The Love-letters of Percy French and more besides …, compiled by Alan Tongue, with a foreword by Paul Muldoon, Lilliput Press, 146 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1843516606
Tones That Are Tender: Percy French 1854-1920, by Berrie O’Neill, by the Percy French Society in Association with Lilliput Press, 176 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1843516675
One of the many intriguing documents reproduced in Alan Tongue’s book is a seating plan for the Incorporated Society of Authors’ annual dinner on May 31st, 1892, in London. On his copy, Percy French drew sketches of Gerald du Maurier, Oscar Wilde, Andrew Lang, Walter Besant and others, and got them to sign their names. French’s presence at this gathering of 190 writers, ranging from William Allingham to Eliza Lynn Linton, situates him in the mainstream of British and Irish literary culture at the close of the nineteenth century. By this stage he had been publishing ballads, skits and sketches for fifteen years; his first success, the much-pirated “Abdul-Abulbul-Ameer” had appeared in 1877. Antonia White remembers it as one of the party pieces of her father, Cambridge graduate and Latin scholar Cecil Botting, in the early years of the twentieth century; the other was “The Nightmare Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.
Also sketched by French at that authors’ dinner in 1892 was Jerome K Jerome, author of Three Men In A Boat (1889): French himself belonged to the banjo-playing, river-cruising, bicycling, comic-song-serenading generation of young(ish) men described in that book. Junior white-collar workers and early-career professionals prevented by low or uncertain income from taking on the responsibilities of married life for at least a decade into adulthood, these men had more spare time than they had spare cash, a state of affairs which can often allow for joyful and inventive leisure.
Born in 1854, a younger son of minor gentry from Tulsk, Co Roscommon, William Percy French was expected to earn his own living in the long term. The Frenches were good landlords, and good to their children too; William’s father did not believe in sending children younger than ten away to school, which was then the barbaric practice among the landed and wealthy. Perhaps it was early-childhood freedom and familiarity with his locality that developed French’s “acute ear for the local idiom”, as O’Neill puts it. He eventually went to school in Ireland and in England, and landed in Trinity College, Dublin in 1872. There he discovered music, theatre, painting and tennis, taking the longest time then on record to graduate with an engineering degree. After graduating he worked for a while on the Midland and Great Western Railway and subsequently, for five years with the Office of Public Works in Cavan, as an inspector of loans to tenants. Here he deepened his familiarity with rural and small town life; the ease of manner and friendliness he brought from his own background probably helped him to be accepted as something more than a government official.
It was in Cavan that he fell in love with Ethel Armytage Moore. A talented artist (some of her lovely drawings are reproduced in O’Neill’s book) with a great sense of fun, she was a real soul-mate for William, and married him against her family’s wishes. It seems that they objected to French on financial grounds, but their fears may have run deeper; photographs of Ettie (as she was known) reproduced in O’Neill’s book show a rather ethereal and delicate-looking girl. Imagine their heartbreak – and that of French -‑ when she died in childbirth in 1891, her baby surviving her by only a week. French fell in love again a year later, in the way that grief-stricken widowers sometimes do. His love letters to Englishwoman Helen “Lennie” Sheldon between 1891 and 1894 form the unifying thread of Alan Tongue’s book; they reveal him as an engaging character, affectionate, and observant by nature and by training ‑ as he said himself, “a penny-a-liner never goes across the road without seeing something interesting”.
In these three highly productive years as a writer and painter he divided his time between London and Dublin, where he lived in Baldoyle, “a wonderful place for skies”. On the staff of The Irish Cyclist, he contributed poems and other comic material under the name “Will Wagtale” (some are reproduced in Tongue’s book). He also put on skits with his friend Richard Orpen in the Antient Concert Rooms (“Little Lord Faultyboy” and “Amateur Theatricals – their Cause and Cure”). After their marriage the Frenches lived for some time in Dublin, on Mespil Road ‑ French couldn’t resist telling friends that they were living by the canal and urging them to “drop in”. They moved to London in the late 1890s. They had three daughters, naming the eldest Ettie after French’s first wife, a gesture which underlines the generosity and security of their relationship. French continued for the rest of his life to travel and give shows, to paint, write musical sketches and comedies and most importantly of all, to write songs. Irrepressibly creative, he wrote a comic verse for an elderly aunt literally on his deathbed in Formby in Lancashire in 1920. He went there for a theatrical engagement, contracted pneumonia, and died after four days’ illness, at the age of sixty-six.
Well-written, well-laid out and gorgeously illustrated with French’s own watercolours, photographs and other illustrations, Berrie O’Neill’s book, from which I gleaned most of these facts, is a straight “life and times” biography which follows French’s life from his proximate ancestry to his death. Tongue’s book, also hugely informative, reproduces not only French’s letters but an abundance of colourful additional material relating to the years 1891-94 – playbills, song sheet covers, the seating plan mentioned earlier, manuscripts, watercolours, photographs, newspaper cuttings, parodies, and some of French’s written work. Each book in its own way vividly recreates the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century world of this multi-talented, multi-faceted Irishman.
