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Percy French in Baldoyle


Percy French



Compiled by Michael J. Hurley, 2016.

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The Mall, Baldoyle

On Strand Road in the village of Baldoyle stands the fine house known as The Mall, which was owned by The Corporation of Dublin as part of their Baldoyle Estates. There is evidence from a blocked-up doorway on the first floor that at one time it was connected to the next door house, a barracks of The Royal Irish Constabulary. If this were so, The Mall was probably the residence of a senior police officer as this barracks was a senior station to Howth

It was the residence of one Myles Reck in 1848 and of his widow in 1860. Reck had applied to the Board of Works to rent and later purchase the Harbour Master’s house at Howth where he worked in 1837/’38. As early as 1845 there is record of Myles Reck being clerk in charge of the Provident Society on the building of the Dublin & Drogheda Railway in this locality. In 1846 he was secretary of the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway, of which local man (and Reck’s direct landlord) Judge Henry Hutton, was a director. Reck was the first known employee of the D&BJR and was described as a middle aged man who held a number of positions of responsibility during the line’s early years. His first task was to control the receipt of share applications and later he was Inspector of Works, acquiring the required lands and supervising the contractors. He was sent from Dublin by the board in 1847 to ascertain the facts following riots by navvies who had not been paid. Myles found the contractor to be insolvent and subsequently he (the contractor) was dismissed by the board.

The Mall (nearest to camera) and Library around 1962[_*._] [*(Courtesy Sheila Loftus)]

The Mall showing from left the house, the post office, and the garden wall; the latter was demolished to make way for the two-storey house built in around 1975 for Simon and Eithne Behan. Breffni Gardens were built at the extreme right of the above collage of three photographs. The garden gate at extreme right is that of the old guesthouse Breffni that stood here until the lease was surrendered to Dublin Corporation around 1960.

The Mall today with Robert and Madeleine Woods’ new house built on the site of the old post office.

In 1880 Mrs. M’Farlane was the tenant and she left it to her son Joseph in 1910.

Joseph McFarlane, a native of Co. Tyrone, commenced business life working for the firm of Alex. Findlater & Co. and later set up his own premises as a tea and coffee dealer. He was active in local affairs and was chairman of the guardians of the North Dublin Union which ran the workhouse for the north city area which included Baldoyle. He clashed with Archbishop Cullen at the Inquiry into The Irish Poor Law on the question of outdoor relief in the Union area. The Bishop supported the proposal for the payment of ten pence per day but McFarlane referred to the proposal as “ten pence a-day and idleness”. He maintained that work would become irksome to every man who could get 10d for idleness and only a shilling for working.

However, it appears that the Mc Farlanes sub-let the house as Thom’s Directory lists the occupant of The Mall in 1891 as a Mrs Stringer. She was succeeded in 1892 apparently by Mrs Hanley who appears to have run the house as a guest house, as Percy French’s letters to his fiancée show him staying there for weeks at a time while working in Dublin. While here he engaged himself in figure and landscape painting on the 17 panels of the upstairs doors, which were sold at auction on 15th March, 1989. Art experts who examined the doors said that the works were consistent with French’s style during his early career after leaving Trinity College (c.1883).

The fine fireplace and over-mantle of the parlour at The Mall where Percy often warmed his toes on winter’s nights. Note the bellows at left.

The above photograph and the following one illustrate the extent of the back garden at The Mall until 1970 when it became the site for three houses on Main Street and Simon Behan’s on Strand Road. The building is the old coach-house.

Laura Woods and her mother Blanche Ennis-Woods at the door of The Mall around 1955.

Joseph McFarlane was instrumental in the decision to build a Presbyterian Church in Howth in the early 1890s. He was Treasurer, Secretary, and Clerk of Session of the church and made a gift of the land on which the hall of Howth Presbyterian Church stands today.

Interesting to note that although staunch Presbyterian he bequeathed £100 to the nuns in Baldoyle for the purchase of coal for the poor. Joseph was commemorated with the erection of a memorial plaque for his services in Howth Presbyterian Church in 1943.

