French’s solution was to work full time as a song writer and performer – something he had wanted to do all along.
Freed from the shackles of full-time work, his song writing began to flourish.
He specialised in comical whimsical songs which he performed either alone or with Houston Collison who became his partner in the late 1870s. Collison wrote most of the melodies for their musicals and comic operas such as The Irish Girl.
Song writing based on local customs and stories
While working as a drains inspector, French travelled widely and had the opportunity to meet and chat with people from all walks of life.
Some of these chance encounters led to stories that became the basis of many of his best songs.
Phil The Fluther’s Ball was based on a true story of a musician who need to pay for repairs to his house. He did so by staging a dance.
He played the music and the guests all made a donation as he passed the hat around.
Phil The Fluther’s Ball performed by The High Kings.
McBreen’s Heifer based on Irish custom of dowries
McBreen’s Heifer was based on the local custom of a woman’s father handing over a dowry when she married.
This could be a problem for men with several daughters so they tried to cut their costs. If the daughter was attractive the dowry would be reduced; if she was plain, it would be increased.
In McBreen’s Heifer, French weaves some magical humour out of this. The groom is torn because he must choose between sisters Kitty who “is pretty” and Jane who “is plain”.
Still a heifer is a heifer all the same
The dilemma is that there is no dowry with Kitty whereas if he married plain Jane he would get a heifer.
The lyric shows French’s comic song writing at its best. The groom is constantly drawn the attractive Kitty but then keeps coming back to Jane because “a heifer is a heifer all the same”.
In the end, he prevaricates too long and loses both women. This not only provides a fitting end to the song but gives it a kind of moral: don’t treat women and marriage as commercial enterprises.
McBreen’s Heifer video performed by Brendan O’Dowda. This is a TV documentry and McBreen’s Heifer is at 41minutes 40sceonds.
Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff
Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff is a wonderful piece of work that shows French’s sublime skill as a songwriter.
Paddy Reilly had been French’s driver for many years but then, like so many Irish people at that time, he emigrated to America.
French missed his old friend and wrote the song as plea to him to come back.
But it has a wider meaning as a plea to all the Irish emigrants to return. French would have known such a thing was impossible but like many others at the time, he lamented the fact that so many people and so much talent was being lost to Ireland.
Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff video performed by The Dubliners.
Mountains of Mourne – a song writing masterpiece
French wrote several wonderful songs but it is The Mountains of Mourne for which he is probably best remembered.
It really is a masterpiece of whimsical, observational song writing, immensely sophisticated in the way it puts incisive observations into the mouth of a seemingly naïve young man from Ireland visiting the London for the first time.
The lyrics contrast the sincerity of the native Irish countryside with the shallowness of the big city. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, it could become a mawkish and contrived but French’s humour is at the expense of both the city and the country, which is not only amusing but also prevents the song becoming over-sentimental.
Mountains of Mourne video performed by Don McLean
Song writing classes study French’s work
The wit displayed in French’s lyrics is quite remarkable. So much so that many song writing classes still use his work as an example and inspiration to students.
His output was prodigious and included a wide variety of styles and moods, ranging from the mock heroic as in Abdul Abulbul Amir, the witty and observational as in The Mountains of Mourne, the poignant as in Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff, and the social satire of songs like McBreen’s Heifer.