‘Fields of Athenry’ composer Pete St John dies aged 90

Tributes paid to singer-songwriter from the worlds of music, sport and politics

Pete St John playing at the Mansion House in 2015 where he was the recipient of a Dublin Lord Mayor Award. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tributes have been paid to singer-songwriter Pete St John, who died on Saturday, aged 90.

Born Peter Mooney in 1932, the folk musician is best known for writing The Fields of Athenry and The Rare Ould Times.

His songs have been recorded by the Dubliners, Mary Black, Daniel O'Donnell, Brendan Shine and many others. He also penned The Ferryman, Luke Kelly's Land and Ringsend Rose, and more recently composed on topical themes. This included a song Never Drink and Drive for the Road Safety Authority.

Originally from Inchicore in Dublin, he was educated at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal and Synge Street CBS and worked as an electrician before emigrating to Canada. He returned to his native Dublin in the late 1970s.

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Folk band the Wolfe Tones said, in a tweet, his legacy "will endure for centuries to come", while composer Phil Coulter posted: "Deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of the great Pete St John, a gentleman, a proud Dub and a proper songwriter who contributed at least three classics to the Great Irish Songbook."

President Michael D Higgins said it was noteworthy that the song-writer died on the day of an Irish rugby international and said The Fields of Athenry would take on "particular poignancy" given its status as a sports stadium anthem.

“Pete had the rare gift of being able to write songs that, while new and original creations, immediately assumed a timeless quality and central place in all our lives. It is hard to imagine a world where songs like The Rare Ould Times did not exist and in his work Pete has left us with songs that not only defined his own career, but those of many other musicians and indeed all of us as a people,” Mr Higgins said in a statement.

“Pete was a close friend of Sabina and myself over many years and it was an honour to host him in Áras an Uachtaráin in June 2019 where he performed his song on environmental awareness, ‘Waltzing on Borrowed Time’. That was reflective of the deep care and concern which Pete had throughout his work in protecting and preserving the vital things in our world.

“We will all miss this lovely engaged caring man, none more than who had the privilege of knowing him as an indomitable source of inspiration and song.”

Lord Mayor’s award

The Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland said he was a frequent visitor to the Mansion House and received a Lord Mayor's Award in 2015.

“He will be remembered every time we sing The Rare Old Times. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam,” she said.

Irish Rugby, the Football Association of Ireland and Celtic Football Club also paid tribute to the singer-songwriter. Irish Rugby said The Fields of Athenry had been sung at rugby around around the world, from the Aviva in Dublin to Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, but that it "sounded just that extra bit special" in Twickenham on Saturday.

The Irish Music Rights Organisation said Pete St John was one of Ireland's "finest songwriters and a passionate advocate for creators' rights".

In an interview with RTÉ in 1987, the songwriter spoke about some his favourite examples of "Dublinese" including one day when he was in the Old Chinaman pub in Dublin and overheard a conversation between two women from Rialto describe the nearby flats as "the fertility flats" and "menopause mansions".

Pete St John, who died at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, is survived by his sons Kieron and Brian Mooney and was predeceased by his wife Susan.