Monday, 16 March 2009

Strokestown Poetry Festival, Co. Roscommon, Ireland and Percy French

Just heard today that I am one of the short-listed poets for this festival competition and will get a chance to read with the other short-listed poets. So am delighted to be going over to Ireland for it...especially as County Roscommon has links with the singer/composer Percy French who is one of my ancestors and I have been meaning to explore these ancestral roots for ages. (His mother was my great-great aunt or something, on my mother's side.) A pity I was not also short-listed for the Percy French prize for satirical verse but never mind. Obviously those genes were not passed down.

Percy French, if you don't already know, composed 'The Mountains of Mourne', 'Phil the Fluter's Ball' and other songs often thought of as by Anon (Traditional). He lived in Edwardian times, was part of the Anglo-Irish but was not interested in politics. He was well-loved by everyone and his songs were inspired by his days as Inspector of Drains cycling round Cavan and the 'characters' he met - at whom he pokes fun with great affection and with great compassion. I believe there has been a revival of interest in Ireland in his work - and particularly in his water-colours, often sunsets on the bog, or the breaking wave (sure fire best sellers. His 'pot boilers' as Ettie and Joan, his daughters (my cousins) used to say.

I shall find a chance to explore the site of Cloonyquin, the house where he grew up - now pulled down - shame - not in the Troubles, I hasten to add (though I gather it was not of great architectural merit, more of a former shooting lodge.) The Frenches were apparently good to their tenants, provided soup and work during the Famine etc. The house was sold and pulled down by the new owner - along with it the avenue of copper beeches, to provide more farming land. Ettie and Joan had a magnificent copper beech in their garden in Suffolk which was grown from a Cloonyquin seedling and I remember having tea with them sitting on a rug below this tree when I presented my baby son to them back in the 1990's when he was one and they were in their 80s. I am sorry they are not still alive to learn of my trip to their father's birthplace.

There is a wonderful collection of his paintings and other memorabilia in Bangor, County Down, many of which I saw in my cousins' cottage many times before they died.

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