William Percy French – Centenary commemoration and celebration

A National Percy French Commemoration Committee chaired by Fr. Francis Beirne and incorporating Percy French Societies in Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim and Bangor, County Down, was set up in 2017 to carry through a programme of events in commemoration and celebration of the life of William Percy French, born in Clooneyquinn, Co. Roscommon in May, 1854, and due to take place in May, 2020, the centenary year of his death. Unfortunately, Covid-19 intervened.

Undaunted, and in anticipation of healthier days ahead, Lila Jackson from the Bangor, North Down Society got in touch with the committee expressing a keen wish to bring her members to Roscommon to explore the county and visit historical venues recognised for their importance throughout the country and beyond.

In response, a revised programme of events was compiled and the 21st to 24th June was pencilled in. The invitation issued to our Bangor colleagues to travel west was enthusiastically accepted. True to plan, their coach made a timely arrival in Roscommon’s revamped Square on Tuesday, 21st of June, our guests welcomed by members of the organising committee.

Next morning, with local historian, Jim Ganly acting as tour guide, a Clarke’s of Tulsk tour bus with our guests, together with members of the organising committee and representatives from other societies on board, followed the signpost through the rolling fertile grasslands and tidy farmsteads of County Roscommon to the Douglas Hyde Centre, Portahard, Frenchpark. The centre, built in 1740, once the Portahard Church of Ireland, was restored in 1988 by Roscommon County Council and converted to an Interpretative Centre, accommodating a permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and times of Dr. Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland, whose father, Arthur Hyde, was once Rector there. Under the pen name of An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, Douglas Hyde is credited with a number of publications, most notably Love Songs of Connacht and A Literary History of Ireland, his aim through life – to unite people in a common bond through music, song, folklore, literature, and tradition.

Later that day, our comfortable coach would wind its way towards Clonalis House, Castlerea, home of the O’Conor family whose ancestors held the kingship of Connacht from earliest times up to 1475. The present house was built in 1878 by Charles Owen O’Conor, replacing an earlier structure.

On arrival we were greeted by Pyers O’Conor Nash. This was followed by an informative tour of this excellent house by his wife, Marguerite. Its library contains thousands of books and archival material, including letters from Charles Stuart Parnell. The harp of Turlough O’Carolan rests in its glass frame, safe for generations to come. In Clonalis one is surrounded by history.

Thursday dawns, our bus arrives and the weather is encouraging as we wind our way towards Tulsk and Cruachan Aí, to be greeted by our very well informed guide, Mayo native, Mike McCarthy. Here, Ireland’s ancient past is brought to life. This is the prehistoric land of the Celtic warrior Queen Medb who, it is said, ruled all of Connacht between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. A discussion between Medb and her husband, Ailill, about possessions and power, led to battle and conflict involving her armies in Connacht and the armies of Ulster led by Cú Chulainn. Medb aimed to carry away her prize, the great Brown Bull of Cooley – leading to the epic tale, The Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Leaving Cruachan Aí and its hallowed history, we are on the road again to The Church of St. Catherine, Clooneyquinn, for a Service of Thanksgiving to commemorate and celebrate the life of William Percy French (1854-1920). Conducted by Fr. Francis Beirne, with the then-Cathaoirleach of Roscommon County Council Cllr. Joe Murphy in attendance, the service included beautiful hymns by the Roscommon Church Choir with Choir Mistress, Mary Coyle, and organist Darren Lane from Ballyforan, and with Readings by Darragh Kelly, Margaret Curley and Lila Jackson. Children from the local national school together with their teachers, also participated, bridging the generations, together with members of the local community. After prayer and blessing the Service concluded with a selection of Percy French songs led by the Choir with enthusiastic participation from the assembled congregation. Somewhere, from afar, Douglas Hyde may be watching the distant scene, his legacy perpetuated on his own native soil – people united in a common cultural bond through music, song, folklore, literature and tradition.

Before departing, An Cathaoirleach thanked the organising committee for inviting him to the Service of Thanksgiving which he said was a great honour for him to attend.

The day ended with a visit to Percy French’s memorial site at Clooneyquinn. Mary Coyle placed a sheaf of cheerful summer blooms beside him as neighbour and guide Marty pointed out locations in the area associated with the French family.

No doubt Percy would be pleased with the Programme of Events organised over three days in his honour and in celebration of his life. On the following day our friends from North Down travelled to their homesteads where The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the Sea.