William Percy French (1 May 1854 – 24 January 1920) was one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers in his day. In more recent times, he has become recognised for his watercolour paintings as well.
French was born at Cloonyquin House, near Elphin, County Roscommon, the son of a Protestant landlord. He was educated at Foyle College, Derry, and wrote his first successful song while studying at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 1877 for a “smoking concert”. The song Abdul Abulbul Amir was sold for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher. The song later became hugely popular and was falsely claimed by other authors.
He graduated from TCD as a civil engineer in 1881 and joined the Board of Works in County Cavan as an Inspector of Drains. It is said that he wrote his best songs during this period. He also painted: he was a prolific painter of landscape watercolours and during this period considered art to be his true vocation. In fact, when he became well-known later in his life, his paintings from his time as a civil engineer became fashionable and sought after. When the Board reduced its staff around 1887, French turned to journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper.
When the paper failed, French’s long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer began. He became renowned for composing and singing comic songs and gained considerable distinction with such songs as Phil the Fluther’s Ball, Slattery’s Mounted Foot, and The Mountains of Mourne. (This last was one of several written with his friend, stage partner and fellow composer, Dr W. Houston Collisson.) But perhaps one of French’s most famous songs is Are Ye Right There Michael, a song ridiculing the state of the rail system in rural County Clare. The song caused such embarrassment to the rail company that it led to a libel action against French, though this ultimately failed. (It is said that French arrived late for the libel hearing at the court, and when questioned by the judge on his lateness, he responded “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,” resulting in the case being thrown out.)
French took ill while performing in Glasgow and died some days later (from pneumonia) in Formby at the home of his cousin Canon Richardson of Green Lea, College Avenue on 24 January 1920, aged 65. His grave is to be found in the churchyard of St. Luke’s Parish Church, Formby in Merseyside. A statue of him sits on a park bench in the town center of Ballyjamesduff in honour of him and his famous song, “Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff”.
The following songs are attributed to Percy French:
Abdul Abulbul Amir, 1877
Rafferty’s Racin’ Mare
The Oklahoma Rose, 1910
Phil the Fluther’s Ball
Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff, 1912
Slattery’s Mounted Fut, 1889
Andy McElroe, 1888
The Girl on a Big Black Mare
Mat Hannigan’s Aunt, 1892
Little Brigid Flynn
The Mountains of Mourne, 1896
When Erin Wakes, 1900
The Fortunes of Finnegan
The Night that Miss Cooney Eloped
Jim Wheelahan’s Automobeel
Are Ye Right There Michael?, 1897
Eileen Oge (The Pride of Petravore)
Maguire’s Motor Bike
Whistlin’ Phil McHugh
No More of Yer Golfin’ for Me
The Darlin’ Girl from Clare
Pretendy Land, 1907
The Mary Ann McHugh
The Kerry Courting, 1909
A Sailor Courted a Farmer’s Daughter (parody of the folk song)
The Emigrants’s Letter, 1910
Flanagan’s Flying Machine, 1911
Who said the Hook never Hurted the Worms?
I Fought a Fierce Hyena
The Killyran Wrackers, 1914
Larry Mick McGarry, 1915
Song of William, Inspector of Drains
In recent times, artworks by French have increased in value; on 20 September, 2005 a Percy French watercolour “Where ever I go my heart turns back to the County Mayo” was sold by Dublin-based auctioneers Whytes for a then record price of €44,000.