It was on the first of May in 1854 that a boy was born at Cloonyquinn, Co Roscommon to Christopher French and his wife, the former Miss Percy. The second of two sons, he was named William Percy French and in his lifetime he became one of Ireland’s most beloved entertainers and gifted songwriters. His father, believing that Percy was mathematically inclined, sent him to Trinity College to study Civil engineering. Percy however, had different ideas.
Instead of devoting himself to his studies, he spent most of his time developing his remarkable talent for song writing, dramatics, playing banjo and painting. After much parental persuasion, he eventually passed the college examination and obtained an engineering post in Co Cavan on a government drainage scheme. His interest remained elsewhere however, and he spent most of his time painting. He was a prolific painter of landscape watercolors and he actually considered art to be his vocation. In fact, when he became well known later in his life, his early paintings became much sought after. One of his original watercolors, Where ever I go my heart turns back to Mayo, was sold by a Dublin-based auctioneer in 2005 for a record price of 44,000 Euro. When the Cavan appointment came to an end, so did his career as an engineer. He moved to Dublin where he worked as a journalist. His marvelous sense of humor led him to the editorship of a comic paper. Soon afterward, he wrote and acted in two comic operas, all the while studying art, and running a painting class.
During this time he also wrote and produced an intimate and topical show called Dublin Up To Date which consisted of quick sketches, caricatures, humorous cross talk, and songs. It was so well received that it formed the basis for his highly successful solo entertainment career in later years. The success of the show led to a tour of the country during which French’s absent-mindedness, unconventional manner and carelessness in money matters led to many amusing incidents.
In 1900, he moved to London and embarked on a successful career as a professional entertainer. In 1910, he toured Canada, the United States and the West Indies with Dr. Huston Collison, a brilliant musician who collaborated with French on the music to his operas and a number of his songs. That partnership was a very happy one and lasted the rest of their lives.
In 1920, during an engagement in Glasgow, Percy French was taken ill. He went to the home of a cousin in Lancashire and three days later, died of pneumonia at 66 years of age. By strange and tragic coincidence Dr. Collison died the following day conducting a requiem service to his very good friend.
Today Percy French is best known for his many songs which have remained popular down through the years and will, no doubt, be popular for many years to come. Songs like Slattery’s Mounted Fut, the Mountains of Mourne, Eileen Oge, Gortnamona, Whistlin’ Phil McHugh, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff, and many more including my personal favorite, The Darlin’ Girl from Clare. All are now a part of Ireland’s musical repertoire.
One of the many humorous stories told about this unconventional genius has to do with the time he penned a song called Are You Right There Michael, Are You Right. The song lampooned the West Clare Railroad which had a reputation for always breaking down or running behind schedule. Needless to say the owners of the railroad were furious with this satire and promptly brought a lawsuit against Percy French. The case was to be heard on a given day in the Court at Killaloe, Co. Clare. On that appointed day the railroad executives and their counsel arrived but there was no Percy French. Taking this as the height of arrogance, the lawyer for the railroad asked that the case be settled in their favor. The judge allowed that they would wait for Mr. French and hear the other cases on the docket. But when all were finished, the judge himself, weary of waiting, was just about to rule in favor of the railroad when the court room door swung open and in walked Percy French. The furious judge admonished the author for his tardiness and notified him that he was just about to find in favor of the plaintiff. He demanded to know what had delayed French from answering the summons of the court on time! Percy held up his half of his morning ticket on the West Clare Railroad. No more was said. The case was dismissed. And when Percy French left the courthouse, what song do you think he was singing?