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Low Lie the Fields of Athenry

Updated on June 24, 2016

Sometime during the 1970s, Irish folk singer/songwriter Pete St. John wrote the song “The Fields of Athenry”. A doomed romantic ballad if there ever was one, the song told the tale of a young man named Michael imprisoned for stealing food during the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, separating him from his wife and child. Whether it was that doomed romantic plot or the song’s soaring nostalgic chorus (“low lie the fields of Athenry, where once we watched the small free birds fly”), the song became the biggest and best thing St. John ever did. It would first become a hit as an Irish folk tune in the 70s and 80s for artists like Danny Doyle, Barelycorn and Paddy Reilly and has since seen a numerous genres tackle it since; there’s been a Celtic punk, melodic hardcore, reggae and even dance club versions of the song. But while St. John probably didn’t envision his song breaking away from its Irish folk beginnings I’m almost certain he didn’t expect it to become what it’s best known for; a sporting anthem.


I know; how did a ballad about a starving Irishman become one of the most recognized sports songs around the world? Truthfully I can’t tell you; much like everything else in the strange, wonderful world of football it appears “The Fields of Athenry” just one day latched onto the game and never let go. The song first started being heard in stadiums as an anthem sung by fans of Celtic F.C., one of the world’s most famous football clubs. Though based in Glasgow, Scotland, Celtic supporters latched onto the song due to the large contingent of Irish descendents in Glasgow, most of who were born in Scotland due to their families migrating to Glasgow during that same Great Irish Potato Famine. “The Fields of Athenry” would become such a staple at Celtic matches that St. John would eventually be invited perform the song at Celtic Park for Packie Bonner’s 1991 testimonial match, a moment he would later call one of the most memorable of his life. Since then the song has remained a staple at Celtic games, while becoming an anthem for Irish club Galway United F.C. (Galway County is where Athenry is located) and numerous other football/rugby clubs in the Republic. The song has also served as inspiration for the creation of other sports anthems, such as Irish club Cork City’s “The Fields of Bishoptown” and Liverpool’s “The Fields of Anfield Road”; both songs are basically “Fields of Athenry” with the names and some lyrics changed (the tune is the same for all three songs). But for all the famous football clubs that latched onto St. John’s masterpiece, either by intention or imitation, none of these clubs have gone on to share as powerful a relationship with “The Fields of Athenry” as the national team of the country the song was born in.

The Republic of Ireland’s history in football is a mixed bag of; there was the split with Northern Ireland in the 1950s, the golden years under Jack Charlton during the early 90s, now assistant coach Roy Keane’s controversial public dismissal from the club in 2002 and a World Cup Qualifying match against France in 2009 where the Irish were screwed more than Bret Hart in Montreal. And yet through all those times, good, bad or indifferent, the one thing the Irish always had above all else was their supporters. Loud, merry and perhaps just a little bit buzzed the Irish faithful have become one of the most delightful aspects of any international tournament their country has shown up in. Whereas some supporters have left their countries looking worse than Alec Guinness in the final five minutes of The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Irish always seem to be a lot of fun; just a bunch of cheery hooligans who have come to watch their club with dreams and songs to sing. I suppose that mindset made it natural for Irish supporters to latch on to “The Fields of Athenry” which they did back during the club’s run in the 1990 World Cup. The song has been a staple since, and yet I think it’s safe to say that “Fields of Athenry” has grown to become something more powerful than that. That World Cup wasn’t just another World Cup for the Irish; that Charlton led club made it all the way to the Quarterfinals of the whole thing (the last eight), the first real accomplishment the club had had since splitting with the Northern Irish decades earlier. The rise of the club at the same time “Fields of Athenry” officially became a rallying cry for supporters led to a connection between club and song that few have. And it’s stayed that way through the 1994 World Cup and Ray Houghton’s goal against Italy, the 2002 World Cup and so on and so forth.

