William Percy French was the son of a landlord and a clergyman's daughter. He studied engineering at Trinity College, where he spent a lot of time in song writing, dramatics, banjo playing and watercolour painting. After graduation he was on the verge of emigrating to Canada, but was appointed to a post in a government drainage scheme in Cavan. He was a self-styled 'Inspector of Drains' for seven years.
In 1891, his first wife, Ettie, died in childbirth, as did his baby daughter. he toured the country on his bicycle with a box of paints, painting and performing. He developed a one-man show, where he sang the songs he composed. At fifty, French moved to London and performed on stage until his death in 1920.