As an academic I am probably expected at this point in the review to say that while these books are both beautiful and useful, what is long overdue is a full-length academic study of French. But having recently stumbled on an American literary critic’s deconstruction of an Irish short story which read a reference to the Great Famine into the card-game “45”, I can only imagine what could be read into “Phil The Fluther’s Ball” if open academic season were to be declared on French. Besides, far from being in any way inadequate, these books bear fitting testimony to French’s significance in Irish cultural history.
And he was hugely significant. Who else chronicled the rapid modernisation of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century everyday life in Ireland with such humour and grace? The success of “Are You Right There Michael?/The West Clare Railway” (1902) tells us that many Irish people at that time believed chronic lack of punctuality to be so outdated as to be comical. The second-person narrator of the song (“You run for the train in the morning / The excursion train starting at eight”) is that very modern phenomenon, a town-dweller wanting to take the sea air. The narrator in “The Emigrant’s Lament” (“Where they’re cutting the corn in Creeslough the day”) is not on a coffin ship; he is “sailing in style” in “the grand Allan liner”. Even if he is a steerage passenger (and he probably is), he would have had a bunk bed, washing and toilet facilities, and good plain food three times a day. The narrator of “Ach I Dunno”, who is “simply surrounded by lovers” since her father made his fortune in land, is a modern girl who can’t make up her mind but is certain of one thing: “I’ll not be a slave like my mother / With six of us all in a row.” French’s songs and poems do not shy away from some of the problems of the Ireland of his day, (emigration, the loneliness of those left behind, the short-sightedness of those bent on mercenary marriage and the precarious status of the returned emigrant) but they also tell of the optimism, vigour and colour of everyday life in those decades. This is a story we do not often hear.
The worth of French’s songs and poems, however, goes beyond their importance as historical documents. In “The Mountains of Mourne”, Peter O’Loughlin “stopped the whole street with one wave of his hand” – this is not only a vivid, but a poetic description of what a traffic policeman does. The first chorus of “Come Back Paddy Reilly” (from which O’Neill takes the title of his book) has been sung so often that perhaps it needs to be spoken to be appreciated: “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.” “Are You Right There Michael?” is primarily a comic song, but its concluding lines could be about life, especially as we go through middle age: “And as you’re wobbling through the dark / You hear the guard make this remark / “Are you right there Michael, are you right? / Do you think that we’ll get home before ’tis light?” / “Well ’tis all depending whether / The ould engine houlds together. / And it might, now, Michael, so it might.” O’Neill concedes that Percy French was not a literary giant like his contemporaries Joyce, Wilde and Yeats, but Paul Muldoon, in his introduction to Tongue’s book, describes him as “one of the great Irish poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” and I agree. If real poetry is something that stays in the mind and keeps yielding up riches throughout life, then Percy French was a poet.
The usual view (offered by, among others, the songwriter Alfred Perceval Graves in the 1929 introduction to the Prose, Poems and Parodies) is that French was apolitical. This is not strictly true. “Abdul-Abulbul-Ameer” was a comment on the Turkish-Russian conflict of the late 1870s. Then there is that veiled threat in the verse about seeing England’s king from the top of a bus, in “The Mountains of Mourne”: “When we get what we want we’ll be quiet as can be /Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.” In a letter from Roscommon in 1893, (in Tongue’s book) French described his anti-Home Rule neighbours the De Freynes as “prejudiced”. He supported the British First World War effort, but so did most Home Rulers. His 1914 song “All By The Baltic Say”, while it has comical aspects, has a reference to men going down to battle “like droves of driven cattle”, and this, O’Neill points out, was well in advance of the celebrated war poets. Not mentioned in either book (and this is not a criticism since it would have been impossible to include everything French wrote and did) is the song “Am Tag” which, according to historian Geraldine Curtin and the Galway Percy French Society, French performed at the Town Hall in Galway in September 1914. Although it made fun of the Kaiser, it warned against hopes of an easy victory: “But there’s no time to boast or to brag / while the pendulum’s still on the wag.”
Earlier, in 1900, French had fun with the controversial visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland. Not included in either book (again, not a criticism) is “The Queen’s After-dinner Speech as overheard and cut into lengths of poetry by Jamesy Murphy, deputy-assistant-waiter at the Viceregal Lodge”. I quote a section from the middle, where the queen is talking about the Irish: “… ‘And they like me well,’ sez she / Barrin’ Anna Parnell,’ sez she. / ‘And that other wan,’ sez she. / ‘That Maud Gonne,’ sez she. ‘Dhressin in black,’ sez she. / ‘To welcome me back,’ sez she.” (Mrs de Burgh Daly (ed) The Prose, Poems and Parodies of Percy French [Talbot Press, 1929, 1962]). If Anna Parnell and Maud Gonne’s defiant gestures found their way into French’s verse, then they must have caused quite a stir. French’s Queen Victoria goes on to wonder (like many another since) if there was “a slate / Off Willie Yeats” and advises him to stay “… at home … / French-polishin’ a pome”.
