John McCormack and Percy French were made for each other; both stage performers, both supreme communicators; the great ballad composer and the great ballad singer; the perfect combination of talents. Yet McCormack never sang a French composition. Liam O Raghallaigh wonders why?
William Percy French was born on May 1st, 1854, at Clooneyquin, Co. Roscommon, to Christopher French and Susan Emma Percy. His father was High Sheriff of Roscommon and the family was close knit and comfortable.
Percy was educated in England before moving to Foyle College, Derry to study for the Trinity College, Dublin, entrance examination. Once in Trinity he discovered ‘the theatre’ and, although a non-smoker and non-drinker, he and his banjo soon became an integral part of the social scene of the college.
He wrote his first song ‘Abdullah Bulbul Ameer’ for one of the parties and it was pirated by a London publisher to become a worldwide hit; Percy had learnt his first life-lesson.
He was more interested in music, lawn tennis and watercolour painting than his studies and he created a record as the Trinity student who took the longest time to get the CE degree. “Eventually I was allowed to take out my BA and CE degrees. I believe the Board were afraid I should apply for a pension if I stayed any longer at TCD.”
After an apprenticeship with the Midland Railway where he met Charles Manners (Mansergh), another singer and performer, who was to become a life long friend, he was offered the position of ‘Inspector of Loans to Tenants’ with Cavan Board of Works at £300 PA plus expenses.
He bicycled everywhere and the people he met and the events he witnessed or heard about inspired some of his most memorable songs, ie., ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’, ‘Slattery’s Mounted Fut’ and ‘Come back, Paddy Reilly’.