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 has been translated into 50 languages.
The song is now so famous that there are even spin-offs of it: Liverpool Football Club supporters sing 'The Fields of Anfield Road' with the same tune, and in Northern Ireland, 'The Fields of Aughnacloy' has become popular.
'The Fields of Athenry' most famous moment
In what was, perhaps, one of its most famous moments, 'The Fields of Athenry' 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 Spain. It was the ultimate tribute to the tune.
Spain's manager Vincente del Bosque said afterward: "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 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 wrote 'The Fields of Athenry'?
Many think it is an old ballad, but "The Fields of Athenry" was, in fact, written in Dublin 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.
Sadly Pete St. John passed away on March 12, 2022, aged 90.
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.'
The song 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 most famous version of 'The Fields of Athenry' was sung by balladeer Paddy Reilly and spent 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. The town would have remained relatively obscure if not for the song, which has made it internationally famous.
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.
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A hit song about the Great Irish Famine
Speaking to the Scottish Daily Record in 2004, St. John said 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."
After Paddy Reilly, Pete St. John's now-famous tune went on to be covered by
several other Irish artists, including 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."
'The Fields of Athenry' lyrics
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.
What's your favorite version of 'The Fields of Athenry'? Let us know in the comments!
* Originally published in Jan 2017. Updated in 2022.