Percy French wrote The Mountains of Mourne and is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest ever songwriters.
He was also a successful singer and performed in concert halls all over Ireland and the UK right up until his death at the age of 65.
French himself, however, considered himself primarily as an artist and his paintings are still popular and being sold for thousands of euros today.
Landlord’s son with the common touch
French was born on 1st May 1854 near Elphin in County Roscommon. He was the son of a landlord but although his upbringing was comfortable, the family were not particularly wealthy.
French was a very sociable, gregarious young man with no airs or graces. He got on well with everyone regardless of class, religion or background.
In spite of his middle class upbringing, he enjoyed meeting and talking to local villagers and farm workers.
He had a great ear for speech patterns or a good story and he got ideas for many of his best songs from the ordinary people he met on his travels.
He wrote his first song at university
French went to school at Foyle College in Derry and then went on to study civil engineering at Trinity College Dublin.
His heart was never really in engineering and it took him longer than average to complete his degree.
This was mainly because he spent most of his time and energy on song writing, and performing in college revues and concerts.
He wrote his first successful song while at Trinity. It was called Abdul Abulbul Amir.
It told the story of a dual in which both combatants end up killing each other. In spite of the grisly subject matter it is a wonderfully comic song told in a very clever mock heroic style.
This was the first example of French’s supreme song writing talent – a talent he would exploit with great success for the rest of his life.
Abdul Abulbul Amir video performed by Brandan O’Dowda.
The song writer starts work as an engineer
Song writing was all very well but it wasn’t really considered a money making career and so French started working as an Inspector of Drains in County Cavan in 1881 after leaving university.
He continued to work part time as a song writer and turned to editing a the comic paper, The Jarvey, in 1887 after being laid off by the Board of Works during a period of financial cutbacks.
The paper couldn’t attract enough readers and soon folded, leaving French seeking another way to make a living.