Buckley was born in Templeglantine, Co. Limerick on 19th December 1952. As a child, he learned to play traditional music by Liam Moloney with the button accordion. From 1964 till 1969, Buckley studied in Salesian College, Ballinakill, where he learnt to play the flute. In 1968, Buckley realised that he wanted to become a composer after listening to Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Penderecki's Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. Post-Ballinakill, Buckley went to St Patrick’s Teaching Training College, Drumcondra, Dublin. He also continued to study the flute at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. In 1971, Buckley became qualified as a teacher, but he chose instead to pursue a career in music and became a pupil of James Wilson.
In 1973, Buckley had his first acknowledged work, a Sonata for cor anglais and piano. It was the first piece of his to be performed by professionals, namely Lindsay Armstrong and Gillian Smith. The piece premiered in 1974 at the “Festival of Twentieth Century Music” at Trinity College, Dublin. It was described as “a work of real charm and delight” by Charles Acton of the Irish Times. After working on the piece for another 6 months, the sonata was broadcasted on RTE, Ireland's National Television and Radio Broadcaster.
From 1978 to 1982, Buckley was in Cardiff, Wales to continue his musical studies. After which he worked as a secondary school teacher while working as an independent composer. In 1983 John Buckley and James Wilson co-founded the ‘Ennis Composition Summer School’, an institution focused on composition teaching. It all began when he was invited to participate in a project by the Mid-West Arts in Limerick. They had invited all the composers of Ireland in hopes that the composers would integrate and become more involved in music making in the region. Buckley had proposed the idea of a summer school for young and emerging composers, and for those who wish to just explore the option of composing.
Buckley was able to get funding support from the Arts Council and Coláiste Mhuire situated in Ennis. It was decided that the summer programme would be held in County Clare. Students had the chance to write short musical exercises that allowed them the chance to explore different styles of the 20th century; serialism, neo-classicism, minimalism and etc. Over time the standard of students attending Ennis Composition Summer School rose and several of the students have received a distinguished reputation as composers.
Buckley’s music in the beginning was mostly for vocal and choir, and solo instrumental with a few ensembles and orchestral pieces, but in the last decade almost all his pieces have been ensemble pieces. In 2001, Buckley became a music lecturer at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra and is still doing so to this day. He received his PhD in music in 2002 from Maynooth University and Doctorate of Music in 2007, something that many have only dreamed about. Other notable Doctors of Music is Sir Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan, to name a few.
Buckley has had his work featured in the International Rostrum of Composers, and the International Society for Contemporary Music. John Buckley has largely contributed to the music scene especially that of Irish music. Most recently, he has been arranging a number of traditional Irish songs for the flute, harp, viola, percussion and the string quartet. Buckley has said that he plans to stop teaching one day soon and become a full-fledged composer again.