Houston, We’ve Got a Problem – Frank McNally on Percy French’s Forgotten Collaborator Houston Collisson


Everyone knows that Percy French wrote The Mountains of Morne, probably his most famous song yet. But we tend to forget that he only wrote the lyrics. As was often the case, these were set to a traditional tune, arranged by his much less remembered musical partner, Houston Collisson.

A Dublin-born Anglican priest, Collisson also marked the operettas they produced together in the early 1890s when, as Bernadette Lowry writes in the book mentioned here yesterday (about French’s role in Finnegans Wake), they promised to become an “Irish Gilbert & Sullivan”.

Each also performed solo on occasion and Collisson was once well known as an impresario. But poignantly, they were to be reunited in death. Both expire in the last week of January 1920: French on the 24th, Collisson on the 31st.

Despite their successes, alone and together, they had both sometimes suffered from the culture wars of the time. By the early 1890s, as Lowry points out, their brand of humor was at odds with Parnell’s policy of splitting, when Irish stocks of humor in general were at their lowest.

But the perception that their songs perpetuated Irish stage stereotypes was also problematic for some.

Such was the case in November 1906 when, on a solo tour of Ireland, Collisson endured a long, dark night of the artistic soul at Birr, Co Offaly.

“I will never forget Birr,” he later wrote in a memoir. “The hall […] was well filled, and my entertainment was going on merrily until a gentleman in the gallery, who had evidently indulged a little too much in “John Jameson” began to speak.

The gossip was eventually removed with the help of a police officer. Then Collisson launches into a song called “Wait a bit now, Marie”, with French lyrics, on a traditional tune. This triggered a flurry of “hissing” from “five or six occupants of the gallery”, which persisted for the rest of the show.

The hiss seems to have been as serious as it could be, but Dr. Collisson was shocked nonetheless. He had been completely in sympathy with the revival of Irish music and literature then in progress, he later insisted, and hated the ‘Stage Irishman’ itself. But he did not accept that he and French were accomplices. He wondered if what the Birr protesters had really objected to was his singing “in a Dublin accent”. To this he pleaded guilty: “I was born there and I can’t help it.” But he also quoted the concert’s epic hatchet work in full later in “a local newspaper”, which provided more details about the accusations.

The anonymous reviewer began by summarizing the show as “vulgar insipidity”. Then he digressed to deliver a damning critique of the majority of the audience, who had “aristocratically graced” the room “in opera capes and half-toilets” and clearly enjoyed themselves.

“If the artist had been engaged in the task of amusing children who had not reached a reasonable intellectual level, then he might have succeeded in his efforts”, lectured the critic. “The fact that he managed to please the satellites of the castle and the Shoneans of Birr speaks volumes about their intellectual abilities.”

From there, the play went on to castigate the “shoddy single-man, third-rate performance” itself; the interpreter’s “drowsy speech, interspersed with antediluvian banter and atrocious attempts at puns”; and even his skills on the “instrument of torture” (the piano).

Apart from a song which the reviewer generously declared “fair enough”, the event’s only saving grace would be the whistling of a small portion of the audience (described as “Irish”) who disrupted the laughter of others (described as the “garrison”).

This proved “that Birr was not entirely radiant”. Summarizing for whistlers, the review concluded: “The time is over when we pay our money to go and hear our nationality insulted, and our method of speaking the foreign language ridiculed.

A night later in Nenagh, Collisson was accosted outside a concert by Irish-speaking youths who also whistled and hooted and called him “Sassenach”. However, they probably couldn’t afford to attend the show. The public was entirely grateful.

That Collisson recovered well from his Midlands trauma is evidenced by an entry in his diary two months later, when he attended the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a controversial new play.

The culture wars were still raging. And before, he had assumed that public outcry against the Playboy’s previous portrayals of the western world was unfair. But he changed his mind halfway through the show: “Before the second act was over, I found myself noisily joining in with the […] cries of disapproval.


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