William Percy French

(01/05/1854 - 24/02/1920)

William Percy French (1 May 1854 – 24 January 1920) was a multifaceted Irish talent, renowned as a songwriter, author, poet, entertainer, and painter whom Percy French road in Walkinstown is named after. Born at Clooneyquinn House near Tulsk, County Roscommon, French was the third of nine children to Christopher French, an Anglo-Irish landlord, and Susan Emma French (née Percy). His upbringing in the rural landscape of Ireland, coupled with his education at Kirk Langley, Windermere College, and Foyle College, played a crucial role in shaping his artistic sensibilities.

French’s creative journey began at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 1877 when he penned his first successful song, “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” during a smoking concert. Despite initial success, he faced the setback of not copyrighting the song, leading to subsequent unauthorised reproductions. This experience marked the beginning of French’s illustrious career as a songwriter, with notable compositions like “Phil the Fluther’s Ball” and “The Mountains of Mourne.”

Having graduated from TCD with a BA in civil engineering in 1885, French worked as an Inspector of Drains at the Board of Works in County Cavan. During this period, he avidly pursued his artistic interests, founding a sketching club and a comic troupe, The Kinnepottle Komics. French’s paintings from this time gained recognition, especially capturing the dramatic sunsets caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

The decline in the Board of Works’ staff in 1888 led French to journalism, becoming the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper. His humor, often satirical and facetious, found an outlet in cycling-related publications, such as The Irish Cyclist magazine. French’s wit and comic prowess remained integral to his career, even as The Jarvey faced financial challenges.

Following The Jarvey’s closure, French transitioned into a successful career as a songwriter and entertainer, moving to London in 1890. His comic songs, including “Slattery’s Mounted Foot” and “Phil the Fluther’s Ball,” gained immense popularity. His fame extended to London’s elite social circles, marking the beginning of his “Last Golden Age.” Notable compositions during this period included the iconic “Are Ye Right There Michael,” poking fun at the state of the rural rail system in County Clare.

In January 1920, at the age of 65, French fell ill while performing in Glasgow and succumbed to pneumonia in Formby, England. His grave at St. Luke’s Church in Formby serves as a memorial to his enduring legacy. French’s contributions to Irish culture are celebrated through various memorials, including a sculpture in Skerries where he wrote “The Mountains of Mourne” and a statue in Ballyjamesduff honouring his song “Come Back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff.”

French’s artistic pursuits extended beyond music and comedy; he was a prolific painter, and his watercolour landscapes gained appreciation. The Oriel Gallery in Dublin, along with Oliver Nulty, recognised the cultural significance of French’s paintings, holding several exhibitions and publishing catalogues.

William Percy French’s life and work continue to be commemorated through various memorials and exhibitions, emphasising his lasting impact on Irish music, art, and humour.

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Connection with area: Songwriter, humourist, entertainer, and painter who Percy French Road is named after.