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Percy French
(1854 - 1920)


Percy French was born in Cloonyquin, County Roscommon on 1st May, 1854. He became one of the foremost entertainers of his day. He was educated at Windermere College, Foyle College and TCD. He graduated in civil engineering in 1881 and joined the Board of Works as a surveyor of drains in County Cavan. When the Board reduced its staff around 1887 and he lost his capital in an unwise investment in a distillery he turned to journalism as editor of the Jarvey, a weekly comic paper. When this failed his long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer began. With a Dr. Collisson as partner, he toured Canada, the United States, the West Indies and England. He delighted in composing and singing comic songs, accompanying himself on the banjo. He gained considerable distinction with such songs as Phil the Fluters Ball and Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

His association with County Clare is related in the song Are ye right there Michael?. In 1897 Percy French sued the directors of the West Clare Railway Company for "loss of earnings" when he and his troupe of entertainers were late for a performance in Moores Hall, Kilkee. He had advertised a concert for 8 p.m. on the evening of 10th August 1896, in Kilkee. He left Dublin that morning and arrived in Ennis on time for the 12.30 train which was due to reach Kilkee at 3.30p.m. The train slowed up approaching Miltown Malbay and when it got to the station there did not go any further. Five hours elapsed before a replacement train arrived and as a result he did not get to the hall in Kilkee until 8.20 p.m. His magic lantern, which was with his luggage, did not arrive until 9.00. When he reached the hall most of the audience had gone home and the receipts were only 3 instead of the usual 14. A railway company official explained that when the engine took on water at Ennistymon weeds got into the boiler. This became apparent after a few miles and by the time Miltown Malbay was reached the driver decided to put out the fire because of the possibility of an explosion. No further progress was possible and a replacement engine was requested.

French was awarded £10 damages and his expenses. The Railway Company appealed but the award stood. The incident led to the song Are ye right there Michael? which became one of the most popular numbers in his repertoire.

"Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye've been so long in startin
That ye couldn't say for sartin -
Still ye might now, Michael, so ye might".

Because of the court case the West Clare Railway and Percy French have been closely associated ever since.

Percy French was also a talented painter. He loved painting skies, which are usually the centre of interest in his water colours. He sketched wherever he went and regularly found inspiration for his paintings in the Irish landscape.

On 28th June 1890, Percy French, then aged 36, married Ettie Armytage. A daughter was born on 5th June 1891 but tragically both mother and baby died. In 1894 he married Helen (Lennie) Sheldon, with whom he had three daughters, Ettie, Mollie and Joan.

Percy French died from pneumonia on 24th January 1920, aged 65. He is buried in Formby in Lancashire.

External link:
Percy French Summer School

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