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Watch the Dubliners and Paddy Reilly Perform one of Ireland’s most popular songs: The Fields of Antenry

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“The Fields of Athenry,” written in 1979 by Pete St. John, has become an emblematic anthem of Irish culture, history and sporting spirit. The song’s poignant narrative and evocative melody resonate deeply with both the Irish people and their diaspora.

The Fields of Athenry Origins and Inspiration

Pete St. John was inspired to write “The Fields of Athenry” after hearing a story about a young man from the Athenry area who was caught stealing corn to feed his family during the Irish famine years and subsequently deported to Australia. The song tells the tragic tale of this man, who is separated from his loved ones, encapsulating the despair and hardship faced by many during the Great Irish Famine.

Despite claims made in 1996 about a similar broadsheet ballad from the 1880s, folklorist John Moulden found no basis for these assertions. Pete St. John has maintained that he composed both the lyrics and the music, solidifying the song’s authenticity as a product of his creative effort.

The Fields of Athenry Chart Success

In 1979, Danny Doyle’s recording of “The Fields of Athenry” reached the top ten in the Irish Singles Chart. The song saw further success in 1982 with Barleycorn’s version, which peaked at number seven. However, the most enduring rendition came from Paddy Reilly in 1982, which, although it only reached number four, remained in the Irish charts for an impressive 72 weeks. Other notable versions include those by the Cox Crew in 1999 and Dance to Tipperary in 2001, both of which reached the top ten.

Historical Context

The song’s lyrics reference “Trevelyan’s corn,” a nod to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a senior English civil servant whose policies during the famine years are widely criticized. Trevelyan infamously stated that the famine was “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.” The reference to Trevelyan underscores the historical grievances and injustices experienced by the Irish during the famine, making the song not only a lament for personal loss but also a broader commentary on historical suffering.

Sporting Anthem

“The Fields of Athenry” transcended its origins to become a staple at sporting events. In the late 1980s, it was adopted by supporters of the Galway county hurling team. It gained widespread popularity among Republic of Ireland national football team supporters during the 1990 World Cup and soon became a fixture at Celtic Football Club matches in Glasgow. Celtic’s strong connections with the Irish community and the historical context of the Great Famine make the song particularly resonant.

During a testimonial match for Celtic’s Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner in 1991, Pete St. John was invited to sing the song to the crowd. His heartfelt performance, accompanied by thousands of fans, marked a poignant moment in the song’s history and highlighted its emotional significance.

Broader Influence and Legacy

The song’s popularity has significantly impacted tourism in Athenry, prompting local officials to honor Pete St. John with a civic reception. The song’s reach extends beyond Ireland, being associated with various rugby teams such as Connacht, Munster, London Irish and the Ireland national team. Galway GAA matches frequently feature the song, further embedding it into Irish sporting culture.

Adaptations of “The Fields of Athenry” include “The Fields of Bishopstown” by Cork City F.C. supporters and “The Fields of Anfield Road” by Liverpool F.C. fans, the latter commemorating the Hillsborough disaster. Internationally, the song has found a place among supporters of Persija Jakarta in Indonesia.

Cultural Impact

“The Fields of Athenry” gained international attention during the UEFA Euro 2012 when Irish fans sang it passionately during a match against Spain, despite their imminent elimination. This display of unity and resilience was widely reported and praised in the media, cementing the song’s status as a powerful expression of Irish identity.

In conclusion, “The Fields of Athenry” is more than just a song; it is a narrative of resilience, a symbol of national pride and a unifying force across sports and generations. Its haunting melody and stirring lyrics continue to evoke deep emotions, making it an enduring piece of Irish cultural heritage.

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Last updated May 29, 2023


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