French, (William) Percy (1854–1920), songwriter, humourist, entertainer, and painter, was born 1 May 1854 in Cloonyquin House, parish of Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, second son and third child among four sons and five daughters of Christopher French (1821–97), landowner, and Susan Emma French (née Percy), whose father was Church of Ireland rector of Kiltoghert (Carrick-on-Shannon), Co. Leitrim. His forebears had owned Cloonyquin since the late seventeenth century. On the unfashionable principle that young boys were best kept out of boarding school, he was taught at home first by a governess and then by tutors. Though he could not be made attentive to the austere programme of study devised by his scholarly father, he benefited from unsystematic perusal of his father's excellent library. A highly imaginative child, he was instinctively drawn to music and art; his talents therein, along with his humour and wit, derived mainly from his mother's family. His father was regarded as a relatively just and popular landlord, and the family estate was largely untouched by the land agitations of the latter nineteenth century.
Education and contemporaneous recreations Largely to enhance the children's educational opportunities, the family lived for a period from 1864 in England, where French attended school for two years at Kirk Langley, Derbyshire, before boarding at Windermere College, Cumbria (1867–71). After a year's grinding at Foyle College, Derry city, he matriculated with honours at TCD in October 1872 to study civil engineering (yielding to his father's long-held but mistaken belief that mathematics was his leading academic subject). Whiling away his time in music halls and theatres, on tennis courts, and playing the banjo and piano, he was prominent in college social life, ever eager to organise concerts, and to entertain at parties and 'smokers'; he also performed for spectators at cricket and tennis matches when at home in Roscommon. (Abstemious in his personal habits, he was a lifelong non-smoker and non-drinker.) In 1877 he dazzled fellow students by writing and performing a witty comic song, 'Abdullah Bulbul Ameer', describing a fictional duel between rival champions during the contemporaneous Russo–Turkish war. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, he published the song, but neglected to secure copyright, whereupon a London firm pirated a revised, unattributed version; though the song, as 'Abdul Abulbul Amir', became immensely popular throughout the English-speaking world, French received neither royalties nor authorial credit. Graduating BA (1876) and B.Eng. (1881), French in later years speculated that he held 'the record as the student who took the longest time to get the CE degree … I believe the board were afraid I should apply for a pension if I stayed any longer' (Chronicles, 29).
Early employment, writings and entertainments After leaving TCD, French worked for a period as an apprentice engineer in the Midland Great Western Railway. Unemployed for a spell thereafter and contemplating emigration to Manitoba, he obtained a position with the Board of Works as inspector of loans to tenants in Co. Cavan (1883–8); his responsibilities chiefly involved site inspections relating to the construction of improvements to agricultural properties. Describing the position in comic verse as 'inspector of drains', he later reminisced that his duties demanded neither expert knowledge nor inordinate exertion, and that he got along by 'layin' low and sayin' nuffin'' (Chronicles, 48). Based in Cavan town, he performed locally in amateur dramatics, and formed an amateur minstrel troupe, the Kinnypottle Komicks (named after the town's river), which gave concerts in north midland towns and country houses. His travels on official business throughout the county, which he conducted largely by bicycle, intensified his long-held interest in landscape painting (he was a regular exhibitor with the Water Colour Society of Ireland beginning in 1872), and he executed many watercolours of the local scenery, developing an especial facility for capturing the ever-mutable skies above barren boglands and heather-clad hills.
All the while French produced a stream of comical articles, poems, songs and parodies. His most successful songs of the period were 'Slattery's Mounted Fut' and 'Phil the fluter's ball'; the latter was inspired by an anecdote he was told about a Cavan smallholder and musician who would raise the rent money by inviting the neighbours to dances in his cottage (after first locking all the food and drink in the cupboard) and charging them for the music that he himself played on the flute. Racquetry rhymes (1888), a book illustrated by his friend Richard Caulfeild Orpen (qv), satirised the contemporary gentry craze for lawn tennis, and consisted of parodies of familiar nursery rhymes with rampant punning. (French's lifelong passion for tennis inspired comic verse throughout his career, from the early Ye tale of ye tournament (1884), a bombastic account in the style of Malory of that year's competition at the Fitzwilliam club, to How Hiawatha won the cup (1913), a parody of Longfellow celebrating the English tour of the visiting American champion Maurice McLoughlin. A gifted parodist, he also wrote versions of nursery rhymes in the styles of famous poets.) Orpen also illustrated French's The first lord liftinant, and other tales (1890), a collection of three vernacular burlesques based on episodes from Irish history.
Dismissed from his employment in 1888 amid a reduction of staff owing to a decline in applications for loans, and having lost his savings in a misguided investment in an unsuccessful distillery, French moved to Dublin and sought work on the Irish Cyclist, a magazine to which he had been contributing as a freelancer; instead, the publisher, R. J. Mecredy (qv), appointed him editor of the Jarvey, a newly launched humorous weekly. Carrying the publication, on unfavourable terms (Mecredy provided no initial capital, expecting to pay contributors out of the weekly profits), throughout its brief lifespan (3 January 1889–27 December 1890), French found it impossible to break the grip of contemporary London journals of a similar character on the Irish market. The magazine enjoyed a varied reception, one reviewer remarking tartly: 'Some of the jokes we've seen before; some we haven't seen yet' (quoted in O'Dowda, 12).
In early 1891 French began a lengthy collaboration with the classically trained musician and composer Houston Collisson (qv), for whom he wrote the libretto for a stage production, 'The knight of the road', loosely based on the career of the eighteenth-century highwayman James Freney (qv); described as the first Irish musical comedy, the show enjoyed a critically and commercially successful two-week run at the Queen's Theatre, Dublin (April–May 1891), and a revival during horse show week. (The lyrics and score were later revised and published as The Irish girl: a comedy opera (1918).) The year 1892 found French involved with three separate productions on the Dublin stage and a summer tour of provincial venues. In another collaboration with Orpen, he presented a topical lantern-lecture revue, 'Dublin up to date', in the Antient Concert Rooms (January–March 1892), mildly satirising the personalities and mores of the city's social life. He had less success with 'Strongbow' (Queen's; May 1892), his second collaboration with Collisson; the comic take on the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland bemused some nationalist sensibilities and offended others, leading French to remark that he 'was born without any sense of reverence for anything or anybody', and could see the humorous side of everything (Chronicles, 71). Reshaping the lantern lecture as 'Ireland up to date', in summer 1892 he toured provincial locations to great acclaim as a solo act (owing to Orpen's unavailability), expanding the show with each performance to include songs, recitations, and lantern-illustrated anecdotes and vignettes. Though lacking a trained stage presence and polished presentation, he charmed audiences with the natural, unstudied ease of his manner and the spontaneity of his act. He and Collisson co-wrote and performed in 'Triple bill', comprising the parody sketch 'Little Lord Faultyboy', an anecdotal monologue by French, and the musical comedietta 'Midsummer madness' (Leinster Hall; October–November 1892).
Touring entertainer: song, story and sketch Suddenly in great demand as a stage performer, for the remainder of the decade French toured extensively and tirelessly around Ireland, appearing in locations large and small, in big city theatres and remote parish halls; immensely popular among varied social classes, he became a household name throughout the country. Appearing alone, or supported by Collisson (as piano accompanist and comic foil) or other partners, he refined a distinctive two-hour variety show of original, self-written material: songs, comic sketches, and droll stories, illustrated by pre-composed lantern slides and by rapidly executed, on-the-spot chalk or watercolour drawings, produced as he spoke and depicting the scenes and characters of his stories. (Most such drawings were destroyed after a performance.) Also included were artistic tricks, termed 'chuckles in chalk': a completed drawing would be inverted to reveal a totally different, though narratively relevant, subject; a squiggle drawn by a patron would be expanded into a picture (often as French recited a limerick spontaneously composed using a word or phrase supplied by another patron); blackening a china plate in a candle flame, French would etch a picture in the smoked surface with a matchstick or the wooden end of a paintbrush.