Ray Houghton celebrating his famous goal vs. Italy, till now the most famous moment in Irish football history
Ray Houghton celebrating his famous goal vs. Italy, till now the most famous moment in Irish football history

But the bond between “Fields of Athenry” and the Republic of Ireland isn’t best exemplified by what the Irish and their supporters have done in victory but what has happened in defeat. If you’ve even followed a tiny bit of international football over the years, you by now know the story of the Irish team that played in the UEFA Euro 2012 tournament. I think even the Irish would admit that squad wasn’t very good; they scored only one goal in their three games against Croatia, Spain and Italy and were ultimately outscored by a combined 9-1 margin. And yet the most memorable moment for Ireland wasn’t that they got their asses kicked, but the final ten minutes of a 4-0 defeat against Spain where Irish fans, knowing their club was eliminated, sang the chorus of “Fields of Athenry” for the remainder of the game, to the point where several broadcasts stopped commentating and let the fans singing carry the game home.

If you’re a sports fan, there’s a 100% chance you’ve been to a game and left it early because your favorite team is losing. I’m not blaming anyone for that; it’s tough to sit there and watch your team and yourself face defeat, the most humiliating experience a sports fan/team can have outside of a massive scandal. Maybe it’s because of that that I admire the display the Irish fans showed that night so much. Down 4-0, having been thoroughly outplayed and on the verge of another disappointing showing in an international tournament it would’ve been so easy for Irish supporters to head for the exits. And yet they stayed and they sang that beautiful song, in support of their team and defiance of conventional wisdom. Many people say someone’s true colors are shown by how they act in defeat; if that’s the case then the Irish fans proved themselves worthy that night. Not only that but they forever sealed the bond between them, their club and Pete St. John’s song. I cannot listen to that song any more, whether it is the Dropkick Murphys’ version (my favorite) or anyone else’s without immediately hearing that low roar from the Irish fans that fateful 2012 night. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. And as a fan of the Chicago Cubs who knows the difficulty of sticking with a team through thick and thin, those ten minutes from the Irish supporters inspires me; serves as something to strive for.

Four years after that game the Irish and their fans find themselves back in the Euro tournament and it’s been a different story. The club opened up with a 1-1 draw against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden (and arguably should’ve won the game), hung in there against Belgium before a missed penalty on Shane Long turned the tide and pulled off a breathtaking upset over Italy to earn a third place qualifier into the Knockout Stage, the Irish’s first ever trip to the Euro’s Round of 16. Through it all, as new stars like Robbie Brady (who scored the game winner against Italy) and Jeff Hendrick have arrived to compliment older stalwarts like Robbie Keane, John O’Shea and the amazing Wes Hoolahan, the Irish supporters have remained incredible. As other supporters have caused problems with violence and the odd desire to use flairs (looking at you England, Russia and Croatia), the Irish fans have been busy singing lullabies to babies, fixing dents in cars and singing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” in the French streets. And oh yes, “The Fields of Athenry” has joined the party; in the three games Ireland played I heard the song sung at least six times by supporters, and that’s probably a low ball estimate. The climax of it all came after the Italy game, where the Irish fans stayed behind in Lille and sang the chorus of St. John’s song once more. Four years ago the song served as unity in the club’s darkest hour; this past Wednesday it served as a moment of pure ecstasy, a look at just how far the Irish, their fans and that song had come.

As such it almost doesn’t matter where it goes from here. The Irish will play France (the host national in case you forgot) this Sunday for the first time since Thieren Henry’s handball cost Ireland a chance to go to the 2010 World Cup back in 2009. I won’t sugarcoat it; the odds are long for the Irish and the likelihood is their magical run in Euro 2016 ends up looking more like 2010 USA than 2015-16 Leicester City. But win or lose this Sunday you know that the Irish and their fans will give everything and anything to that match. And you will hear that song once more, complete with the drums, claps and the low roar that swells into a triumphant cry of glory. And when “Fields of Athenry” rings through the walls of Parc Olympique Lyonnais this Sunday, for just a few moments maybe anything will see possible.

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