Revising French – Frank McNally on one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters, who died 100 years ago next week

 Percy French:  his talents as a concert performer were not confined to music

Percy French: his talents as a concert performer were not confined to music

 

Beyond the event itself, there was added poignancy in the place and timing of Percy French’s death, 100 years ago next week. He expired quietly while staying in the house of a cousin near Liverpool, and so is buried in the churchyard there, rather than in one of the many parts of Ireland he had lived in and romanticised in song and watercolour.

As for the date of his demise, January 24th, 1920, that was a relatively quiet one back home.

But it foreshadowed the deadliest phase of the War of Independence, which would help usher French’s songs – gently humorous and apolitical in the main – out of fashion.

It seems telling that the years of his greatest success in Ireland were between the end of one war – the Land War – and before the start of the other, in an era when a constitutional settlement still seemed likely.

As late as March 1916, when he was 61, he could still say of himself: “I was born a boy and have remained one ever since. Friends and relatives often urge me to grow up and take an interest in politics, whiskey, race meetings […] and other things that men talk about but, but no – I am still the small boy messing about with a paintbox, or amusing myself with pencil and paper, while fogeys of forty determine the Kaiser’s next move.”

By 1920, his songs of innocence were even more out of tune with the times.

As one commentator has put it, the memory of his former popularity was soon “dimmed by the cultural politics of Irish independence”, although it would be partly revived later in the 20th century thanks to Brendan O’Dowda and Don McLean, among others.

The coincidence of his centenary and the State’s abandoned RIC commemoration is interesting too. 

It’s probably not an accident that an Irish policeman, albeit one exiled in London, is a hero of French’s most famous song, The Mountains of Mourne, where he stops the whole street “with a wave of his hand”.

Some of the composer’s best friends were RIC men. On his tours of Ireland, they even sometimes put him up for the night. This helps explain their affectionate treatment in, for example, Tullinahaw, a ballad about cattle-rustling and insurance fraud in darkest Cavan.

It may also explain another of his lesser known verses, The Road to Ballybay, a love poem in which police do not feature.  I only know it, probably, having myself grown up on a road to Ballybay, if not perhaps the one he was on (promoted to the “road to Paradise” as the singer falls in love along the way).

In any case, it’s likely the verse was inspired by one of his police friends/hosts: a District Inspector Hall, who was stationed in Roscommon, but came from Monaghan. Ballybay, by the way, is not far from Ballytrain, where as mentioned here last week, the first IRA capture of an RIC barracks north of Dublin would occur in April 1920.

French’s talents as a concert performer were not confined to music. 

He was also a performance artist. During one-man shows, he would often do sketches on an easel while talking over his shoulder to the audience. Then when the drawing was finished, he would turn it upside down and would be a picture of something else.

Another of his talents was making “smoke pictures” on plates.

He would hold the plate over a candle, then use a pencil to draw on the stains. 

Everything was a potential canvas. One of the exhibits in his collection at the North Down Museum in Bangor is a door from a house he lived in at Baldoyle, onto which he added local landscapes.

It is arguably a pity that the main French collection and archive is in Bangor – a historical accident for which Bangor is not to blame – rather than Dublin. Not that Dublin owns him, no more than any other part of Ireland. It’s just that many more people would see it here.

Still, I know that recent students of the Down archive include Bernadette Lowry, who is writing a book on the many links between French and the world of James Joyce.  

And Bangor will be one of several places marking the anniversary next week, at a lunch of the local Percy French Society. 

Castlecoote in Roscommon (the county of French’s birth) will commemorate the date too, with a concert on Friday night.

But before that, back in Dublin this coming Monday at the National Concert Hall, Jack Morrissey (baritone) and Brian McIvor (bass and piano) will present a musical tribute. Their title, naturally, is “A French Toast”.

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