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In the 1960s when my contemporaries were listening to Radio Luxemburg and singing (and talking about) “a Whiter Shade of Pale,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and such numbers I had my ear glued to the steam-radio in anticipation of a Percy French song sung by Brendan O’Dowda.
Much has been written about William Percy French and now Berrie O’Neill has written the definitive biography of the great man. Percy French’s grandnephew Courtney Kenny puts it in a nutshell when he says, “For a very long time there has been a distinct need for a proper biography of Percy French. And here it is, at last.”
Percy French, who is largely remembered for his songs, was a multi-talented person. In a period when Irish songwriters were penning ballads about widows daughters dying from TB and coffins being carried down bog roads Percy French introduced a lot of humor to the art. While he wrote some sad songs (the words of Gortnamona written when his first wife died is one example) most of his songs were comedic and consequently have stood the test of time. He could be inspired by a simple sight of phrase (what modern writers call a “
William Percy French, born in County Roscommon in 1854, was a singer, poet, painter
The author, Berrie O’Neill, told me, “My interest in Percy French was not at all a planned one. I was born on a farm near Eyrecourt, County Galway, a long time ago. As the farming life did not appeal to me I joined the Bank of Ireland and by 1982 through a mixture of good fortune and having kept my nose clean I found myself manager of the city office of the Bank in central Belfast.
Amongst my customers at the Bank was the late Oscar Rollins, successful businessman and a councillor in the Borough of North Down. On a golfing trip to Southport in Lancashire he had serendipitously come across the grave of Percy French in Formby. Stricken by a sense of pathos he had become devoted to bringing about a much greater appreciation of the songwriter, poet and entertainer, particularly back in French’s homeland.
With characteristic determination and strategic thoroughness Oscar enlisted to the cause no less a person than the famous Irish tenor, Brendan O’Dowda, who was at that time seen as the personification of Percy French. He also found ready support from Ettie and Joan French, nonagenarian daughters of the great songwriter and entertainer
Octogenarian Berrie went on, “When the Percy French Society decided that it would be appropriate to publish a biography of Percy French the search for a suitable author eventually and unexpectedly focused on me and I was entrusted with the task. With a little help from family and friends ‘Tones That Are Tender:Percy French 1854 -1920’ was published by Lilliput Press on behalf of the Percy French Society in 2016. This labor of love was launched at Belfast’s historic Linenhall Library on May 4th, my 86th birthday.”
And they couldn’t have made a better choice. Ronny Maxwell of the Percy French Society told me, “The author provides us with a most comprehensive study of French’s ancestry and family background and we gain much insight into the social history of his time and an in-depth knowledge of a charismatic, unselfish, rather eccentric, family-loving individual. The well-chosen title reflects French’s kind, inoffensive personality and the gentleness of his watercolors with their generally gentle shades. I have just finished “Tones That are Tender” and it’s many years since I read such an informative work. This biography brings out the many talents of Percy. The beautifully presented hardback includes 30 of his watercolors as well as snippets of information not in the public domain which the author ferreted out. For instance, Dublin music publisher Piggott’s rejected his song “The Mountains of Mourned” on the grounds that it wasn’t, “. . . serious enough for a ballad, not funny enough for a comic song.” What was the “gaddick” for this work which has stood the test of time? In the words of the great songwriter himself, “Looking at the range of the Mourne Mountains from Skerries one clear afternoon I found myself repeating, ‘the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’. This line kept recurring to me till one day it wedded itself to an old Irish air, and the combination seemed so happy that I set to work, or rather shut myself in my top room with pen, ink and paper, and waited.” Wasn’t it well worth the wait! When he composed “The Mountains of Mourne” he was living at 21 Clifton Hill, Skerries, and I’m sure that now, from his celestial “Top room” he is pleased to know that, as I write, his beloved Skerries has been selected as the tidiest town in Ireland.
Written as 29 cameos this book (having given a brief ancestral history of the Frenches) is a comprehensive account of the life and times of the genius who was born in Cloonyquinn, County Roscommon, in 1854 up to his death in 1920.
Tones That are Tender is a not-to-be-missed publication. Details at www.Lilliputpress.ie or from Ronnie.maxwell@btin