William Percy French was born on 1 May 1854 near Roscommon. (William would be known as Willie until taking the name Percy as his stage name much later). His father was a landlord and his mother’s father was a clergyman.
Despite the lack of music background in his family, Willie demonstrated talent for music and entertaining early in life. He performed as a child in the district and when he was a student at Trinity College. It was at Trinity College in 1877 that he wrote Abdulla Bulbul Ameer. He wrote the song for a concert and sold it to a publisher for five pounds. The publisher never credited French with authorship, and despite its later popularity, French never received any royalties. French did not publish another song (although he wrote many) until 1888 when Andy McElroe was published.
French graduated from college as an engineer and worked for seven years in Cavan as the Inspector of Drains. During that time he wrote numerous songs and painted, which he considered his true talent.
In 1891 French’s wife died and he was jobless. He toured the country on his bicycle with a box of paints, painting and performing. He developed a one-man show, where he sang the songs he composed. Then in 1891 he began a partnership with Houston Collisson. Thereafter Collisson wrote much of the music for the operas they produced, including The Irish Girl. At the age of fifty French moved to London and worked and performed on stage until his death in 1920.
Although Mountains of Mourne is his most famous song, Percy French is best remembered for his comedic songs.
Photo: Bronze sculpture of Percy French in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan