William Percy French Will Never Be Omitted In Any Historic Collection Of Famous Irish Composers
"Are Ye Right There Michael, Are Ye Right , Do You Think That We’ll Be There Before The Night".
These were the words, written in 1902, that summoned Percy French to a libel court case in Co. Clare, activated by the owners of the West Clare Railway.
Percy French was of Anglo Irish ancestry and few song composers, if any, wrote about Ireland, its people and the customary easy going nature of Irish people, as the Elphin, Co. Roscommon born Famous Son Of Ireland.
His lyrics were humourous, often quite funny, and composed in a style unique to Percy French alone.
Born on 1st May 1854, he died on 24th January 1920 at Formby, near Liverpool, England, and he rests in an English grave far from his native Co. Roscommon.
Percy was born in an era when Ireland was under the command of English rule for over 700 years and coming from a privileged and rich background, he had access to a level of education outside the means of the vast majority of native Irish boys and girls of homeland ancestry.
The Protestant French family came to Ireland in 17th century Cromwellian times and lived at Cloonyquin House, near Elphin, Co. Roscommon, regarded as a “Big House” with many stables, out-yards and hundreds of acres and the family held regular social gatherings in their fine homestead, mainly attended by guests of anglo Irish persuasion.
Many subjects incorporated in our historic collection of Famous Sons & Daughters Of Ireland came from Anglo Irish ancestry and through their deeds and outstanding achievements as Irish born people, became nationally and internationally identified as Famous Irish people.
William Percy French is very much in the latter category.
With an educational background through Foyle College, Co. Derry and Trinity College, Dublin, the Roscommon native, after many years struggling with studies, finally qualified as a Civil Engineer in 1881and his first engineering post was with The Midlands Railway.
He later moved to the Co. Cavan Board Of Works where he took up employment as an engineer, looking after applications from farmers seek drainage grants. Through this work he made himself known as “The Inspector Of Drains”.
It was during his working life in Cavan he began composing songs as a sideline job and it was only a matter of time before his compositions became headline hits. Also in the 19th century the vast majority of Irish towns and several villages had their own small hotels providing accommodation for business travelers and without motorised transport means, other than bicycles and horses and carts, travelers calling from town to town selling their wares, utilised the hotels rather than journeying back to their homes.
Percy French was a frequent highways and byways traveler around Co. Cavan working for the Board Of Works and when he lodged at a hotel, it was proudly advertised by the proprietor, that Percy French had stayed at this hotel. The national esteem of the songwriter and entertainer was of a very high standing and his songs were top of the pops all over Ireland.
When his post with the Cavan Board Of Works ceased around 1888, Percy French took up journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper that never successfully hit the shelves.
As editor and main contributor to the magazine, the publication failed to court corporate advertisers and despite bringing over 100 editions to print, eventual closure was a distinct possibility and it went into the waste bin after four years. From that venture onwards Percy solely concentrated on composing songs and performing as an entertainer.
Around that time also Percy married Ethel (Ettie) Kathleen Armitage – Moore, second daughter of William Armytage – Moore. Tragedy befell the French family in 1891 when Ettie died in childbirth age just twenty. Percy French was now forty seven, he was married just one year and one day, the Irish composer was left to pick up the pieces of his shattered family life.
In 1894 William Percy French again went to the altar to marry Helen Sheldon, a romance that blossomed when Helen, as a chorus singer, became acquainted with French. The marriage produced two daughters and the couple lived in Dublin at that time.
The appointment of a London based agent to promote his career resulted in a move to live in London and from there he toured extensively in the early 20th century in America, Canada and the West Indies and also in the British home countries.
He never forgot his Irish roots when it came to performing where it all started in Ireland. He made many return visits to venues all over Ireland and this became a substantial revenue stream for the composer/entertainer.
A new female singer/partner, May Laffin, many years his junior, began to appear by his side after the 1916 Easter Rising, but by now serious health issues were appearing on the horizon. At 62 years old his ability to attract big audiences was in decline and unable to match his splendid performances in his early life, the curtain was closing in rapidly.
At the well known Glasgow, Scotland, entertainment venue, The Palette Club, Percy French again took to the stage unaware that his health was now dictating, that this gig would be his farewell salute to his fans worldwide. It was Friday 16th January 1920.
On the homeward train journey to London, with May Laffin by his side, the famous Irish song composer and entertainer, became very ill and decided to shorten his London journey by exiting the train at Liverpool. His intention was to call to his cousin, Canon Johnny Richardson’s Formby residence in Lancashire and hopefully recover his health.
On the 24th January 1920, after several days battling pneumonia, William Percy French succumbed to his illness and died at his cousin’s residence.
As an Irishman and as a composer, entertainer and painter of renown, we are proud to incorporate amongst our historic Irish heritage collection of Famous Sons & Daughters Of Ireland, the national and international name of William Percy French of Co. Roscommon fame.
Prior to moving to London under the direction of his agent, Percy French was known all through his schooling and composing and entertaining years in Ireland as “William and Willie”. Percy was adopted in London.
A glance at some of the songs composed under Percy French’s own pen include:
Phil The Fluther's Ball; Slattery's Mounted Foot; The Mountains Of Mourne; The Darlin' Girl from Clare; Drumcolligher; Eileen Óge; The Emigrants's Letter; Cutting the Corn in Creeslough; Little Brigid Flynn; The Night that Miss Cooney Eloped; When Erin Wakes and Whistlin' Phil McHugh.
The incorporation of William Percy French as a Famous Son Of Ireland amongst our Irish Heritage collection of “Composers” is long overdue and we hope our global browsers will share our appreciation of one of Ireland’s greatest ever composers.