Later Andy McFarlane (above) who became a Presbyterian minister in Castlederg in the North of Ireland owned the house and he in turn sold the house to Mrs. Blanche Ennis-Woods about 1939. Her daughter Laura Woods inherited it from her mother. Mrs. Ennis-Woods who was born an O’Reilly from Portmarnock Golf Road moved from Talbot Street (where her furniture had been used as a barricade by the rebels of 1916) to a house named Cambria close to Kilbarrack graveyard, and thence to The Mall where she ran the post office with her daughter Laura until 2002. The Mall, which is the last of the village’s big houses still in use as a private residence, boasted two self-contained flats in its adjoining old post office and old coach house. In 2014 these flats were demolished and replaced by Robert and Madeline Woods (Laura’s nephew) with a new modern house. This building complements the extension to the library and the two modern builds act as book-ends to the two gracious old houses. Following the death of Miss Woods the house was placed on the market for €450,000 and by the time of writing, September 2016 it was advertised as ‘Sale Agreed’.

William Percy French was born at Cloonyquinn Co. Roscommon on Mayday 1854. His father was a local judge and small landlord. His forbearance with his tenants caused him severe financial problems and he was to lose the Roscommon estate and take his nine children to live in England. William, or Percy (it was his mother’s maiden name) as he preferred to be called returned to Ireland s to study Civil Engineering at Trinity College in Dublin. He did not have a good academical experience in Trinity; he spent all of his evenings playing on the banjo in the orchestra in The Gaiety Theatre.

He eventually qualified as an engineer but was not a success at the work for the Midland Great Western Railway Company as an inspector of railway drainage. He was dismissed and became editor of two magazines The Jarvey and The Irish Cyclist where his young and beautiful wife Ettie Armytage Moore contributed some fine drawings.

Ettie (above) died in childbirth in 1891, soon followed by her baby; Percy was devastated and shortly afterwards wrote the plaintive poem Gortnamona, set to music by the orchestra leader Philip Green in the 1950s.

The following year, 1892, Percy collaborated with Dr Heuston Collison to devise a musical named Strongbow, the story of Dermot MacMurrough which was staged at the Queen’s Theatre in Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) in Dublin. There he met a young English girl named Helen (Lennie) Sheldon who was a member of the chorus of the show. Percy became enchanted by the girl and began a correspondence with her after her return to England.

Alan Tongue’s splendid book The Love Letters of Percy French (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2015) features a collection of letters from Percy to Helen Sheldon from 1892; these letters had been bequeathed to Alan Tongue by Percy’s daughters. The letters are now in the North Down Museum in Bangor Co. Down. Many of these letters were sent from The Mall on Strand Road Baldoyle where Percy took lodgings with a land-lady named Mrs Hanley. He decorated the envelopes with pretty watercolour scenes which must have intrigued the postman in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire where Helen lived with her family.

His first surviving letter from Baldoyle was in August 1892 when he wrote;

Here I am on the margins of the far resounding sea once more. I have taken a room here for a week & am studying sand and seaweed with such success that already the local policeman^1^ thinks very highly of my work.

This is a wonderful place for skies – I thought I had finished painting at 9 o’clock last night when up rose the moon & began casting reflections & dodging behind clouds in full view of my window so I had to try & imitate her performance on paper.

Later that August he wrote that:

My cargo of 10 masterpieces has just been sent to Belfast so I am able to lay aside the brush & once more grasp the pen.

At this time he was writing for a paper named The Irish Cyclist and Athlete under the pseudonym of Will Wagtail. In the edition of 24th August 1892 he wrote to the paper from The Mall which he sometimes referred to in his column as The Cock Loft, Baldoyle:

I have been in the neighbourhood of Baldoyle for the last ten days making a full length portrait – nearly life size – of the Hill of Howth.

When Percy French lodged at The Mall the only source of water for the house was from this pump in the rear yard which drew water from a deep well. Interesting to find fresh water just twenty metres from the seashore. In the 1980s St. Anne’s Golf Club on Bull Island commissioned a contractor to sink a well there for watering the greens. The contractor told the club secretary that their drilling had hit on an underground river that flowed from as far away as Co. Monaghan and came towards Bull Island flowing under Baldoyle village^2^. Perhaps The Mall’s water was from this water course.

February 1893 saw Percy in Baldoyle once again. At this time his song Matthew Hannigan’s Aunt was newly on sale at four shillings for the copyright sheet music. He apologised to Helen for having forgotten to send a Valentine’s Day card:

Sending Valentines has gone out and altogether about here, so the shop windows even don’t remind you of them. I would have been surprised if he found a Valentine’s Day card in a Baldoyle shop in 1893!

