The Mountains Of Mourne Sweep Down To The Sea

Lee Henry salutes the multi-talented Percy French, best known for his tribute to Co Down

William Percy French was born into Protestant, landowning stock in the western Irish county of Roscommon in 1854. An inquisitive, amiable young soul, known to family and friends as Willie, he spent his formative years in the remote surroundings of the French family estate, Cloonyquin, with four brothers and four sisters.

It was clear from an early age that French was talented in many respects. As a young boy he was appointed editor of The Tulsk Morning Howl, an in-house family magazine which acted as an early vehicle for his love of poetry, story-telling and art. Around 1864, French moved to England where he continued his education at Kirk Langley School in Derby, later attending Windermere College.

While it was apparent to most that his future lay in the creative arts, a glowing report from one of French's school masters influenced his father to push for a career in science, and in 1872 he began a Civil Engineering degree at Trinity College, Dublin. Although he showed little interest in his studies – it would take an incredible nine years before he was granted his CE Degree – in Dublin he soon developed a love of music and the theatre, and before long had taught himself to play the banjo. 

Whilst in Trinity in 1877, he wrote his first song, a satirical account of the Turko-Russian war called 'Abdallah - Bulbul Ameer'. It became a worldwide hit, 'whistled in Chicago poolrooms, in the water dives of Marseilles and in every pub from Fairbanks to Hobart'. However as he had failed to copyright the song, French never received a penny for his efforts.

After he had served his apprenticeship with the Midlands Railway, French took up a post as 'Inspector of Loans of Tenants' with the Cavan Board of Works. It was in Cavan that French took the opportunity to develop what he considered to be his true vocation: watercolour painting. Throughout his relatively short life, he was most at peace painting the skies of the Irish countryside, and would later exhibit his work in London and Dublin.

He also wrote some of his best-known songs during this time, such as 'Phil the Fluter' and 'Andy McElroe', and became adept at entertaining audiences with his own collection of witty stories and songs. French had already met his prospective wife, Ettie Moore, when the Board of Works, alienated by his bohemian ways and lack of enthusiasm, decided to let him go. Aware that his watercolours could not provide a sufficient income for himself and Ettie, he chose instead to pursue writing, and soon found himself as editor of a new comic weekly, The Jarvey.

With the help of his new wife, French threw himself into The Jarvey heart and soul, contributing articles, satires, poems and drawings aplenty. But this would turn out to be the darkest period in his life. Shortly after The Jarvey folded due to lack of funding and a series of bad reviews, Ettie French died during childbirth, closely followed by the pair's infant daughter. For someone so young-at-heart it was a terrible loss, and on returning to Ireland from mourning in the Welsh hills, it was recorded that French's brown hair had turned bone white.

Before Ettie's untimely death, French had taken tentative steps into the world of theatre. Collaborating with his friend William Houston Collison on the musical The Knight of the Road, it seemed that finally French had found his true vocation. The theatre offered the medium in which French could blossom as a writer, musician and entertainer, as well as providing a viable source of income.

A satirical review show, Dublin Up To Date, followed, co-written with Richard Orpen, and French's popularity soared. His next venture, a musical based on the English conquest of Ireland entitled Strongbow, did not go down well in Dublin City. It did, however, provide French with the chance to meet and fall in love with Helen Sheldon, one of the show's chorus girls. They married January 24, 1894 and had two daughters, Ettie and Mollie.

For the remainder of his life French toured relentlessly, delighting audiences the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland either as a solo artist or accompanied by Collison. In 1906 he moved to London with his family, dining with and entertaining the Royal Family on a number of occasions. But he never truly settled in London and was notably uninterested in the attention lavished upon him by the aristocracy.

Although he came from a privileged background, French was most comfortable socialising with and entertaining the lower classes. Erudite as he was, he took particular pride in employing a simple use of language in both his poetry and his lyrics, and was unashamedly populist in his humour. A tour of North America and the West Indies went down a storm in 1910, and worldwide fame beckoned. But the outbreak of the First World War heralded a change in style and tone of public entertainments, and the French-Collison double act was forced to take a back seat.

Undeterred, French kept his greulling schedule and seemed almost incapable of rest. He toured the coastal resort towns of Ireland every year and held exhibitions of his watercolours and sketches in London and Dublin, to much acclaim. He continued to add to his ever-expanding repertoire of songs.

An accident in 1916 that involved him being dragged along by a moving train took a serious toll on French's health. Contrary to the wishes of his family and friends, he maintained his old regime and in the winter of 1920 set out on a tour of Scotland. It would be his final act. Having contracted pneumonia, Percy French died in Formby, Lancashire on January 24, 1920.

Many Northern Irish communities can lay claim to Percy French for one reason or another. As Brendan O'Dowda attests in his book The World of Percy French, during the course of French's many tours, 'No city, town, village or parish was left unvisited'. And yet there is one place in particular that will forever remain an integral part of the Percy French story: the Mountains of Mourne.

Of the many songs that French penned, 'The Mountains o' Mourne' is the most well-known. At turns funny and insightful, it paints an ironic picture of London in which French could not feel entirely at ease; a world at odds with the agrarian simplicity of French's beloved Ireland.

The Mountains o' Mourne

Oh, Mary this London's a wonderful sight,
Wid the people here workin' by day and by night.
They don't sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat,
But there's gangs of them digging for gold in the street.
At least when I asked them that's what I was told,
So I just took a hand at this digging for gold.
But for all that I found there I might as well be,
Where the Mountains o' Mourne sweep down to the sea.

I believe that, when writin', a wish you expressed
As to how the fine ladies in London were dressed.
Well, if you'll believe me, when asked to a ball,
They don't wear a top to their dresses at all!
O, I've seen them meself, and you could not, in throth,
Say if they were bound for a ball or a bath -
Don't be startin' them fashions now, Mary Machree,
Where the Mountains o' Mourne sweep down to the sea.

I seen England's King from the top of a 'bus -
I never knew him, though he means to know us:
And though by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still, I cheered - God forgive me - I cheered wid the rest.
And now that he's visited Erin's green shore,
We'll be much better friends than we've been heretofore,
When we've got all we want, we're as quiet as can be,
Where the Mountains o' Mourne sweep down to the sea.