His Musical Career

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  • Roscommon People

The Songs

Percy French can be described as a great songwriter and entertainer. In the early days of his career, he usually composed and arranged the music for his songs himself. Later in his career, the music was composed and arranged by his friend and stage partner Dr. W. Houston Collisson.

French toured the theatres and music halls of Great Britain. Together with Collisson, he toured Canada, the US and the West Indies in 1910. Although based in London, he returned to Ireland every year to tour the coastal holiday resorts.

Are Ye Right There Michael?

Many of French's songs were inspired by the characters he met and experiences he had while travelling around Ireland. One of his most popular songs, 'Are Ye Right There, Michael?' was based on an incident in Co. Clare. French was travelling to Clare for a performance at 8 o'clock in the evening in Killkee. He left Dublin early and arrived in Ennis on time for the 12.30 train to Kilkee.

The train should have arrived in Kilkee at 3.30 but was delayed and didn't arrive until more than five hours later. When he reached the hall most of the audience had left. French sued the directors of the West Clare Railway Company and was awarded 10 compensation.

The song that was inspired by these events remains famous today. The chorus is as follows:

'Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye've been so long in startin
That ye couldn't say for certain -
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!'

Come back, Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff

Another of French's popular songs is 'Come Back Paddy Reilly, To Ballyjamesduff'. French worked in Cavan for a number of years and Ballyjamesduff is a town there. The Paddy Reilly of the song is reputed to have been one of French's favourite 'jarvies', or horse drivers, in the area who was forced to emigrate.

This song describes an emigrant's yearning for home, a common experience for many Irish people at the time French wrote the song:

'My mother once told me
That when I was born
The day that I first saw the light
I looked down the street on that very first morn
And gave a great crow of delight...
The baby's a man, now he's toil-worn and tough
Still, whispers come over the sea
Come back, Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff
Come back, Paddy Reilly, to me.'

The Mountains of Mourne

The lyrics to French's famous song, 'The Mountains of Mourne', were written in 1896. Like 'Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff', the song is about the experience of an Irish emigrant, homesick for his native place.

The Mountains of Mourne are located in Co. Down in Northern Ireland. The song has been performed and recorded by many musicians since it was written, including the Kingston Trio and Don McLean.

The lyrics of the song are in the form of an emigrant writing a letter to his sweetheart in his home place. Here are the last few verses of the song, where the emigrant describes meeting a mutual friend and tells his sweetheart about the girls in London:

'You remember young Peter O'Loughlin, of course
Well he's over here at the head of the force
I saw him one day as he stood on the Strand
And he stopped the whole street with a wave of his hand

And as we were talking' of days that are gone
The whole town of London stood there to look on
But for all his great powers he's wishful like me
To be back where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

There's beautiful girls here, oh, never you mind
With beautiful shapes nature never designed
And lovely complexions of roses and cream
But O'Loughlin remarked with regard to the same

That if at those roses you venture to sip
The colours might all come away on your lip
So I'll wait for the wild rose that's waiting for me
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.'