Phil the Fluther’s Ball is another irresistible slice of Irish life from Percy French – the man who wrote numerous classic songs such as Mountains of Mourne, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff and Abdul Abulbul Amir.
The song tells the story of a flute player who raised money to pay his rent by holding a ball and passing a hat round as he played.
The ball was a great success and the canny flute player was able to make a tidy profit.
Percy French spent a great deal of time travelling across Ireland, first as an engineer with the Irish Board of Works and then as a painter and musician.
His travels brought him in contact with many local people and he based several of his songs on the stories he heard from them. That’s how Phil the Fluther’s Ball came to be written.
French went to stay in Carrigallen in County Leitrim at the home of a friend called the Rev. James Godley. Godley told him the story of a ball held by a local musician.
French later wrote about his conversation with Godley. He wrote: “One evening the Rev. James Godley came in after one of his long walks and told me how he had met the local flute player and how he had paid his rent.
‘I’ve paid up all me arrears, yer reverence,’ said Phil the Fluter.
‘And how did you manage that?’ said his reverence.
‘I give a ball.’ said Phil.
French describes how Godley expressed surprise and pointed out that holding a ball should cost money rather than earn it because it would involve providing food and entertainment for the guests.
Phil, however, had thought of that and had his own approach. He wouldn’t waste money providing food and paying for a piano player. He’d make the guests bring their own food and he would provide the music himself.
Phil goes on to describe how he stages a ball. “I clean out me cabin and lock up any food or drink in the cupboard.
“Then I put me hat behind the door. The neighbours come in bringin’ their suppers with them, and each puttin’ a shillin’ or two in the hat.
“Then I cock me leg over the dresser, throw me top lip over the flute and toother away like a hatful o’ larks, and there they stay leppin’ like hares till two in the morning.”
Being presented with the idea may have been helpful but Percy French still had lots of work to do to turn the idea into a song.
He sets about the task with great enthusiasm and, as is so often the case with French, the comedy and the fun come from the description of the larger-than-life characters.
Most of the characters he described in the song would have been people French would have known during his life, although he may have changed the names.
Indeed, the characters described are the kind of people to be found in villages all over Ireland in the late 19th century, a factor that helps to give the song such a universal appeal.
Listeners could easily identify with the energetic Mrs Cafferty, the beautiful Miss Brady, little Crooked Pat and little Mickey Mulligan.
Phil the Fluther’s Ball uses the same tune as Delaney’s Donkey by William Hargreaves.
It was a big success when Percy French first performed it in the 1880s and it remains popular today, having been recorded by several leading performs including The Dubliners and The High Kings.