A month later he wrote to Helen that:

The great night is over (in concert with Richard Orpen in The Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street) & though the audiences were very much pleased & went away saying how good it was, the papers have been down on my efforts at entertaining.

Back at The Mall in July 1893 he told his wife that his rail tickets had expired:

So I spent a good deal of my time dodging (ticket) collectors with varying success. This left me rather short & I hadn’t the price of a cup of coffee when I got to Chester. He was to perform in Tallaght on the evening of the day on which he wrote that letter.

In August he would write:

Then started for Baldoyle where I thought I would put in a week’s hard sketching before tackling the west. I went out early and did a fairly good piece of work. I then had an impromptu bathe using a bit of a wreck as a springboard (no towel as good Jaegerites^3^ never dry themselves) & after a light luncheon set off again. This time I found a very pleasant corner of a cornfield with the Dublin Mountains as a background, so I set to work & found my summer work beginning to tell for it really is the best thing I have done yet by a long way. It is conceivable that the following water-colour is the one refereed to here.

A watercolour of Percy’s with the legend Baldoyle Co. Dublin pencilled on the back. I cannot suggest a possible exact location. (author’s collection).

It seems probable that Percy would have known a man who died at The Mall on 26th August 1893 as the following notice appeared in an Australian newspaper in November of that year (Goulburn Evening Penny Post New South Wales 2/11/1893):

DEATH. GLYNN — August 26, at The Mall, Baldoyle, suddenly, JOHN M. GLYNN, late organist St. Francis Xavier’s Church, Gardiner-street ; aged 59 years. On whose soul sweet Jesus have mercy. Sydney Daily Telegraph please copy. I wonder did they ever make music together in Baldoyle?

The next month. September 1893, his letter to Lennie was from his old home of Clooneyquinn, Co. Roscommon. The weather was bad because he wrote that the rain here has kept me from doing much & I will want a few days at Baldoyle to make pictures of my studies. Two months later he was again at Baldoyle from where he told Helen that I am giving a show tonight at the Mullingar Lunatic Asylum. They say I will be quite ‘en rapport’ with my audience.

When he wrote from The Mall in December he was dealing with the up-coming wedding with Helen and that he was setting up art classes in Dublin. He told Helen that I think if the class is in full swing in January we had better spend the honeymoon among the sandhills and seagulls of Baldoyle as I must be on or about the studio.

With the wedding almost upon them he would write again in January 1894:

I have so much to think of that I know not if head or heels are uppermost. My class has increased to 6 which experts say is very promising for a start, two days a week from 10 to 2. I have to get some good pictures ready for the R.H.A. (Royal Hibernian Academy) before I leave as I don’t suppose much will be done on our Lune de Nuit! I haven’t found a house yet. The Howth people like letting their houses for the summer at high rents, so we may have to come nearer town. Your presents seem to be very fine & ornamental. Mine are as yet the practical, chiefly articles for the studio, a carpet, a coal scuttle & a wash hand stand. I have all the usual things already. Mrs Hanley is busy fitting up’ The Mall’ for your reception, but I tell her to make no permanent improvements as we are birds of passage.

On the 19th January his letter from Dawson Street in Dublin illustrates his lack of interest in business matters when he referred to his insurance policy:

I wired the number of the insurance policy & the date to Burmington to-day as your mother said Alfred H. would be there. He & you had better fix up the settlements, I am too busy with the present to feign even a polite interest in posthumous affairs. I find the draft is out at Baldoyle. I go there Sunday and will forward it.

Five days later the couple were married in Helen’s home town of Burmington. The marriage certificate shows William Percy French, a widower, aged 39, of Baldoyle, Howth, Co. Dublin, and Helen May Cunningham Sheldon, spinster aged 25, of Burmington. Their first home as a couple would be at his studio at 12 Dawson Street, Dublin.

Thus seems to end Percy’s tenure as a lodger with Mrs Hanley at The Mall. The McFarlanes appear to have re-taken possession of the property soon after. I wonder how they accepted a house now complete with seventeen oil paintings on the door panels of their house?

