Percy French, one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers of his day, dies of pneumonia in Formby, England, on January 24, 1920.
French is born at Cloonyquin House, near Tulsk, County Roscommon. He is educated at Foyle College, Derry, and writes his first successful song, Abdul Abulbul Amir, while studying at Trinity College Dublin in 1877. The song is sold for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher and later becomes hugely popular and is falsely claimed by other authors.
He graduates from Trinity as a civil engineer in 1881 and joins the Board of Works in County Cavan as an “Inspector of Drains.” It is said that he writes his best songs during this period. French is also a prolific painter of landscape watercolours and during this period he considers art to be his true vocation. When he becomes well-known later in his life, his paintings from his time as a civil engineer become fashionable and sought after.
When the Board of Works reduces its staff around 1887, French turns to journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper. Upon the failure of the paper, French embarks on a long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer. It is around this time that French marries Ethel Kathleen Armitage-Moore, second daughter of William Armytage-Moore, brother of Countess of Annesley. Tragically, at the age of 20, she dies during childbirth along with her daughter.
French becomes renowned for composing and singing comic songs and gains considerable distinction with such songs as Phil the Fluther’s Ball, Slattery’s Mounted Foot, and The Mountains of Mourne. One of French’s most famous songs is Are Ye Right There Michael, a song that ridicules the state of the rail system in rural County Clare. The song causes such embarrassment to the rail company that it lead to an ultimately unsuccessful libel action against French. It is said that French arrives late for the libel hearing and, when questioned by the judge on his lateness, he responds, “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,” which results in the case being thrown out.
French takes ill while performing in Glasgow and dies of pneumonia on January 24, 1920, at the age of 65 at the home of his cousin, Canon Richardson of Green Lea, in Formby. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Luke’s Parish Church, Formby in Merseyside. A statue of him sitting on a park bench can be found in the town center of Ballyjamesduff in honour of him and his famous song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.