I am so very proud of my own French connection
Being compared to legendary songwriter Percy was better than being on front of the RTE Guide, writes Johnny Duhan
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
I knew little or nothing about the most popular Irish songwriter of the late 19th century, when a friend brought my attention to a letter in the RTE Guide in late 1960s in which it was predicted that Johnny Duhan was destined to become Ireland's next Percy French.
A few years earlier, the same magazine had featured my photograph on its front cover, but I got more of a kick out of being compared to a successful songwriter in the letter section than I did for having my mug featured on magazine stands all over Ireland.
The main reason for this was that, after five years of a rollercoaster career in swinging London as the front man with one of Ireland's most popular beat groups, Granny's Intentions, I was beginning to harbour ambitions of becoming a real songwriter myself. Little did I realise then the long struggle it would take to gain the skill to write my first real songs.
Percy French's first successful composition, written while he was still a student in Trinity College Dublin was Abdul Abulbul Amir - a tale in countless verses of a proud Russian and a proud Turk who end up killing one another during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, the year the song was written. What I found interesting about Percy's first hit composition was that an unscrupulous publisher paid him just £5 for the rights.
Later, the song went on to become massively popular, but Percy, one assumes, had to satisfy himself with just the fame while the fortune went in the agent's crooked pocket.
A mere glance at the long list of Percy French's songs show just how popular the man was. Even today some of these titles have the power of conjuring up melodies and lyrics in your head without having to think about them. The reason for this is that, even in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up (40 years after Percy's death) the songs were still being sung in towns and cities all over Ireland.
The Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda was mainly responsible for the revival of Percy's songs. As a boy I would have been exposed to O'Dowda's jaunty renditions of, Phil the Fluther's Ball, Come Back Paddy Reilly, Slattery's Mounted Fut and others on a daily basis, as both my parents were avid radio listeners and O'Dowda was a favourite on the Irish and British airwaves.
Don McLean's version of The Mountains of Mourne years later would demonstrate to a new generation just how fine a songwriter Percy was, at his best. It came as a surprise to learn that the credits for the lyric of The Mountains of Mourne were shared with a Dr W Houston Collisson, a friend of Percy's who collaborated with him on other songs too.
It also came as a surprise to learn that the majestic melody of The Mountains of Mourne was a traditional Irish folk tune that Thomas Moore had also drawn on for a song of his called Bendemeer's Stream.
The song of Percy's that never fails to bring a smile to my lips is Are You Right There Michael Are You Right. I have a recollection of my father and mother singing it to my brothers and sisters and me on a slow train journey on the Clare Line to Kilkee in the late Fifties or early Sixties (Kilkee being the Riviera for Limerick holiday-makers back then).
If my recollection is correct, I remember being jigged and jolted in a musty old carriage of an old steam-train on a hot summer afternoon, hypnotised by the slow iron rhythm of the wheels on the tracks and the echo of the shrill whistle every time we chugged into a sleepy station.
The moans and groans that my brothers and sisters and I kept issuing because the journey was taking so long must have driven our parents mad.
To take our minds off the boredom, my father and mother, no doubt, started singing the most appropriate song they could think of. And I like to imagine that we all joined in with them.
Are You Right There Michael got Percy into hot water with the rail company that he sent up so humorously in the lyric. They were so incensed by the skit he played on their laissez-faire attitude to timekeeping, they took a liable action against him.
It's said that Percy showed up late at the Ennis court to answer the charge, and, when questioned by the residing judge on his lack of punctuality, he offered the excuse that he had travelled to the hearing on the West Clare Railway line, which resulted in an explosion of laughter in the courtroom and the case being thrown out.
The Percy French Festival July 8-10, 2015, Castlecoote House, Co Roscommon. For full programme, see www. percyfrench.ie or telephone +353 (0)90 6663794