Celebrating 'a song for the people'


Pete St John’s song about an incident during the Famine has taken wings. JOHNNY WATTERSON looks at the phenomenon that is The Fields of Athenry

EARLY IN the unexpectedly emotional and evocative documentary The Fields of Athenry, folk singer Paddy Reilly lays it on the table.

“It’s not a rugby song,” says Reilly. “It’s about the f***ing’ famine.” Irish second row, Donncha O’Callaghan talks about the song in reverential tones. “It’s about the togetherness of the crowd,” says the Munsterman. Ray Houghton has a view, Ronnie Whelan, Bernard Dunne, Paul O’Connell and Roy Keane. “The song is special without doubt,” says Keane.

Composer Pete St John, who penned the song in 1979 was taken by a story he heard of a young man from the Athenry area, who, in order to feed his family during the Irish famine years, had been caught stealing corn. His sentence was forced deportation to Botany Bay in Australia.

How a song of incarceration, longing and deprivation has become an all embracing anthem around the many sports grounds where Irish teams play and what it means to fans and players alike is the impulse for The Fields of Athenry. It’s a voyage of discovery and adventure from Thomond Park to Anfield via Croke Park and Glasgow. Anywhere an Irish diaspora was able to lay down roots and contribute to the culture of an area, the song has been adopted and woven into the sporting fabric.

Even St John has been taken by the galvanising effect it has had among sports fans. It became viral before computers became everyday machines. It appears in Liverpool, Celtic, Munster, Irish football and rugby teams and Bernard Dunne’s world title fight in Dublin, when after a bloody bout defined by brutality, pain and reckless bravery the crowd spontaneously broke into The Fields of Athenry.

Dunne, whose fight in the O2 against Ricardo Cordoba, was the same day as Ireland’s Grand Slam win in Cardiff, speaks of his own personal relationship with the song. The super bantamweight was on the canvas twice and practically out on his feet in the latter part of the fight. If he went down again it was over, his dreams shattered. Towards the end of the sapping battle of wills Dunne stood up in his corner, blood tricking from open wounds on his face and he heard the song. He raised a clenched fist in the air and stepped forward into an end game that will be remembered for generations, knocking out Cordoba with his final ounce of strength and becoming the World champion.

A few hours earlier in Cardiff Irish fans watching Ireland capture a Grand Slam for the first time since 1948 were also singing the song as Brian O’Driscoll raised the Six Nations Trophy in the Millennium Stadium. The best day ever in Irish sport? In the blurb for the documentary it says that the story of the song is “authentic”. And so it is. You cannot make stuff like this up. You cannot tell fans to sing a song. You cannot control a crowd of 80,000. They feel it themselves. They chose the songs. They feel the emotion. They understand the history, the tradition and even sometimes the sense of alienation, of despair. But there is also hope there too. The song works it magic win or lose.

When Liverpool FC commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, after 96 of their fans were crushed to death The Fields of Athenrywas chosen as the commemorative song. They changed the lyrics to move the emphasis from the tragedy of famine to the calamity mass killing. That was the despair and the anger. Alienation came some months later as Liverpool faced Everton in the 1989 FA Cup final, when Liverpool fans drowned out their own national anthem with boos and jeers. It was a wounded community venting their spleen on the buttoned up royals of the establishment, removed and seemingly indifferent to their mourning. As always the song resonated in the background.

“Songs are magic carpets. They don’t necessarily have a logical reason for people singing them,” says St John. “It tells a story of the famine. If people want to hang other things on The Fields of Athenry, that’s their business. It was never my intention . . . and I hate it.”

He softens that attitude for Liverpool’s reworking of the lyrics and in a sense the life the song has taken among the stadiums and pubs of the world, from the poor East End of Glasgow where Celtic FC was born to Giants Stadium in the US and Thomond Park, is recognition of St John’s work. It is also apt for what may be another lost generation to Australia, America and the UK.

“Anybody can sing it. It’s a song for the people,” says Eurovision Song Contest winner, Ballyshannon’s Charlie McGettigan. And so we see in the lyrics. Dreams, dignity, prayers, hope. Everything sport is.

Lyrics by Pete St John

By a lonely prison wall

I heard a young girl calling

Micheal 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.


The Fields of Athenry – Tuesday, December 28th, 10.45pm on RTÉ 1.