Percy French was a native of Co Roscommon, Ireland. He is regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest ever songwriters. French was also a famous entertainer and watercolour painter. He painted the watercolour, ‘Where ever I go my heart turns back to the County Mayo’ in 1902. It was sold by Dublin art auctioneers Whytes in 2005 for €44,000.
Percy (William) French was born at Cloonyquin House near Tulsk, County Roscommon in 1854. He was educated at Foyle College, Derry and in 1872 he began studying civil engineering at Trinity College Dublin. However at college French appears to have devoted much of his time to song writing, dramatics, painting and learning to play the banjo. He wrote his first successful song for a ‘smoking concert’ (live performance) in 1877. The song, which was called Abdul Abulbul Amir, became very popular but made only £5 for the writer.
French graduated from TCD as a civil engineer in 1881 after nine years at the University. He was employed as Inspector of Drains with the Board of Works in County Cavan. While working in Cavan he indulged his passion for painting and wrote two of his famous songs: ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’ and ‘Slattery’s Mounted Fut’. When he lost his job with the Board of Works in 1887 he began working as editor a weekly comic paper called ‘The Jarvey’. However the paper failed and French began his career as a fulltime entertainer and songwriter. He married Ethel Moore in 1891 but both his wife and daughter died a year later.
French became famous for songs such as Gortnamona and The Mountains of Mourne. In 1893 he married Helen Sheldon and they had three daughters. By 1900 he had become a well-known and very successful performer in Ireland. He began to tour successfully in the theatres of cities all over Britain and in 1910 he toured North America and the West Indies. He returned to Ireland each year to perform in towns and holiday resorts around the country. On one occasion he advertised a concert in the town of Kilkee in County Clare but was delayed getting to the venue because a train of The West Clare Railway broke down. He was awarded £10 damages and the incident led to him writing one of his most famous songs: Are ye right there Michael?
In January 1920 Percy French was giving performances in Scotland. Whilst giving a series of concerts in Glasgow he contracted pneumonia. He moved to live with his cousin in the town of Formby near Liverpool. He died a few day later at the age of 65 on January 24th 1920.
Percy French was born in the year 1854 On This Day.