"The Fields of Athenry" has become an anthem for Ireland and the Irish but do you know where it came from?Getty

"The Fields of Athenry" is the most famous Irish song of its generation, perhaps the most popular ever, yet very few seem to know its history and background.

"The Fields of Athenry" has more than 846 versions 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, "The Fields of Athenry" has become Ireland’s calling card.

Every weekend there are new renditions appearing in every pub, club and folk music festival and the song has dominated the scene 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".

The moment that made "The Fields of Athenry" famous

In what was, perhaps, one of its most famous moments, the anthem was sung for as long as eight minutes in the final game of Ireland's participation in the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, when the fans knew the team was knocked out 4-0 by the World Cup winner Spain. 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, who was working as a French TV pundit, asked the commentators to stop talking so that viewers could hear the Irish singing "The 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.

Who really wrote the famous Irish song "The Fields of Athenry"

Many think it is an old ballad, but it was, in fact, written in 1979 by the incredibly talented Pete St. John. Originally released the same year by the folksinger Danny Doyle, 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. It would have remained relatively obscure if not 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 - he traveled the world and has spent 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".

A song about the Great Irish Famine

Speaking to the Scottish Daily Record in 2004, St. John noted that "The 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 Pete 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. Pete 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's 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".

Lyrics to the beloved song "The Fields of Athenry"

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.

 * Originally published in Jan 2017.

Read more: How well do you know the lyrics to “The Fields of Athenry”?