I sometimes like to envisage Percy, laden with suitcases to bear his numerous theatrical costumes, trappings, and art materials walking briskly between Sutton & Baldoyle Station and The Mall. I feel sure the locals considered him as just some sort of an eccentric and not the genius he would prove to be.

Percy and Helen would have three daughters. Interesting that they named the first-born Ettie after Percy’s first wife. Percy travelled the world giving concerts and shows but he believed his true worth was as an artist.

Percy did return to Baldoyle at least once after this. The following picture entitled Ireland’s Eye from Baldoyle was painted by him in 1912. It was sold in auction in 2005 for €4,500.

Percy died in 1920 and was buried at Formby in Northern England. He has left a wonderful legacy of witty, soulful, and observant songs, poems, and parodies including Phil The Fluter’s Ball, Gortnamona, Are You Right There Michael, Eileen Óge, Come Back Paddy Reilly, McBreen’s Heifer, and The Emigrant’s Letter. Thousands of his watercolours still exist in galleries, museums, and in private collections all around the world. His contribution to Irish life in the late nineteenth century is incalculable.

One of the door panels shows a young lady and it is my opinion that it is quite likely to be his fiancée Helen Sheldon with whom he corresponded so frequently while in the house here. The following photograph is of the adjacent panel of the same door, which seems to suggest that the two persons represented are Percy and Helen.

The adjacent panel depicts a clown, thought to be a representation of himself and his light-hearted outlook on life. (I was born a boy and have remained on ever since[*)*]

A panorama covering two panels with Ireland’s Eye and Portmarnock Point at left and Howth and Sutton to right.

Probably the marshes at The Murrough between Baldoyle and Portmarnock.

The rich red sails of the fishing wherries at Howth; similar to those at Baldoyle at that time.

A derelict boat somewhere along the local coastline. This is quite probably the ‘wreck’ to which he referred that he had used as a spring-board. The white building-like objects on the horizon line are not a feature, rather damage to the surface of the paint.

One of the Martello Towers in the locality. Probably that at Portmarnock, but licence has been taken as the actual tower is in fact higher above the seal level than as shown above.

Above are examples of the entire doors at The Mall. As Adams’ Fine Art auctioneer dropped the hammer on the doors he was quoted by the Irish Times as saying it was a pity that Percy French did not paint more doors! But in fact he did! There was another small cupboard or safe door in one of the front bedrooms and Percy painted two scenes on the panels of this one. This door escaped the auction of 1989 and today resides in the home of this author in Co. Galway. The following picture is of this door. The top panel seems to represent a ruined church or abbey, and may be that at Howth. The lower view is possibly a sunrise above Howth Hill, but we are not too certain of these opinions. Some unkind person has had the temerity to suggest that this door is where Percy cleaned off his brushes!

The late Laura Woods with one of the doors from The Mall which is now an exhibit at the Percy French Collection at the North Down Museum in Bangor Co. Down. The door is mounted in a steel frame to facilitate viewing of both sides.

Percy wrote a poem entitled The End of The Holiday and I quote it here to finish this brief sketch of his times in Baldoyle.

Fold up the box, the wind is chill,

The hills are turning grey,

Tomorrow I must pay my bill

And speed me far away-

Back to the world again – but still,

Thank God for such a day.

The Mall today with the new home of Robert and Madeleine Woods on the site of the old post office and coach-house.

1 The Police barracks was next door to The Mall in what is now the Library.

2 My late friend, Brian J. Flynn, Secretary of St. Anne’s GC in conversation with this author c. 1980.

3 A Jaegarite is sworn to wool as a vegetarian is to Vegetables.

Percy French in Baldoyle

The wonderful Irish song writer, poet, entertainer, and artist Percy French (1854 - 1920) toured Ireland and England extensively throughout his life. He spent some weeks as a lodger at the house known as The Mall in Baldoyle Co. Dublin, Ireland where he painted many seascapes and landscapes. He also painted seventeen oil paintings on the door panels of The Mall. In the times about 1893 he corresponded from here with his fiance Helen who was living in England. This e-Book is a record of Percy's known times and works in Baldoyle.

  • Author: Michael J. Hurley
  • Published: 2016-11-09 23:35:11
  • Words: 3497
Percy French in Baldoyle Percy French in Baldoyle