| 19.8°C Dublin

Mary Kenny: A musician and painter of note, Percy deserves honour for his 2020 centenary



Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Next month marks the centenary of one of the most popular, well-loved and yet sometimes neglected of Irish geniuses - the late Percy French, songwriter and painter. Who hasn't heard of 'The Mountains of Mourne', or 'Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff', or that whimsical ditty about the West Clare Railway, 'Are You Right There, Michael?'

Maybe among a younger generation, the Percy French classics are less recognisable, since the demise of singers like Brendan O'Dowda, who made so many of the French songs his own - or indeed Val Doonican. Some of his merrier songs might be seen in a tradition of comical-Irishry - 'Slattery's Mounted Foot', sung by Doonican, was apparently the late Queen Mother's favourite ditty - a genre which would be out of fashion today. And the emigrant note, as in the plangent 'Gortnamona', as well as the even more melancholy 'The Emigrant's Letter', no longer accord with a jet and Skyping age.

Yet they are still sung in many places - last summer in Co Roscommon I heard a wonderful New York choir, the Viva Voce Festival Chorus, give a great recital of French's melodies.

William Percy French, was born at Cloonyquin House, Tulsk, Co Roscommon, in 1854, into a family of nine children: his father was, by all accounts, a decent type of landlord - his estate was never subject to land agitation - and his mother was the daughter of a Co Leitrim clergyman. Percy was the third child, dreamy and imaginative, who used his time at school in Derry, and subsequently at TCD, to play the piano, strum on the banjo, lark around at concerts and perform general entertainments.

He was a young man when he wrote 'Abdul Abulbul Amir' - an eccentric but catchy ballad about a Russo-Turkish duel - which he then foolishly sold for £5, so he never benefitted from the royalties it would have brought. But Percy French never cared much about money: he was also an accomplished painter in watercolour and oils, and gave away many of the evocative Irish landscapes that he composed.

His family wanted him to have a sensible job, and so, he became, at age 29, a self-described "inspector of drains" in Co Cavan - an employee for the Board of Works - while actually dedicating himself to amateur dramatics and musical concerts around the north midland towns. He wrote comical articles, poems, songs, sketches, parodies; and Cavan inspired 'Come back, Paddy Reilly…', prompted by the story of a local jarvey he knew who had emigrated to America. French drew inspiration from epiphanies in his life: the 'Mountains of Mourne' came to him as he gazed across the bay from Skerries, in Co Dublin. On a steamer to Canada, according to the meticulous Dictionary of Irish Biography, he overheard a young Donegal lad saying wistfully, as the coast of Ireland disappeared, "They'll be cuttin' the corn in Cresslough the day", from which came 'The Emigrant's Letter'.

Percy lost his Cavan job - from cutbacks - and then lost his savings from an unwise investment, but he was not the sort of man to worry about such trifles, and continued on his merry way touring Ireland (often by bike) and later England, North America and the West Indies. He was sometimes accompanied by a musical partner, the composer Houston Collisson, with whom he worked in harmony. But Percy always seemed a "gentleman-amateur", for all his gifts: he said he could never take life too seriously, and though living in a turbulent age, could never really engage with politics - though he has been described as moderate unionist by inclination. Kindness and playfulness were a greater focus for him.

He experienced tragedy when his first wife, Ettie, with whom he was much in love, died of a post-natal septicaemia: a month later, their baby daughter also died. He married again, Helen May, and they had three daughters. From his early sixties Percy experienced health problems - and did himself no favours by trying to jump on a moving train at Blackrock Station in 1916: he miscalculated and was dragged along by the locomotive. Four years later he died, visiting his cousin in Formby, Lancashire, where he is buried. Appropriately, there is a statue to him in Ballyjamesduff.

Co Roscommon hasn't forgotten him and every year since 2007 a Percy French Festival has been held at Castlecoote House, just outside Roscommon town, organised by Kevin Finnerty, a great French champion. Kevin, who has family connections at Clooneyquin, perceives French not just as an entertainer and painter, but someone who had a deep sense of landscape, a poignant understanding of emigration - and the loneliness it could create for families at home - and a warm appreciation of Irish wit. The summertime festival always evokes French's spirit - whose own nearby home was sadly demolished in the 1960s - but there is a wide range of topics embraced on themes of legend and culture in Irish life. The festival next year will be on July 8-10: there are also monthly Castlecoote lectures on the themes of Myth and Legend given from October to May. (See percyfrench.ie)

And on 24 January 2020 - the 100th anniversary of Percy French's death - there will be a special evening celebrating his life, which left us with such sweet and charming songs and a record of a sweet and gentle Irish life.


Weekend Magazine