A new illustrated biography of the great Irish songwriter, poet, parodist, artist and entertainer has just been published. Written by Barrie ONeill, this very comprehensive life-story is a ‘must have’ for those with an interest in Irish literature, social history and, of course, Percy French.
‘He loved the old country and its people’ – Mr H. Franklin (friend of Percy French)
Some readers will of course be aware of Percy French through songs like Phil the Fluter’s Ball, The Mountains o’ Mourne or Come Back Paddy Reilly. Others will be aware of him as a water-colourist who is particularly well-known for his depictions of light breaking through rainy skies over mountain and bog in the west of Ireland. Many will have enjoyed his great recitation The Four Farrellys.
Indeed some may not be familiar at all with one who was once one of Ireland’s greatest entertainers. The recently published biography Tones That Are Tender – Percy French 1854-1920 with its historical perspective and many colourful illustrations should, however, bring pleasure to many Irish folk whether they be interested in the history of music, art and entertaiment or in the life of a person of humour who ‘loved the old country and its people’.
Perhaps the key motivating factor in the publishing of Tones That Are Tender was the author’s belief that this great songwriter and entertainer has been undervalued in the fullness of all his creative talents and that his resulting overall cultural legacy is likewise insufficiently appreciated.
In the introduction to his book the author humorously poses a question as to why a well-known hostelry in Donaghadee, County Down, is the only place where he has seen the name of Percy French grouped with such acknowledged literary greats as W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
He also wonders what combination of talents, personality and life experience would find French equally enjoyed by an audience in a small hall in Ireland or by the English royal family in their Sandringham home.
Percy French’s life is explored through chapters covering the main episodes of a multi-faceted career in the context of the social, cultural and political times in which he lived.
Born at Cloonyquin, County Roscommon, the second son of a medium-sized landlord, his early years were spent in the post-Famine period when the landlord system was in decline and land ownership had become the holy grail. Emigration was a matter of sadness and economic necessity.
However, his was still a privileged home and it was from a tutor that he learned something of Euclid. This seemed to convince his father that his second son might study to become a civil engineer, a profession that was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
This ‘mathematical genius’ notion, backed by educationalists who were more anxious to please his father than to offer critical advice, was subsequently considered by Percy French to have cast a ‘baleful influence’ over his whole life.
After nine years at Trinity College, Dublin he eventually emerged from the University in 1883 with a civil engineering degree. Whilst there he had also come under the ‘magic spell’ of music through visits to the Gaiety Theatre and had bought a banjo – an instrument that would be his entertainer’s stock-in-trade in the years to come.
And he had written one of his enduring songs, Abdallah Bulbul Ameer for one of the University’s then fashionable smoking concerts. His penchant for entertaining an audience was already evident.