In 1902, French travelled to one of his concerts on a train run by the West Clare Railway. It arrived way past the scheduled time and French was so late that the audience had gone home by the time he made it to the theatre.
In 1902, he wrote a song called Are Ye Right There Michael mocking the ineptitude of the railway and its staff. It became a huge success in music halls throughout Ireland and the UK.
However, the railway company was not amused and sued for libel. Legend has it that French arrived late for the court hearing. When asked to explain himself, French told the judge: “I couldn’t help it your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway.”
The case was eventually dismissed.
Are Ye Right There Michael video performed by Brendan O’Dowda.
French was very much a family man and was devoted to his children.
His first wife Ettie died in childbirth only a year into their marriage in 1891. The baby died only a few days later. French was devastated by the double loss.
Three years later in 1894 he married Helen Sheldon. The couple had three daughters and French doted on them all.
Percy French became a celebrated performer and was one of the few Irish performers to tour America and Canada successfully.
He continued writing and performing until days before his death.
In 1920, he embarked on a concert tour of the UK. He became ill with pneumonia while performing in Glasgow. He went to recuperate in Formby at the home of his cousin but never recovered. He died a few days later and was buried in the local graveyard in Formby.
There is now a statue of French sitting on a park bench in Ballyjamesduff – the town he made famous in his song Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff (video by The Dubliners).
Percy French was undoubtedly one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters.
He was from the concert hall/music hall background rather than the folk tradition but his songs cross all boundaries.
The songs were very much of their time and reflect the ways of customs of the local people in the areas around where French grew up.
Despite the strong eye for local detail, the songs have a timeless universal appeal and remain popular today, more than a hundred years after they were written.