You may talk of Columbus's sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee
You run for the train in the morning
The excursion train starting at eight
You're there when the clock gives the warnin'
And there for an hour you'll wait
And as you're waiting in the train
You'll hear the guard sing this refrain:
Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye've been so long in startin'
That ye couldn't say for certain
Still ye might now, Michael
So ye might!
Large parts of rural Ireland were barely accessible in the nineteenth century so government encouraged the construction of light railways to a narrow gauge. Hundreds of miles of railway were thus constructed at a relatively low cost and one such was the West Clare Railway. This 43km line ran from Ennis to the coastal towns of Kilrush and Kilkee and operated from 1887 until 1961. It was operated by an independent company until becoming part of the Great Southern Railway in 1925. A 5km stretch of the line has now been reconstructed and tourist trains are operated
They find out where the engine's been hiding
And it drags you to sweet Corofin
Says the guard: "Back her down on the siding
There's a goods from Kilrush coming in."
Perhaps it comes in two hours
Perhaps it breaks down on the way
"If it does," says the guard, "by the powers
We're here for the rest of the day!"
And while you sit and curse your luck
The train backs down into a truck.
William Percy French was from an Anglo Irish family who had
lived at Cloonyquin House, Co. Roscommon sine the 17th century. He was educated at Trinity College where he took rather a long time to earn his B A in Civil Engineering. By his own admission he was more interested in tennis, painting and banjo playing. He was to write his first popular song whilst at University "Abdallah Bulbul Ameer" which became a great hit. French took a number of short term posts before settling into employment with the Board of Works in Cavan. Although well paid, he did not enjoy "inspecting drains" so in his spare time he took to song writing and watercolour painting.
Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Have ye got the parcel there for Mrs White?
Ye haven't, oh begorra
Say it's comin' down tomorra
And well it might now, Michael
So it might
In 1888, French's employment came to an end due to cuts in council expenditure ! He returned to Dublin where he was offered the post of editor with a satirical weekly paper "The Jarvey". The journal was not popular and soon ceased publication. French now took a part in a theatrical revue "Dublin Up To Date". His comic songs, anecdotes and sketches were to prove so popular that he started touring. First performing in London, then the U. S. A., Canada and the West Indies. He continued to tour Europe, Britain and Ireland almost until the time of his death in 1920. French was a popular performer, well known in his days. Many of his songs such as "Mountains of Mourne" were major hits.
At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel
With joy you are ready to shout
When the stoker cries out: "There's no fuel
And the fire's tee-totally out!
But hand up that bit of a log there
I'll soon have ye out of the fix
There's fine clamp of turf in the bog there
And the rest go a-gatherin' sticks."
In 1896 French was due to appear in Kilkee, Co Clare for a concert. He left Dublin at eight in the morning for Ennis where he changed for the 12.30 West Clare train. The 25 mile journey should have taken a leisurely three hours but on approaching Miltown Malbay the train came to a halt. The fireman found that the water tank contained a lot of weeds and so dropped his fire rather that risk the engine which was in danger of exploding. It was nearly five hours before a replacement engine arrived and the train finally arrived at Kilkee at 8.20. French was to find that almost all of his audience had given up and gone home.
And while you're breakin' bits of trees
You hear some wise remarks like these:
"Are ye right there, Michael? Are ye right?
Do ye think that you can get the fire to light?
Oh, an hour you'll require
For the turf it might be drier
Well it might now, Michael
So it might."
Percy French successfully sued the railway for loss of earnings and was awarded £10 compensation. He wrote the song "Are Ye Right There Michael" as a parody of the railway and its operations.
Kilkee! Oh you never get near it!
You're in luck if the train brings you back
For the permanent way is so queer
It spends most of its time off the track.
Uphill the old engine is climbin'
While the passengers push with a will
You're in luck when you reach Ennistymon
For all the way home is downhill.
The West Clare Railway challenged the judgement and an appeal was to be heard. On arriving an hour late at court, French was admonished by the judge. He apoplogised but when he explained that his train was an hour late, the case was dismissed.
And as you're wobblin' through the dark
you hear the guard make this remark:
"Are you right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that you'll be home before it's light?"
"Tis all dependin' whether
The old engine holds together—
And it might now, Michael, so it might! (so it might),
And it might, now, Michael, so it might."
Most of French's songs are now long forgotten but his work as an artist is still popular. He was an accomplished watercolour painter and many of his pictures depict Ireland's mountainous landscape. He was always able to find a market in Dublin. Now his work is sought after and can fetch as much as £6000 in auction.