America at Large: the extraordinary afterlife of ‘The Fields of Athenry’

You’ll here it wherever Irish teams compete these days and in all sorts of other venues

For Christmas that year, US Marine sergeant Andrew Farrar’s mother sent him a care package that included Blackout, the Dropkick Murphys’ album containing their raucous, angry punk rock take on The Fields of Athenry.

Next time he sat down to write a letter home from his base in Al Anbar province, Iraq, he wanted her to know how much he appreciated the CD by the band from Quincy, just 15 minutes up the road from his native Weymouth. In particular, the snarling version of the Great Famine epic was sustaining him as he endured the closing stages of his final overseas posting before returning to civilian life.

“Thanks Ma,” wrote Farrar. “I got your package today. I love ‘The Fields of Athenry’. I swear I want them to play that song on the pipes at my funeral when I die.”

Within a month of penning those words, he was killed, electrocuted by a power line when on patrol searching out insurgents near Fallujah, on January 28th, 2005. His 31st birthday. A fortnight earlier, he broke his right hand but turned down the chance to be reassigned to desk duties with the seconnd military police battalion. The night before his death, he spoke on the phone to his wife, Melissa, his sweetheart since they met at Weymouth High School where he was once a basketball star.

They had plans in place to renew their wedding vows and that ceremony was to be soundtracked by Forever, another Dropkick Murphys’ standard.

Laid to rest

Instead, the day they carried his casket into St Francis Xavier church, the Dropkick Murphys were on hand to pay their respects. In the coffin, the family had placed a CD of the band playing a specially recorded, slower, stripped-down version of their original cover of Pete St John’s song. The priest refused to allow them play live in the church but, on that freezing Massachusetts morning, Josh “Scruffy” Wallace, the Murphys’ piper, blew the plaintive melody as Farrar’s body was laid to rest at Mt Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy.

St John created composite characters whose names would eventually be invoked just about wherever Irish sporting teams compete these days and in all sorts of other venues besides

“Unfortunately, bagpipes are a very fickle instrument and, if it’s too humid or too hot or too cold, go out of tune very easily,” said singer Al Barr. “But I don’t think anybody was sitting there judging Scruffy’s playing, everybody was just caught up in the moment. That’s something you really don’t forget, when you see two young children that have lost their father and you know they’re never going to see him again.”

Following St John’s own death in Dublin at the age of 90 last week, the extraordinary afterlife of the most famous song from his extensive back catalogue is worth acknowledging. When he first sat down in the mid-1970s bent on writing something about the Famine, a period in history with which he was obsessed, he could never have imagined its role in the burial of a fallen marine thousands of miles from Ireland.

Then again, who would have envisaged it becoming the party piece of the late senator Ted Kennedy, devoted sybarite, at political soirees around Washington DC? Or an Italian boys choir performing it as Penny Lancaster walked down the aisle to marry Rod Stewart in 2007, a soulful rendition that brought tears to the old ham’s eyes as he waited on the altar.

Inspired by archival material he had come across in University College Galway, and by the harrowing accounts of the suffering endured by the people of Athenry, St John created composite characters whose names would eventually be invoked just about wherever Irish sporting teams compete these days and in all sorts of other venues besides.

Villain

It’s not that long ago since some wanted to ban Glasgow Celtic fans from singing it because mentioning Charles Edward Trevelyan, the former assistant-secretary to the English Treasury and villain of the piece, was apparently sectarian. That would be the same Trevelyan who argued that the crop failures were God’s way of getting the country’s population and the Irish under control.

Covered over 1,000 times, the Dropkick Murphys are only one of several Irish-American punk outfits to include it in their set. The Tossers (based in Chicago) are another. The Celtic Tenors do it opera style and then, of course, there’s the infamous reggae reworking by the Century Steel Band.

Even after being spun all the various yarns, all the poignant accounts of what it means to different people in so many different places, the composer was especially moved by the case of Andrew Farrar.

“When I hear stuff like the story of that American soldier, it’s just kind of stunning to me that the song could mean that much to somebody in that situation,” said St John. “It was very touching when I heard that story. I just thought I’d written a melodic ballad and no more than that.”

In the months after Farrar’s death, the Dropkick Murphys incorporated his final note to his mother into a new composition called Last Letter Home, releasing it as a limited edition single along with their more funereal take on The Fields of Athenry, all money raised from the 3,000 copies going to his family.

Weymouth high school subsequently retired his number 33 jersey, named a corner of its baseball field in his honour, and, in Massachusetts, the most Irish state in the union, his memory is still recalled by some whenever somebody starts, “By a lonely prison wall…”. And that is loud and often.