Clancy’s parents, Gilbert Clancy and Ellen Killeen, both sing and play concertina, and his father also plays the flute. Clancy’s father has been heavily influenced by local blind piper Garret Barry and passes much of Barry’s music on to his son.
Clancy starts playing the whistle at age five, and later takes up the flute. He first lays eyes on a set of pipes in 1936 when he sees Johnny Doran playing locally. He obtains his first set of pipes two years later. His influences include Leo Rowsome, Séamus Ennis, John Potts, and Andy Conroy. Clancy wins the Oireachtas competition in 1947. Unable to earn a living from music he emigrates to London where he works as a carpenter.
Returning to Milltown Malbay shortly after the death of his father in 1957, Clancy records some influential 78 rpm recordings for the Gael Linn label, among them the classic reel selection “The Old Bush/The Ravelled Hank of Yarn.” He develops a highly distinctive and individual style of piping. From 1957 until 1972 the Summer music sessions in the West Clare town become widely renowned, with Clancy as one of the main attractions. Pipe-making, reed-making, and all things connected with the instrument are explored and advanced by the Clancy influence. He gives many performances on both radio and television as well as live sessions in his local area.
He lives out the remainder of his life in Milltown Malbay. Clancy marries Dóirín Healy in 1962. He dies suddenly in a hospital in Galway on January 24, 1973, and is widely mourned among friends and musicians alike. He is buried in Ballard Cemetary just outside Miltown Malbay.
Later that year the Willie Clancy Summer School is established in his honour by his friends Junior Crehan, Martin Talty, Sean Reid, Paddy Malone, Paddy McMahon, Frankie McMahon, Jimmy Ward, JC Talty, Harry Hughes, Michael O Friel, Séamus Mac Mathúna, and Muiris Ó Rócháin. He is also the subject of a major television documentary “Cérbh É? Willie Clancy” on TG4, first broadcast in November 2009. In this programme, one of a series in which major figures in contemporary traditional music, profile and pay homage to a master of their craft from a bygone age, Peter Browne traces the life and legacy of Clancy.
A statue of Clancy is unveiled on November 9, 2013 on the Main Street in Miltown Malbay.