Percy french

A place and time for ritual and pageantry

The tribute to Percy French in Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan.


By Gerry O'Shea


Every culture needs a place and time for masks and costumes, rituals and pageantry. The Indian tribes, the original Americans, revealed their changing moods with feathers and multi-colored paints, and English people love their monarchs not because of their political beliefs or oratorical prowess, but because their crowns and robes and resplendent palaces represent a glamorous lifestyle unattainable to mere commoners.

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In the town of Kenmare, the place where I grew up, the Catholic church provided an abundance of rituals and pageantry at a time – back in the 1950s and 1960s – when most people had to settle for a very humdrum existence. High masses with thuribles and incense, Corpus Christi parades and late-evening benedictions and holy hours met the ceremonial needs of the people.

The other powerful organization in the town, the Gaelic Athletic Association, was also an important cultural force. The Fr. Breen Park, known to us youngsters simply as “the field,” provided a beautiful playing area where the local boys and young men practiced their skills in hurling and football and played against visiting teams in championship and challenge games especially during the summer months.

In addition, the local club presented a concert every St. Patrick’s night. This event was really an amalgam of local singers performing popular patriotic songs and a production of a play by aspiring thespians entertaining the packed Carnegie Hall on March 17th. It was the highlight of the local celebration of the national saint, providing fine entertainment for young and old by men and women they knew, which greatly heightened the enjoyment.

My first memory of this event involved a play which included a young man who worked in a local hardware store playing the role, as I recall it, of a likable but rather empty-headed railway porter singing “Are Ye Right there Michael Are Ye Right” as part of a comedy production.

The singer’s name was Paddy Corkery, who has passed to his reward, but I was so impressed by his talents when I recalled how I laughed so much at his antics that night and how I felt in awe of his talents, performing nonchalantly before hundreds of people, with no evident nerves or apprehension. For many years, I treated him with the kind of adulation accorded county footballers.

It was those annual March jamborees and the productions of visiting troupes of players, led by people like Anew McMaster who features in Anne Enright’s recent novel, Actress, that developed in me a love of drama, more than any of the other literary genres, and that explains my continuing visits to Broadway and, more often, off-Broadway shows.

The man who wrote the hilarious song mentioned above, Percy French, died at age 65, a hundred years ago on January 24th, 1920.

Are ye right there Michael, are ye right?

Do you think that we’ll be home before it’s light?

‘Tis all dependin’ whether the ould engine holds together

And it might so Michael so it might!

He was born in Clooneyquin House, near Tulsk in County Roscommon. A landlord’s son, he was educated in Windermere College in Derry and Trinity College Dublin where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. He was not an assiduous student so when he finally got his BE award after seven years, one of his friends quipped that the board of governors only agreed to sign off on his graduation to obviate any claim he might make for a pension!

During his time in Trinity French wrote one of his most famous songs, Abdullah Bulbul Ameer, a spoof on the Russo-Turkish War of 1887-1888. It was a worldwide hit, but French had foolishly sold the rights of the song for five pounds, so the profits from his work went to publishers in London who didn’t even credit him with the authorship.

Oh! The sons of the Prophet are hardy and grim

And quite unaccustomed to fear

But none were so reckless of life and of limb

As Abdulla Bulbul Ameer

He served for a few years in Cavan with the job title Inspector of Drains, which involved assessing applications from farmers for government grants to improve the drainage in their land. The job paid 300 pounds a year plus expenses, a fine salary in those times.

Cavan people remember him not for his expertise in relieving their land of excess water, but for his authorship of their wonderful anthem Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff which still evokes tender feelings especially when sung to Irish audiences.

A statue of the author sitting on a park bench in the center of Ballyjamesduff honors French for the fame he brought to the town with that beautiful and classy ballad, ending with the plaintive, pleading quatrain:

And tones that are tender and tones that are gruff

Are whispering over the sea

Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff

Come home Paddy Reilly to me.

His other great song also has an emigrant theme, suggesting that although he was part of the landed aristocracy he was aware of the travails of so many Irish families who had children in the big cities of England and America.

The Mountains of Mourne includes the memorable scene where he came across a neighbor from home, Peter O’Loughlin, a policeman, on duty, in London.

And he stopped the whole street with a wave of his hand,

And there we stood talking of days that are gone

While the whole population of London looked on.

During his time in Cavan, he started painting landscapes and he developed real talent in drawing scenes from the Irish countryside and later continuing this work when he visited Canada, Switzerland and the West Indies. His paintings were highly-rated and they featured in exhibitions in Dublin. In 2005 one of his watercolor depictions with a rather long-winded title, Wherever I go my heart turns back to the County Mayo fetched 44,000 pounds in an auction.

He wrote Ireland’s first musical comedy, The Knight of the Road, which was successfully produced in Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre. Percy was popular as an entertainer with a new revue every year which he performed in many of the holiday towns in Ireland as well as in centers in London and beyond.

He produced and played the leading part in the annual revue called Dublin Up To Date, a precursor to Billa O’Connell’s Up Cork and Maureen Potter’s Christmas pantomime in the Gaiety Theatre.

Reflecting on his own life, he wrote: “Friends and relatives urge me to grow up and take an interest in adult matters like politics, whiskey, race meetings and other things that men talk about, but no, I am still a small boy, messing around with a paint box or amusing myself with pencil and paper while fogeys of forty determine the Kaiser’s next move.”

His songs and his paintings deal mostly with nature and romantic themes with no glorification of war heroes or imperial armies. He was shocked by the carnage of the Great War, and he had no time for the aggressive militarism that permeated political thinking in those years. In Slattery’s Mounted Fut he mocks the military culture that prevailed all over Europe.

The gallant corps was organized by Slattery’s eldest son

A noble-minded poacher with a double-breasted gun

And then the concluding oft-quoted anti-heroic message from the Slattery tale:

He that fights and runs away will live to fight another day.

His first wife, Ethel Armitage-Moore, died a year after their marriage and their baby daughter died a few weeks later. Broken-hearted, he memorialized Ethel in the beautiful Gortnamona, made famous by the late Dundalk tenor, Brendan O’Dowda. He later married Helen Sheldon and they had three daughters, the youngest one, Joan, passed away in 1996.

O’Dowda wrote a biography of Percy French concluding that he was a really lovable but impractical man, a person “without guile, a dreamer and a gentleman, who experienced great sorrow but never soured.”

The Percy French Festival 2020 is scheduled to take place in Castlecoote House, near Cooly in County Roscommon from the 8th to the 10th of July. But of course, given the Covid-19 pandemic, the festival could end up being a moved feast.