Though constantly and successfully engaged, French maintained an unworldly distance from the routine business involved in public performance. Impractical, disorderly, and absent-minded, he was uninterested and unskilled in money matters, and relied on others to navigate him through the practicalities of his schedule. There was much of the gentleman-amateur to his attitude and habits. Indifferent from childhood to social convention, he dressed bizarrely and often shabbily, and whenever possible chose cycling as his means of transport to engagements. He rarely stayed in hotels, preferring the hospitality of the local 'great house', where he often mingled with aristocrats and celebrities. Unawed by such company, he was repelled by social snobbery, and once asserted that he had 'nothing in common' with English high society. Moderately unionist in opinion, he was fundamentally apolitical with little interest in topical issues. (Certain stanzas of his songs expressing unionist sentiments – as well as those inferring commonly held racist attitudes of the period – are routinely suppressed by latter-day interpreters.) Generous, kind and amiable, with a gentle, self-deprecating reserve, he was modest about his talents and success. He preserved into his elder years a childlike innocence, playfulness, and wonderment at the odd, beguiling and varied novelty of the world: 'I was born a boy and have remained one ever since … messing about with a paintbox, or amusing myself with pencil and paper while fogies of forty determine the Kaiser's next move' (Chronicles, 2).
By the late 1890s French was fulfilling occasional dates in Britain. On foot of a successful London recital series in 1899, he was persuaded by his agent to move to London, the better to exploit the larger and more lucrative British market, and thereafter resided successively at three addresses on Springfield Road and Clifton Hill in St John's Wood. His British career received a major boost on his accepting an invitation to perform before the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and by his ensuing popularity among members of the extended royal family (whose patronage included the purchase and commissioning of paintings). Every year from autumn to spring French fulfilled engagements throughout Britain (being especially popular in public schools and local lecture societies), followed by a busy London season of parties and functions culminating in a Steinway Hall recital; a summer tour of Irish seaside resorts was followed by a month's holiday in the west which he devoted to landscape painting. In December 1906 he collaborated with Collisson on a Christmas children's play, 'Noah's ark', at London's Waldorf theatre. He and Collisson toured Canada, the eastern USA, and West Indies (September 1910–April 1911), attracting packed houses and enthusiastic reviews; many American commentators noted French's physical resemblance to another celebrated and well-travelled humorous lecturer, the recently deceased Mark Twain. (Though Twain was an important influence on his performance style, French was too gentle-hearted and apolitical to emulate Twain's savagely incisive satire.)
Songwriter Most of French's songs were written for performance in his stage show; Collisson composed or arranged the music for many. (Much of his poetry was likewise intended for stage recitation.) 'Are ye right there, Michael?' was inspired by an actual event of 10 August 1896 when French arrived late for a performance in Kilkee owing to the unpunctuality of the West Clare Railway; the apocryphal myth that he was sued by the railway company for libel over the song probably arises from his successful action against the company for £10 damages (his audience on the night having been refunded their money). 'Come back, Paddy Reilly' arose from his learning during a visit to Co. Cavan that a local jarvey known to him from his employment there had emigrated to America. 'The mountains of Mourne', among the most moving and probably the most durable of his songs, germinated from a phrase that occurred to him while regarding the distant range from Skerries, Co. Dublin, one clear afternoon: 'the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea'; the song was composed some years later after his move to London, his own nostalgic homesickness thus projected into the sentiments of his imagined emigrant. Many of his songs and poems were composed around a single, arresting turn of phrase that he heard spoken. On the steamer to Canada he overheard an emigrating Donegal lad remark wistfully to his companion as they watched the coast of Ireland recede: 'Well then, Mick, they'll be cuttin' the corn in Creeslough the day'; thus inspired, French composed 'The emigrant's letter' aboard ship, and premiered the song at the first recital of his North American tour, in Montreal. The poem 'An Irish mother' derived from an encounter, as French was painting in a remote mountain glen, with an old woman who told him ''twas a lonely land to live in when the childher was away' (Chronicles, 66).
