The Fields of Athenry is more than just another popular Irish song; since it was adopted by sports fans it has become an unofficial anthem for Ireland.
It’s sung by the Ireland fans at both rugby and soccer matches.
It’s associated with the Connaught, Munster and London Irish rugby teams among others. It’s also sung by the fans of Celtic Football Club in Glasgow in Scotland, and by fans of Liverpool Football Club in England.
Unlike, most other songs used on special occasions, it wasn’t handed down by officials but sprang unexpectedly from the people at grass roots level.
No one knows exactly how or why it became so popular with sports fans. The theme clearly strikes a chord in people’s hearts and it is also a slow, ballad – making it ideal for singing by large crowds of fans with no one to conduct or co-ordinate them.
It first became a major song for Irish soccer fans during the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It soon became something of a trademark for the Irish fans wherever they went to support their team in tournaments all across the world.
The Irish fans’ finest moment came in the European Soccer Championships in 2012. Ireland’s team did not perform well but the fans stuck with them, and rousing renditions of The Fields of Athenry were a part of every Ireland game.
This reached a climax in Ireland’s final game of the tournament when they were knocked out by the world champions, Spain. The Irish team were completely outclassed but the fans remained positive and filled the stadium with their singing as the game came to a close.
German television presenters were so impressed by the Irish fans that they stopped their commentary on the game for several minutes so viewers could simply listen to the singing instead. The singing and good behaviour of the fans, even though their team had been beaten, won the respect of other fans all across the world. It became a major talking point on TV and radio, and on social media such as Twitter.
The song’s association with Celtic is partly down to the large Irish-Scottish community in Glasgow, many of whom are descended from the thousands of people who went over to Scotland in the 1840s to escape the famine. Among them were 15,000 famine victims who were suffering from fever.
Pete St John, who wrote The Fields of Athenry, was invited to perform the song before a Celtic match by the club’s Irish goalkeeper at the time, Packie Bonner. St John stepped on to the pitch in front of 60,000 fans and began by thanking them for looking after the 15,000 fever sufferers who were sent over during the famine. Then he began to sing The Fields of Athenry.
He only had to get to the first note and the crowd took over and sang the rest.
The song is also popular with the fans of Liverpool Football Club. About half the residents of Liverpool, which is just across the Irish Sea from Dublin, can claim Irish heritage. That connection is strengthened by the thousands of Irish fans who travel across to England to support the Liverpool team. They brought The Fields of Athenry with them and it is now one of the club’s most popular songs, along with You’ll Never Walk Alone.