another man who knew Garret was Hugh Curtin?
A: I got a good deal of information about Garret from Hugh Curtin. Hugh was, in a sense, a pupil of Garret’s. I have at home the remainder of an old set of pipes belonging to Hugh. They were owned by the Moloney brothers and are among my most valued possessions.

Q: You were a personal friend of Johnnie Doran?
A: He made the greatest impact on me. It was the pure beauty of his music rather than his piping that impressed me. In Johnnie Doran feeling was all-important; he could get into the spirit of a tune and put is across beautifully. As someone said of him, ‘He had nothing less than a shower of fingers’. He was always very welcome in West Clare, especially around Quilty. There are the people who used to collect enough money to keep him for a week whenever he came around the area. He was a truly professional musician; piping was his life, nothing else mattered.

Q: Are there any recordings of Johnnie Doran?
A: Luckily Kevin Danaher made some recordings of him before his untimely death at the age of 47. But for John Kelly, a fiddle and concertina player from Kilbaha, and now living in Capel Street, there might never have been any recordings. It was he who arranged for him to meet Danaher.

Q: Apart from yourself, did he influence any of the other pipers of your youth?
A: I’m sure he had an influence on many pipers, but who could hope to imitate him? It was a common saying among pipers that he was put into the world to discourage all other pipers.

Q: You knew the Caseys from Annagh, the famous Scully (John), and his son, Bobby. How would you rate Scully as a fiddle player?
A: He was a first-rate fiddle player and made almost as great an impression on me as Johnnie Doran. His style had a flow and a melancholy about it, very like that of Doran. His playing was full of feeling.

Q: You knew Leo Rowsome?
A: I went to school to him, in a sort of way. He ran a piping school in Dublin and I used to call in for the last half hour and we would play a few tunes together. He was one of the finest players I have known.

Q: There are many exponents of traditional music in this locality; they must have been nurtured on a strong tradition. In what state is this tradition at the moment?
A: I should think that it is in a good state. After all when you consider Quilty and the surrounding districts, it is obvious that they are strongholds of traditional music and dancing, and I don’t know any area around Miltown where music is not thriving. I’ll admit that it may not be as flourishing as it once was, but for that I’d blame the TV — the box in the corner — and the fact that dances are now held in the halls and not in the country houses.

Q: What effects had the radio on Irish music?
A: Radio helped to bring authentic Irish music to the section of the community who knew little or nothing of it. Back in the ’40s you would be lucky to hear 15 minutes of Irish music per week on our national radio. But then Seamus Ennis, together with Sean Mac Reamoinn and Aindreas Ó Gallachóir, began to get to work on the broadcasting of traditional music. That was the first step forward and this pioneering work was followed by Ciaran Mac Mathúna, who gan dabht an domhain, scoured the country in search of tunes and ballads. The work of these people made Irish music more accessible to the people who were interested in it.

Q: Seamus Ennis is a great friend of yours?
A: He is one of my best friends and a most knowledgeable man on Irish music and seanchas. He has done more to promote our music than any of the man I know of. I first met Seamus in 1947 when he was doing a programme called ‘Behind the Cliffs of Moher’. It was why he was working on this programme that he unearthed number of jigs song them ‘Cathaoir an Phiobaire’. The tradition associated with this jig is it that somewhere along the cliffs, in the Doolin area, there is a rock on which the piper used to sit and play for dances.

Q: Another famous man was Séan Ó Riada?
A: I think he made people love and respect Irish music not only in this country but also abroad. He opened a window to people that an ordinary musician would never be able to do and his arrangements and presentation caught the attention of thousands. Like Seamus Ennis he was renowned Fear an Tí. Being in the house with Sean was like being at the great Festival of Tara; there was an unceasing flow of conversation, music and wit, in Irish and English. There is no doubt but it was the Gaelic background which made him what he was, one of the greatest in Irish music. He had a deep love of everything Irish and his loss is a great one.

Q: Is there anything in particular that you would like to see happening in traditional music?
A: I would like to see each county and district holding onto its particular style. I think it is a great pity that localities are losing what they once had — a musical flavour of the own. Denis Murphy is one of the few fiddlers who kept to the original style of his own area, Sliabh Luachra. Luachra is rich in Gaelic culture and there are four more fortunate than all the areas and the birthplace of Eoghan Rua Ó Suilleabháin will not easily lose its traditions. I only wish other areas could be like this.

Q: If traditional music is to flourish what direction do you think it will take?
A: Who knows what direction it will take? Times change and people change. All I know is I was often told, ‘Lave down that tin whistle and take your book’. I never did, thank God. To the parents of would be musicians today I would say that it is important to encourage the younger folk. We have to rely on them to keep our music alive.

Q: Willie Clancy, if you were asked to give advice to young musicians today what would it be?
A: Get a grasp of the Gaelic tongue and it develop a love for it. Go to the Gaeltacht and the old people will have it and learn it. I feel that a knowledge of our language is essential if you are to express the true spirit of our music, and as the saying goes, ‘Don’t settle for the skim milk when the cream is at hand’. Apart from that have patience; learn to walk before you run. You might have a flair for the music, you might think you’re good at it, and you might be tempted to plunge ahead without perfecting your technique; well it might be in your head but your fingers will let you down. So, start playing early and develop your technique with patience, practice and perseverance.

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