Percy French Quartet

The renaissance man's songs and poems hark back to a simpler time at the Linen Hall Library

Writer, painter, poet, musician, singer, humorist, entertainer – Percy French was a lavishly gifted individual, yet to some extent remains an enigma.

Much of the information we have about him is vague or anecdotal, and there is a crying need for a properly documented, up-to-date biography.

French’s songs, however, remain as popular as ever, and tell their own rich story. A generous selection of them is included in a concert given by the Percy French Quartet at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, to a packed audience of French aficionados.

Best-known, of course, are the comic story-songs, with their gallery of vivid Irish ‘characters’ from another era, peddling a line in brogue and blarney that plays constantly with stereotype, though always affectionately.

The Linen Hall audience love them, locking instinctively into the rhyming couplets of 'Phil the Fluther’s Ball', and rising to a tuneful crescendo as the ‘toot of the flute’ and ‘twiddle of the fiddle-o’ are sounded in the chorus.

Isobel Crowe’s twittering accompaniment on electric keyboard is like nothing French himself would have recognised, but in the circumstances it scarcely seems to matter. French was certainly familiar with the banjo (he played it himself), and would doubtless have appreciated the two medleys contributed by Norman Cairns, one of melodies by Stephen Foster, the other of Scottish favourites, both delivered with infectious jauntiness and gaiety.

Crowe’s husband Wilfie compères the evening, bringing his reedy tenor to bear on 'Little Bridget Flynn', a whimsical tale of a young country fellow whose ‘nice little house’, ‘cow yard with grass’, ‘shelter for the hens’, and ‘stable for the ass’ are wanting only in the gentle ministrations of the elusive female he addresses the song to.

The comic ballad of hapless home guard manoeuvrings, 'Slattery’s Mounted Fut', is given a rousing outing. Its crisp rhythms, deft rhyming, and crafty use of the vernacular – I have to look the word ‘gossoon’ up afterwards – act as a vivid reminder of what a skilled wordsmith French could be, and how effective he was in creating simple images of crystal clarity for his listeners.

Nor was French all about light-heartedness and frippery, as a carefully selected sequence of his poetry suggests. 'Ballymilligan' anatomises the feelings of a widow who has travelled to the United States to live with family, easing her loneliness, but occasioning a homesick yearning for the little village ‘beside the silver sea’ that she has left behind her.

There’s sadness too in 'The Emigrant’s Ship', a poignant ballad which, as though responding to the lyrics’ sober content, ventures beyond the simple harmonic sequences French normally relied on.

The better-known 'Come Back Paddy Reilly' predictably tugs the heart-strings, with its lamenting plea to the ‘toil-worn and tough’ emigrant to return to his birthplace of Ballyjamesduff, where ‘the grass it is green’ and ‘the blue sky is over it all’.

Is that sentiment or sentimentality? Genuine emotion or the manipulative posturing of the born music hall performer? We’ve grown cynical of instinctive, heartfelt feelings in our über-sophisticated, super-technical era, and tend to discount their simpler emotional currency.

More’s the pity, as this concert suggests. Musically it is consistently evocative, if marred by some memory lapses among the performers, and a number of vocal and instrumental mishaps.

Overall, though, it is a throwback to a gentler era where civility of manner and decorum still mattered, and people delighted in entertaining one another instead of goggling passively at YouTube. Percy French – so beloved of the people of the Mournes – epitomised those old-time values. There is life in his legacy yet.

Visit the Linen Hall Library website for information on forthcoming events.