Come back Paddy Reilly

By Marie O¹Donoghue

Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff’ wasn’t written by a Cavanman, yet the songwriter owed much to that county. William Percy French was born at Cloonyquin, Co. Roscommon on May 1st 1854. He later described his coming into the world as “an event of immense importance which occurred in the history of Ireland. No cables buzzed the news to the ends of the earth. No telephones rang - there were none to ring. Cabinets were not hastily summoned nor consuls recalled, but Larry McCullagh lepped on the ‘chisnut mare’ and galloped as fasht as he could shplit for Dr. Peyton. By the time the doctor arrived, I was an accomplished fact, endowed by my parents with all the mental activity of the house of French and all the physical health and beauty of the Percys.”

Later on, his forays into the educational world gave both tutors and himself contrasting impression of his academic ability. “Tutors and governesses came at intervals out of space and taught me little except that all learning was a fearful bore - in fact, it was not until after I left college that I began to take any pleasure in working my brains. My old friend and tutor, the Rev. James Rountree, was the first man to show me that ‘two straight lines cannot enclose a space - unless one of them is crooked’ and as he taught me Euclid with a rule and compass, I really got a practical knowledge of the first book. When my family moved to Derby for educational purposes and I was sent to a small school called Kirk Langley, none of the boys had as yet attempted Euclid. I was accordingly hailed as a prodigy, and the headmaster, Dr. Barton wrote home to my father in these words: ‘Your son, for his age, is quite the finest mathematical scholar we have ever had!’ This fatal remark exercised a most baleful influence over my whole life. Just before I entered Trinity College, I was sent to Foyle College, where an eminent mathematician named Johnson was requested to put in the finishing touch. He built up a beautiful superstructure on the flimsiest foundation, and I passed into TCD with honours!”

Percy French entered Trinity College in Oct.1872 to study Engineering. His first impressions are amusing. “Here was a chance to learn everything! Lectures by specialists of world-wide fame, a magnificent library, quiet rooms in the new square, debating societies, aspiring students all around me - yet nothing I wanted to know. Oh! yes, there was! The Gaeity Theatre had just been opened and Miss Annie Tremaine and company were playing Offenbach’s operas! Music held me with its magic spell ‘ - so I bought a banjo.”

He believed he held the record as the student who took the longest time to obtain the Civil Engineering degree. “Taking up the banjo, lawn tennis and water-colour painting, instead of Chemistry, Geology and the Theory of Strains, must have retarded my progress a good deal. But eventually I was allowed to take out my BA and CE degrees - I believe the Board was afraid I should apply for a pension if I stayed any longer in TCD.”

His only contribution to contemorary literature during his college career was a ballad called ‘Abdullah Bulbul Ameer’. It described a duel between a Turk and a Russian during the Russo-Turkish War, and became so popular that he was determined to publish it. Alas! He had forgotten to take out the copyright, and a London firm, finding out his mistake, brought out a pirated edition without even his name on the cover.

Having obtained his C.E. he put in the time as an apprentice under James Price, Engineer-in-Chief of the Midland Railway. It was when working under James Price - there wasn’t much work but none of them grumbled - that he made his first appearance in public, at Punchestown Races with Charles Manners another apprentice. It was not a successful debut, their banjo playing with bones accompaniment was considered too vulgar!

He joined the Board of Works as a surveyor of drains in Co. Cavan. He had already begun to make some money writing songs, ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ being especially popular. French played a ‘very nippy game of tennis, and had a low-cut shot that was not easy to return.’ At a tennis party given by Dr. and Mrs. Mease, French met his future wife, Ettie Armytage Moore. Her country home was Arnmore, just outside Cavan.

When the Board reduced its staff about 1887 and he lost his capital in an unwise investment in a distillery, he turned to journalism as editor of the Jarvey, a weekly comic paper.
At the age of 36, he married Ettie on 28th June 1890 at St. Stephen’s Church, Dublin. Their honeymoon was spent at Castle Howard, Avoca. The newly-weds lived at Victoria Lodge, 3 St. John’s Rd. Sandymount. ‘How extraordinarily happy they were, just like 2 children, laughing all the time,’ noted Mrs Houston, the rector’s wife.

However, the Jarvey was finishing its run. The Christmas number of 1891 was the last. French then teamed up with a Dr. (Mus.) Collisson in writing and producing a musical comedy. “The Knights of the Road” at the Queen’s Theatre, Dublin. This was the beginning of a long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer with Collisson as partner.

On the 5th June 1891 a daughter was born, Ethel Florence Cecilia. Tragically, both mother and daughter died: Ettie of septicemia on the 29th June at home, aged 20 years and the baby on the 5th July at Cloonyquin. Ettie is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin and the baby in the grounds of Elphin Cathedral, not far from Cloonyquin. After his wife’s death, French disappeared into the country for a while, later moving to The Mall, Strand Rd. Baldoyle.

His second musical comedy was Strongbow, in which he played the part of a harper. In the chorus of Strongbow was Helen Sheldon whom French married 2 yrs. later in Burmington, Warwickshire. The Frenches moved to 35 Mespil Rd. Dublin. ‘We are living by the canal, do drop in’, he told acquaintances. On 4th Nov. 1894, a daughter was born, Ettie Gwendoline, followed on 13th March 1896 by a 2nd daughter, Mollie Helen.

On the 10th August that year, French arrived late for an entertainment he was due to give at Kilkee, Co. Clare, owing to a series of incidents on the narrow gauge West Clare Railway. French subsequently took the railway company to court for loss of earnings. His experiences are well recorded in the song ‘Are you right there, Michael, are you right?’

By now, French was making occasional appearances in England. Persuaded by his agent, he moved with his family in 1899, aged 45 to St. John’s Wood, London.
Although French never talked about the death of his 1st wife, it is quite likely that this loss inspired some of his ‘pathetic poems’ as he called them, such as ‘Gortnamona.’

On 21st April, 1905, a third daughter was born, Joan Phyllis. Because she was too young to join her sisters activities, her father constructed a stage in the drawing room, complete with curtains and painted backcloth, for the performance of plays and entertainments by herself and her small friends. Now over 50 and comfortably off, he could relax and enjoy the company of the children he loved.

French loved painting more than anything else, and literally painted tens of thousands of watercolours. Sales of his paintings provided a useful income. One of his friends at Foyle and Trinity was John Ross, later to become Lord Chancellor of Ireland. According to him French ‘had the making of a great landscape painter. When a scene presented itself to his view, rich in varied colour, he became almost intoxicated at the sight.’ Every year after a busy London season a.s an entertainer, followed by a hectic month-long tour of the Irish seaside resorts, he insisted on spending 4 weeks of perfect freedom on his own in the west of Ireland. There he refreshed his memory with the scenes he loved. This break was an absolute lifeline.

With Dr. Collisson, he toured North America in 1910 and returned home via the West Indies. On Boxing Day 1914, French, then aged 60, left for Switzerland to raise money for the waifs and strays returning in February. During World War 1, he travelled to the continent, entertaining the wounded in hospitals.

French’s final engagement was in Glasgow in 1920. Afterwards, in failing health, he called to a friend at Formby, Liverpool. Unfortunately, he developed pneumonia there on 24th January, aged 65. He is buried in St. Luke’s churchyard Formby. Lines from his favourite hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’, are engraved on his tombstone; ‘O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, ‘till the night is gone.’ He may have departed this life 80 years ago but his memory lives on in the wit of his songs!

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2000