Percy French was born William Percy French on May 1, 1854. He was one of the most popular and well-known Irish singers and songwriters of his time. He grew up and attended school in County Roscommon, graduating from Trinity College in Dublin in 1881 with a degree in civil engineering. But he also discovered a love for writing while at Trinity, and wrote his first successful song while a student there. He sold that song, Abdul Abulbul Amir, to a publisher for £5 and never saw another cent for it, even when it became very popular. In fact, a number of other authors stepped forward and claimed to have written it.
French took a job as a drain inspector for County Cavan upon his graduation. He held that position till 1885, and it was during those years that he wrote his best work. He also took up watercolor painting, and his paintings from that period are generally regarded as outstanding works of the art. One sold at auction recently for the astonishing sum of £44,000.
When that job ended rather abruptly in 1885, French relocated to Dublin where he took a position as editor of a weekly comic magazine. He also began promoting his comic songs and writings in a series of concerts by The Jarvey Concert Company. When the magazine folded, he turned to the stage full time and began his career as a songwriter and performer in earnest.
Those years were marred by the tragic death of his young wife, Ettie, who died in childbirth in 1891 after the couple had been married only a year. The tragedy was complete when his infant daughter also died a few days later. Many believe it was those deaths that lent a poignancy to his writing that can be seen in such poems as “Gortnamona” and “Not Lost But Gone Before”.
In 1894, French married again, this time to Helen Sheldon. The couple had three children, all girls – Ettie, Bonnie and Joan. Through their early childhood, French’s reputation as a singer and writer of comic songs grew until he was one of the most highly regarded performers by the turn of the century. Though he was based in London by this time, he and his collaborator, Dr. W. H. Collisson toured the United States, Canada and the West Indies, where they were a great success. In 1920, while touring in Glasgow, Scotland, he was taken ill and some days later succumbed to the illness in Lancashire, where he is buried.