It’s strange how songs can suddenly develop a life of their own and go off in directions never expected by the people who wrote them.
The Fields of Athenry is a good example. When I first heard it back in the 1970s I thought it was a traditional song and couldn’t understand how it escaped my attention all those years that I’d been following Irish traditional music.
The mystery was explained, of course, when I discovered it had only just been written by Irish songwriter Pete St John. Pete didn’t just write brilliant songs; he had the rare gift of making them sound as if they were a hundred years old and part of the great oral tradition.
That gift meant Pete was becoming a major force at that time, writing several songs that were instant successes for The Dubliners, such Rare Ould Times and The Mero.
But it was the Fields of Athenry that was to become Pete’s greatest success. It was picked up by countless singers who performed it at every opportunity. Artists ranging from The Pogues to The Dubliners to James Galway who all recorded it in their own unique styles.
Paddy Reilly’s version remained in the Irish charts for 72 weeks.
However, its greatest claim to fame, and the one I suspect gives Pete St John the most satisfaction, is that it has become the song of the Irish people, not only those living in Ireland but also those living abroad, especially in the UK.
They’ve claimed it as their own unofficial anthem and they perform it whenever and wherever they can … in pubs, clubs, large concert halls and small family gatherings.
Its status as the people’s song reached its highpoint when it began to be sung by the crowds at Irish football and rugby matches. As great Irish sportsmen like rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll inspired their teams on the field, the fans would try to do their by singing a rousing chorus of The Fields of Athenry. It was then adopted by the fans of Celtic Football Club in Scotland.
Shortly afterwards it became well known in England when it was adopted by the fans of Liverpool Football Club – a city with strong historical Irish connections.
The song’s success is due in part at least to its subject matter. It is set in the years of the Irish famine in the 1840s and is sung from the point of view of a wife who is lamenting that her husband is being deported because he stole some corn to feed his family.
The sadness, the tragedy and the injustice of the famine years still strikes a chord somewhere deep in the souls of Irish people all over the world, even now more than 150 years later.
The Fields of Athenry taps into that sense of injustice and that is why it resonates so strongly with Irish people and why they enjoy the sense of community generated when they sing it together.
It’s also a great melody of course, and even after all these years it can it still make the hair on my neck stand up when I hear it being belted out by 60,000 fans at a football stadium – whether in Glasgow, Liverpool or anywhere back in Ireland.