Time for a French Revue is the motto to commemorate the great Irish songwriter and entertainer Percy French, who passed away a hundred years ago. On her latest EP, singer-songwriter Lisa O'Neill has recorded one of French's best known songs, the nostalgic Come Back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff
But I know the lie of it still Just turn to the left at the bridge of Finea And stop when halfway to Coote Hill 'Tis there you will find it I know sure enough Where fortune has come to my call The grass it is green, as from Ballyjamesduff And the blue sky is over it all And tones that are tender and tones that are gruff Come whispering over the sea Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff Come home Paddy Reilly to me
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 Tulsk, County Roscommon, the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord. He was the third child of nine. His younger sister, Emily was also a writer.
He was educated at Foyle College in County Londonderry, 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: French 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 married Ethel Kathleen Armitage-Moore (b. 1871), second daughter of William Armytage-Moore, brother of Countess of Annesley, (wife of the Third Earl). She (and their daughter) died in childbirth at the age of 20.
French was 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, Houston Collisson.
Are Ye Right There Michael, a song ridiculing the state of the rail system in rural County Clare caused such embarrassment to the rail company that – according to a persistent local legend – it led to a libel action against French. According to the story, French arrived late for court, and when questioned by the judge he responded "Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway", resulting in the case being thrown out.
In January 1920, when he was 65 years old, French became ill while performing in Glasgow. He died from pneumonia in Formby, England at the home of his cousin, Canon Richardson of Green Lea, College Avenue, on 24 January 1920. His grave is in the churchyard of St Luke's Parish Church, Formby, Merseyside.
A statue of French sitting on a park bench in the town centre of Ballyjamesduff honours him and his song Come Back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff.
Artworks by French have increased in value. On 20 September 2005, the Percy French watercolour landscape Where ever I go my heart turns back to the County Mayo was sold by Dublin auctioneers Whyte's for a then record price of €44,000.
A comprehensive biography of French, focusing on his paintings, Lead Kindly Light, was produced and written by Oliver Nulty of the Oriel Gallery in 2002, the culmination of his life's work promoting Percy French at a time of official neglect. Bernadette Lowry edited and contributed to the book. The title was taken from French's favourite hymn Lead Kindly Light by Saint John Henry Newman. It was chosen as a metaphor for French's paintings as the light always leads gently into his pictures. French's landscapes are described in "The Watercolours of Ireland" by Patricia Butler as "laden with atmosphere." A runner up title which the Oriel considered was Tones That Are Tender from French's song 'Come Back Paddy Reilly' which was later used in a similar biography in 2016. It was pirated by O'Neill of the Bangor Percy French Society, without consultation with Bernadette Lowry who was engaged in her own biography under that title. French's legacy has been bedevilled by the fact that his archive was acquired by a private appreciation society at Bangor and it has been the cause of much bitterness in the past, with many believing it should have been placed in Roscommon, his birthplace. Bernadette Lowry believes the Percy French Archive should be not be in private hands but rightly belongs in a public institution, where all scholars can access it and considers it a shame that French's daughters did not approach the NLI with his archive. It is, she believes, a major contributing factor to the fact that there is official neglect of Percy French. French has no direct descendants as none of his daughters married or had children. Oliver Nulty promoted French from the day he opened the Oriel Gallery in 1968, and mounted at least ten solo exhibitions of French and several group shows featuring French, one opened by Peter Ustinov.
The following songs are attributed to Percy French:
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2020.
Photo Credits: (1) Lisa O'Neill, (2)-(3) Percy French (unknown/website).