Houston, we have a problem – Frank McNally on Percy French’s forgotten collaborator Houston Collisson

An Irishman’s Diary

Percy French’s musical partner Houston Collisson. Despite their successes, singly and together, they had both sometimes suffered from the culture wars of the time.

Percy French’s musical partner Houston Collisson. Despite their successes, singly and together, they had both sometimes suffered from the culture wars of the time.

 

Everybody knows that Percy French wrote The Mountains of Mourne, probably still his best-known song. But it tends to be forgotten that he wrote only the lyrics. As was often the case, those were set to a traditional air, arranged by his now much less remembered musical partner, Houston Collisson.

A Dublin-born Anglican priest, Collisson also scored the operettas they jointly produced in the early 1890s when, as Bernadette Lowry writes in the book mentioned here yesterday (about French’s role in Finnegans Wake), they promised to become an “Irish Gilbert & Sullivan”.

Each also performed solo on occasion and Collisson was once well known in his own right as an impresario. But poignantly, they were to be reunited in death. Both expired in the last week of January 1920: French on the 24th, Collisson on the 31st.

Despite their successes, singly and together, they had both sometimes suffered from the culture wars of the period, In the early 1890s, as Lowry points out, their brand of humour was at odds with the politics of the Parnell split, when Ireland’s stocks of humour in general were running low.

But a perception that their songs perpetuated stage-Irish stereotypes was also problematic for some.

That was the case in November 1906 when, during a solo tour of Ireland, Collisson endured a long, dark night of the artistic soul in Birr, Co Offaly.

“I shall never forget Birr,” he wrote afterwards in a memoir. “The hall […] was well filled, and my entertainment was going gaily until a gentleman in the gallery, who had evidently been indulging in a little too much ‘John Jameson’ began to talk.”

The talker was eventually removed with the help of a police constable. Then Collisson launched into a song called “Wait for a while now, Mary”, with lyrics by French, to a traditional air. This triggered an outbreak of “hissing” from “five or six occupants of the gallery”, which persisted for the rest of the show.

Hissing seems to have been as bad as it got, but Dr Collisson was nonetheless shocked. He had been completely in sympathy with the revival of Irish music and literature then afoot, he afterwards insisted, and detested the “Stage Irishman” himself. But he did not accept that he and French were complicit. He wondered if what the Birr protesters had really objected to was his singing “with a Dublin accent”. To that he pleaded guilty: “I was born there, and I can’t help it.” But he also quoted in full the epic hatchet job on the concert published later in “a local paper”, which supplied more detail of the charges.

The unnamed reviewer began by summarising the show as one of “vulgar insipidity”. Then he digressed to deliver a damning critique of the majority in the audience, which had “aristocratically graced” the hall “in opera cloaks and demi-toilettes” and clearly enjoyed itself.

“If the entertainer had been engaged in the task of amusing children who had not reached a reasonable intellectual standard, then he might have succeeded in his efforts,” lectured the critic. “That he was successful in pleasing the Castle satellites and shoneens of Birr speaks volumes for their intellectual abilities.”

From there the piece went on to lambaste the “third-rate one-man shoddy performance” itself; the performer’s “sleepy address, interspersed with antediluvian jokes and atrocious attempts at punning”; and even his skills on the “instrument of torture” (the piano).

Apart from one song the reviewer generously declared “right enough”, the event’s only saving grace was said to be the hissing of a small section of the audience (described as “Irishmen”) that disturbed the laughter of the rest (described as the “garrison”).

This proved “that Birr was not entirely shoneen”. Summing up for the hissers, the review concluded: “The day is gone when we pay our money to go and hear our nationality insulted, and our method of speaking the tongue of the alien ridiculed.”

A night later, in Nenagh, Collisson was accosted outside concert by Irish-speaking youths who also hissed and hooted and called him “Sassenach”. Presumably they could not afford to attend the show, however. The audience there was entirely appreciative.

That Collisson recovered well from his midlands trauma is evidenced by an entry in his diary from two months later, when he attended the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to see a controversial new play.

The culture wars were still raging. And beforehand, he had assumed the audience protests at earlier performances of the Playboy of the Western World to be unfair. But he changed his mind mid-show: “Before the second act had terminated I found myself joining loudly in the […] shouts of disapproval.”

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