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.
French was born at Cloonyquin House, near Tulsk, County Roscommon, the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord. He was the third of the nine children of Christopher French and Susan Emma French (née Percy). 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. French omitted to register copyright on the song and lost all the income from the royalties until they were restored to his widow and daughters after his death. The song later became hugely popular and was falsely claimed by other authors. After discovering the popularity of versions of the song at the American military academies, research in the 1980s by the Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda found that French had written the lyrics while at Trinity College. Subtle hints show it was likely a comic opera spoof. "Pot Skivers" were the chambermaids at the college, thus Ivan "Potschjinski" Skivar would be a less than noble prince, and as Bulbul is an Arabic dialectic name of the nightingale, Abdul was thus a foppish "nightingale" amir (prince).
French 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. The volcano Krakatoa erupted in 1883 while French was in Cavan, and the particles of volcanic ash caused dramatic sunsets all over the world. French painted some of his finest landscapes in this period as he captured the spectacular skies. French exhibited his pictures in the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and sometimes gave them short poems for titles, such as "Only the sullen seas that flow/ And ebb forever more,/ But tarry awhile kind heart and, lo!/ A light on that lonely shore."
When the Board of Works 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 had lived by the canal in Dublin at 35 Mespil Road before going to London. He famously wrote to his friends when he moved there: "We have come to live by the canal, do drop in". A granite seat was erected in 1988 on the canal near his home, dedicated to French. It was sponsored by the Oriel Gallery and bears another witticism of French's: "Remember me is all I ask, / And if that memory proves a task, forget".
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). French also wrote many sketches and amusing parodies, the most famous of which is The Queen's After-Dinner Speech, written on the occasion of Queen Victoria's visit to Dublin in 1900, in which French drolly suggests "There's a slate off Willie Yeats". In addition, he wrote several poems, some he called "poems of pathos". Many of his poems are on the theme of emigration. He was a regular contributor to The Irish Cyclist, a weekly comic journal.
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 at the 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 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.
He had married Ethel Kathleen Armitage-Moore while editor of The Jarvey. She was born in 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 and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. Her sister, Priscilla Armitage-Moore, who became a famous society beauty, married her cousin and became the seventh Countess of Annesley. She lived at Castlewellan estate in County Down. Four years after Ettie's death, French married Helen Sheldon (Lennie) from Warwickshire, whom he met when she visited Dublin to sing in the chorus of his opera Strongbow. They had three daughters, Ettie, Mollie, and Joan. French and his family moved to London around 1900 and lived at St John's Wood.
The following songs are attributed to Percy French:
Collaborations with William Houston Collisson (1865–1920)
- The Knight of the Road (1891), later known as The Irish Girl (published c. 1918)
- Strongbow (1892)
- Midsummer Madness (1892)
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 French at a time of official neglect. The title was taken from French's favourite hymn "Lead Kindly Light" by John Henry Newman. It was chosen as a metaphor for French's paintings as the light always leads gently into his pictures. 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. French's landscapes are described in The Watercolours of Ireland by Patricia Butler as "laden with atmosphere.
When Oliver Nulty (d. 2005) established the Oriel Gallery in Clare Street, Dublin, he opened with a Percy French and George Russell exhibition. 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. Nulty was a collector for years before opening a gallery. He had been an antiques dealer and noticed that Irish visual art was neglected. He once witnessed the auctioneer fail to sell a George Russell painting for 2 shillings, until a coal scuttle was added to the lot. Nulty mounted several solo exhibitions of French's paintings and published several catalogues. French's daughters Joan and Ettie were regular visitors to the Oriel Gallery from the early 1970s.
- Emily de Burgh Daly, "Chronicles and Poems of Percy French," with an introduction by Catherine Tynan. (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1922.)
- Emily de Burgh Daly: Prose, Poems and Parodies of Percy French with an introduction by Perceval Graves. (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1929; 3/1962)
- James N. Healy: Percy French and his Songs (Cork: Mercier Press, 1966)
- Brendan O'Dowda: The World of Percy French (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1981; 3/1997)
- Alan Tongue: A Picture of Percy French (Belfast: Greystone Books, 1990)
- Ettie French: Willie: A Tribute to Percy French (Holywood, County Down: Percy French Society, 1994)
- Oliver Nulty: Lead Kindly Light. Celebrating 150 Years of Percy French (ed. by Bernadette Lowry) (Dublin: Oriel Gallery, 2002)
- Berrie O'Neill: Tones that are Tender: Percy French, 1854–1920 (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2016)
- "French family at Cloonyquin". Landedestates.ie. 18 May 2011. Retrieved 22 December 2012.
- Clarke, Frances (2009). "Daly, Emily Lucy de Burgh". In McGuire, James; Quinn, James (eds.). Dictionary of Irish Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- De Burgh Daly, Mrs (1973). Prose, Poems and Parodies of Percy French. Dublin: Talbot Press. pp. vii–xv. ISBN 978-0-85452-107-4.
- Frank McNally, "An Irishman's Diary", in: The Irish Times, 14 November 2007.
- Irish trailblazer Percy French honoured on centenary of his death. www.irishpost.com
- Tongue, Alan (1990). A Picture of Percy French. Greystone Books. p. 35.
- The Songs of Percy French, by James N. Healy (Dublin & Cork: Mercier Press, 1983).
- "The Emigrant's Letter (Cutting the Corn in Creeslough)". WeLoveDonegal.com. Retrieved 22 December 2012.
- "Percy French Art". Visual-arts-cork.com. Retrieved 22 December 2012.
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Percy French.|