French had plenty of time to polish his own work. When he was Inspector of Public Loans to Tenants in Cavan in the 1880s he wrote a long poem about his endeavours, which his friend Arthur Godley mischievously sent to the Assistant Commissioner of Public Works: “He plunges through marshes long haunted by cranes / Quite heedless of how the dark bog-water stains / Traducers assert that this ardour he feigns / They little know William, Inspector of Drains” and many more verses, every line of which rhymes with “drains”. The Assistant Commissioner responded in kind: “With thanks he returns(but a copy retains) / The verses, whose cleverness clearly contains / Proof positive what a large quantum of brains / Has William, the local Inspector of Drains” and three other verses besides, all reproduced in O’Neill’s book.
A man in a weather-dependent job in a rural area had to make his own fun. This inspectorate wound down in 1888 because of a decrease in the number of tenants seeking loans; there is no suggestion that French ever neglected his duties, while maintaining what O’Neill calls a “hugely prolific output of writings”, some of which he published, some of which were for the amusement of himself and his circle. Some parodies are reproduced in both books; the “Will Wagtale” material referred to above, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in the style of Rudyard Kipling, a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” called “The Devil” (about a printer’s devil) of which the last ringing line is “Foreman wants a column more.” The Prose, Poems and Parodies contain other very clever examples (Longfellow’s version of “Little Boy Blue”: which concludes “Cows are real – cows are earnest. / If he does not chase her now / He will find ere eve returnest / All the corn is in the cow.” ‑ silly, I know, but funny too). Probably the surest indication of French’s status in Irish popular literary culture is the fact that one of his own non-comical poems, “The Four Farrellys”, was parodied over thirty years ago by Niall Toibín as “The Four Flannerys”. This parody was such a popular recitation that I know parts of it off by heart, and like all parodies, its humour partly depended upon familiarity with the original. Another indication of French’s enduring popularity is the fact that his songs have mutated over time, because they are usually transmitted orally. When Don McLean revived “The Mountains of Mourne” in the 1970s, he not only left out the verse about seeing England’s king from the top of a bus but rendered the name of Down exile and London traffic policeman Peter O’Loughlin (“over here now at the head of the Force”) as Denny McLaren. This was evidently the version that McLean learned. Even the two standard books of Percy French songs and poems (the Prose, Poems and Parodies mentioned already, and James N Healy’s Percy French and his songs [Mercier, 1966]) carry slightly different versions of the more famous songs.
Patricia Cockburn, in her autobiography Figure of Eight (Mercier, 1989) suggests that a contributory reason for the killing of Vice-Admiral Boyle by the local IRA in Cork in 1936 (he was targeted for writing references for local boys to join the British navy) may have been his love of “offensive” Percy French songs. I doubt this very much. In my family we were brought up to have a horror of anything “stage-Irish”, yet Percy French songs were an integral part of our culture. The Prose, Poems and Parodies went into fourteen editions between 1929 and 1962 in a very nationalist Ireland, and Brendan O’Dowda’s revival of French from the late 1950s fell on welcoming ears. In the haunting elegy, “Let’s Have One More From the Daddy”, Mick Hanly mentions “Creeslough the day” (“The Emigrant’s Lament”, see above) as one of the songs his father sang “from bathroom to bedroom, and from kitchen to hall” in Limerick city in the 1950s and early 1960s. Percy French fell out of fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Chieftains and Planxty managed to make even the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem look not quite “traditional” enough. “The Darling Girl from Clare” would not have gone down well at the Ennis Fleadh Ceoil in 1972. I have a suppressed memory of the scattered applause and nervous coughs which greeted a rendering of “The Woods of Gortnamona” in The Riabhóg Singers’ Club in Galway some time in 1983-84.
All that snobbery has disappeared now. When I was poring greedily over these two books in the canteen in NUI, Galway, a traditional singer who happened to pass by my table (they are two a penny down here), spotted them and we talked enthusiastically about French and hoped that the level of interest which sparked their appearance might herald a revival. There are at least two Percy French societies, and there is a very successful Percy French Summer School every year in Castlecoote, Co Roscommon. A new edition of the Prose, Poems and Parodies, or of James Healy’s book, is long overdue. Meanwhile the two books under review ‑ which, like French’s songs, are beautiful productions in themselves ‑ will enlighten not only Percy French enthusiasts but anybody interested in Irish social and cultural history.
Caitriona Clear teaches history at NUI Galway.