Thursday, January 5, 2017
How “The Fields of Athenry” became Ireland’s most famous song
It’s the most famous Irish song of it generation, perhaps the most popular ever, yet very few seem to know the history and background to “The Fields of Athenry.”There are 846 versions of it on YouTube and it has been translated into 50 languages.
From the terraces at every Celtic match to lusty versions at Irish international soccer and rugby games to spirited versions at Munster rugby game’s “Fields of Athenry” has become Ireland’s calling card.
Every weekend there are renditions in every pub, club and folk music festival and the song has dominated so much that there are even fake versions of it.
Liverpool Football Club supporters sing “The Fields of Anfield Road” with the same tune, there is even a separate Northern Ireland version “The Fields of Aughnacloy”.
It’s most famous moment perhaps came when it was sung for as long as eight minutes in the final game of Ireland's 2012 European Nations Cup participation once fans knew the team were knocked out by World Cup winners Spain 4-0. It was the ultimate tribute to the tune.
The World Champions coach, Vincente del Bosque, said afterwards: “I thought (with) that the Irish fans and players showed us what the game is really about.”
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s famed manager Arsene Wenger, working as a French TV pundit, asked the commentators to stop talking so that viewers could hear the Irish singing “Fields of Athenry.” The German commentators did the same. It was, by common consensus, one of the most moving moments in sport, a defeated team cheered to the echo by their hardcore fans singing their anthem.
Many think it is an old ballad, but in fact it was written in 1979 by the incredibly talented Pete St John. Originally released by folksinger Danny Doyle, in the same year, it went on to be covered by more than 500 performers.
The most famous version by balladeer Paddy Reilly was 73 weeks in the charts early in the 1980s, cementing the imprint of the song on the national Irish psyche.
The song title comes from an east Galway town, 25 miles from Galway City, which few could find on a map and would have remained relatively obscure but for the song which has made it internationally famous.
“The Fields of Athenry” was composed in a terraced room in Whitehall, in North Dublin, almost 40 years ago.
Pete St. John lived an itinerant life, traveling the world, living for 15 years in the United States. When he returned home he saw a country changed with many of the old ways gone, a fact he remembered in his other famous song “Dublin in the Rare Old Times”.
Speaking to the Scottish Daily Record in 2004 St. John noted “Fields of Athenry” “is a song about the potato famine in Ireland - it's that simple. I'd gone to Galway and read some Gaelic tracts about how tough life was in those dreadful times.
"The people were starving and corn had been imported from America to help them. But it was Indian corn with a kernel so hard that the mills here in Ireland couldn't grind it.
"So it lay uselessly in stores at the docks in Dublin. But nobody trusted the authorities - the Crown - to tell them the truth, so hundreds of starving Irish people marched on the city to get the grain. Some were arrested and shipped off to Australia in prison ships.
"I wrote a ballad about it, inventing Michael, Mary and a baby - a family torn apart because the husband stole corn to feed his family.
"The `Trevelyan' in the lyric was the Crown agent at the time, he did exist. That inspired the line `Against the famine and the Crown I rebelled'.
"All this information came from Galway, so I set the song in Athenry, a little Galway village where the potato fields lay empty ... the fields of Athenry."
It made St. John famous and created a new Irish anthem in a country redolent with Famine folk memories even if people do not fully comprehend them.
The major breakthrough occurred when it was adopted by Celtic Football Club as their anthem. St John remembers singing the song acapella before 60,0000 Celtic fans and feeling overwhelmed when they all joined in. The song never looked back after.
Indeed, the list of artists who have recorded Pete St John songs reads like a Who’s Who of the Irish music scene, including as it does The Dubliners, Paddy Reilly, Frank Patterson, Danny Doyle, Johnny McEvoy, Mary Black, Dublin City Ramblers, Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, The Barleycorn, Sonny Knowles, Brendan Shine, Daniel O’Donnell and countless others.
As Sean Laffey, editor of Irish Music magazine stated “Pete St. John’s the “Fields of Athenry” has become an anthem for the masses (after being brilliantly interpreted by Paddy Reilly) in much the same way as the Corrie’s “Flower of Scotland” is now almost the unofficial National anthem of the Scots.
“Remember these were written when pop music was at its most pervasive, yet the folk quality of the songs has triumphed over the ephemeral fashions... The value of songs like the “Fields of Athenry” is truly priceless.”
Here’s the lyrics to the beloved song:
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling
Michael they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn so the young might see the morn
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay
Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry
By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free
Against the Famine and the Crown, I rebelled they ran me down, now you must raise our child with dignity
By a lonely harbor wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
Niall O' Dowd