The chief characteristics of his lyrics are pathos (usually associated with the emotions aroused by emigration) and humour, the latter derived from his close observation of human oddities and whimsicalities, and often directed at the presumed inefficiency, unsophistication and eccentricity of the Irish countryman. Notwithstanding his own gentry background, his tone is not patronising; aware of himself as an impractical, disorganised eccentric, who recoiled from the drudgery of workaday routine, he laughs with, not at, the characters of his verse (though the same cannot be said of much of his contemporary audience), regarding them as fellow dissidents against ordered, complacent conformity, and greatly preferring the company of such as them to that of the snobs and Gradgrinds of the world.
Painter French painted incessantly, when at home, on holiday, or on tour, executing tens of thousands of paintings, mostly landscapes, occasionally in oils, but predominantly in watercolours (a medium that, with its faster drying, and easier portability and cleaning, better suited his lifestyle of frequent travel). Enjoying good sales of his work, he exhibited at the RHA (1891–9 (annually), 1901), and was a regular exhibitor in London galleries after his move to the city. Many of his paintings he gave away or sold at a nominal price to strangers encountered on his travels; he made a practice of gifting paintings to his overnight hosts. Critic Brian Fallon, reviewing a retrospective exhibition, adjudged him as 'much more than an amateur artist', who, while reliant on 'ready-made formulae', employed them with 'fluency and charm', but 'rarely produced work of any strongly marked personality' or with 'much sense of visual discovery' (Ir. Times, 19 August 1982).
Late career French undertook a winter performance tour in Switzerland (December 1913–February 1914), raising money for the Church of England's 'waifs and strays' charity (in which Collisson – an ordained clergyman – was active), and taking the opportunity to ski and to paint the alpine landscape. (His painting of a Swiss winter sports scene was reproduced for UNICEF's 1986 Christmas card, some 65 million copies being printed.) During the first world war, French maintained a gruelling and exhausting performance schedule in Britain and Ireland (marked by numerous one-night stands), donating a generous proportion of the proceeds to the Red Cross. He performed for the troops in Britain and France, and published several war-related songs, but was uninfected by war fever, his gently humane temperament unresponsive to the prevailing martial jingoism. An unusually bleak watercolour, 'The ghost of Ypres' (1915), portrayed the skeletal ruins of a church in the heavily bombarded town. His comic revue 'How Dublin does it' – describing an uncouth Galwegian's first visit to the city – was staged at venues in the Dublin region (January–February 1916); a series of English dates was scheduled, beginning with a long run in Eastbourne that opened on Holy Saturday, 22 April 1916, only to be cancelled by the outbreak in Dublin of the Easter rising.
French married (28 June 1890) Ethel Kathleen ('Ettie') Armytage-Moore (c.1871–1891), of Arnmore, Co. Cavan, who died 29 June 1891 of puerperal septicaemia, several weeks after giving birth to a daughter, who survived but one month. He married secondly (24 January 1894) Helen May Cunningham Sheldon (d. 1956), of Burmington House, Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, who had been a chorus member in 'Strongbow'; they had three daughters. In 1916 French suffered a broken rib upon falling down stairs in his London home; later that year, he was badly bruised and emotionally shaken upon losing his footing attempting to jump on a moving train at Blackrock station, Co. Dublin, and being dragged some distance down the platform. He suffered declining health in ensuing years. After fulfilling a Glasgow engagement despite illness, he died of pneumonia in the home of a cousin in Formby, Lancashire, on 24 January 1920, and was buried in the local anglican churchyard.
The posthumous Chronicles and poems of Percy French (1922), the first extensive collection of his songs, poems and parodies, was compiled by his sister Emily Lucy De Burgh Daly, and includes letters and autobiographical fragments by French, and reminiscences by the compiler and others, with a foreword by Katharine Tynan (qv). Two week-long Percy French festivals were hosted in Cloonyquin House (1957 and 1958) before the building's demolition in the early 1960s. The Oriel Gallery, Dublin, opened in 1968 with a combined exhibition of paintings by French and George Russell (qv) ('Æ'), and thereafter regularly championed French's artwork in solo and group exhibitions. A Percy French Society of North Down was established in 1983. The first annual Percy French School occurred in Castlecoote House, Co. Roscommon, in 2009.