back Paddy Reilly
Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff wasnt
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 Offenbachs operas!
Music held me with its magic spell - so I bought
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
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 wasnt
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
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
At the age of 36, he married Ettie on 28th June 1890 at
St. Stephens Church, Dublin. Their honeymoon was spent
at Castle Howard, Avoca. The newly-weds lived at Victoria
Lodge, 3 St. Johns Rd. Sandymount. How extraordinarily
happy they were, just like 2 children, laughing all the
time, noted Mrs Houston, the rectors 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 Queens
Theatre, Dublin. This was the beginning of a long and successful
career as a songwriter and entertainer with Collisson as
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
wifes 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,
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
By now, French was making occasional appearances in England.
Persuaded by his agent, he moved with his family in 1899,
aged 45 to St. Johns 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
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
Frenchs 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. Lukes churchyard Formby.
Lines from his favourite hymn, Lead Kindly Light,
are engraved on his tombstone; Oer moor and
fen, oer 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