This year marks the centenary of the death of William Percy French, who was one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters. He is perhaps best known as a writer of humorous songs, but he was also a legendary entertainer, a talented author, an editor, concert promoter, sketch writer, poet, banjo player and an accomplished landscape painter, writes Gerry Breen.
Percy French was born on 1st May, 1854, at Clooneyquin House in Co. Roscommon, where his family had lived since the seventeenth century. He was the son of landowner Christopher French and his wife, Emma, and from an early age, his creative talent became apparent.
He was educated in Windermere College and later in Foyle College, Derry, before he entered Trinity College Dublin at the age of eighteen in 1872. After completing a BA degree, he began to study Civil Engineering. The truth is he wasn’t very studious, but he certainly enjoyed his time in university.
It took him seven years to complete his studies, and he said of himself: ‘I believe I still hold the record as the student who took the longest time to get the Civil Engineering Degree….I think taking up the banjo, lawn tennis and watercolour painting instead of chemistry, geology and the theory of strains must have retarded my progress a good deal.’
He is also reported to have said that he was finally awarded his engineering degree because the Trinity Board of Governors feared that if he stayed any longer, he would qualify for a pension before achieving it.
While he was in Trinity College, he wrote one of his most famous songs Abdullah Bulbul Ameer for a smoking concert. The song was a satirical account of the Russo-Turkish War and it became a worldwide hit.
At that time, smoking concerts were live performances, usually of music, before an audience of men only. These concerts were popular in the Victorian era, and those attending would smoke and speak of politics while listening to live music.
Knowing little about copyright, Percy French sold the song for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher. He was not credited as the writer at the time, and he received almost nothing for this composition because it was plagiarised. It earned considerable sums for others who claimed it as their own. Many names have been suggested as the author of the song, but there is not a single doubt that Percy French wrote it.
After leaving Trinity College, he became an apprentice with George Price who was Chief Engineer of the Midland Board, and after a short time, he got employment with the Irish Midland Railway, and then he taught art at Foyle College.
He then joined the Board of Works in Co. Cavan, and he was employed as a surveyor and engineer on a drainage scheme, assessing applications from farmers for grants to improve drains. He was very pleased to be appointed as a self-styled ‘Inspector of Drains.’