The Fields of Athenry is probably the best known song about the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s yet it didn’t appear until 1970s – more than 125 years after the events it describes.
It was written by Dublin songwriter Pete St John who also wrote such modern folk standards as The Rare Ould Times and The Ferryman.
It has since become a standard on the folk circuit as well as an unofficial anthem for Irish sports fans at major events.
The Fields of Athenry tells the story of a young man called Michael who is caught stealing corn to feed his family at the height of the Great Famine. His punishment is to be transported to Botany Bay in Australia where he will have to serve several years doing hard labour.
Meanwhile, his wife has to remain in famine torn Ireland and raise their child on her own. His plea to her is that she not only raises their child but that she does so with “dignity” – clearly a difficult task when people were scratching the ground for scraps to eat.
As the ship sails out taking Michael to face his punishment, his wife remains waiting, hoping and praying for his return.
The chorus refers to young couple’s love in the pre-Famine days when they had dreams and songs to sing, and time to watch birds fly across the fields of Athenry.
The song is set against the famine and references people and events from that time. Michael is caught stealing Trevelyan’s corn.
Trevelyan was a leading official in the British Treasury and was put in charge of famine relief. Given that he believed the famine was God’s way of removing surplus population he was not a very suitable choice.
The reference to Trevelyan’s corn can be interpreted in two ways.
It was a source of great bitterness to the starving people that the British Government allowed shiploads of Irish corn to sail out of Ireland at the height of the Famine so that absentee landlords could continue trading and making profits.
Trevelyan encouraged this approach and so the corn being exported could generally be referred to as Trevelyan’s corn. It may also refer to a more specific event. Trevelyan eventually arranged for some Indian corn to be imported into Ireland to help the starving. It was something of a token gesture and turned out to be of no use at all because the corn was too hard to be ground down and eaten.
The Irish didn’t realise this at first and some attempted to break into warehouses to steal the corn. Those who were caught faced transportation to Australia, as happens to Michael in the song.
The Fields of Athenry was first recorded by Irish singer Danny Doyle who had a top ten hit in Ireland with it in 1979. The group Barleycorn also had a top ten hit with it in 1982 but the most successful version was the one recorded by Paddy Reilly. It was released in 1983 and stayed in the charts for 72 weeks.
It has since been recorded successfully by numerous artists including The Dubliners, Daniel O’Donnell, James Galway, The High Kings and Tir na n’Og. Folk punk bands like The Pogues and The Dropkick Murphys have also put their individual stamp on it.
In spite of these fine recordings, The Fields of Athenry is perhaps now more closely associated with Irish sports fans than any professional artists. More on The Fields of Athenry as a sports anthem for Ireland.