Lyrics: Pete St John
Music: Pete St John
Sung by Dennis McNeill (an opera-singer friend of Bob Weir's) with Ratdog on 8 December 1995 and with The Other Ones on 22 July 1998.
By a lonely prison wallRecordings
I heard a young girl calling
Michael they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay
Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry
By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters mary when you're free
Against the famine and the crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity
By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry
At Parkhead Stadium today Celtic play Falkirk and a portly Irishman will play Pavarotti. However, the terraces will not echo to the sound of Nessun Dorma, but a more appropriate lament will be sung, without accompaniment, by Pete St John.
The Dublin songwriter will perform his most popular, and just recently, only 'controversial' work: The Fields Of Athenry. "I hope it goes well," says St John, "because as a singer, I'm a good boxer."
Over the past few years the song has grown in popularity among crowds of Celtic supporters, but was recently condemned by football commentator Gerry McNee as a song sung for sectarian reasons solely to wind up opposing Rangers fans. "I don't have anything against the song itself. It's just used for all the wrong reasons. Until both Celtic and Rangers can dump the baggage of 300 years ago there will be no movement forward," says the broadcaster.
McNee urged the club's chairman, Fergus McCann, to ban it but McCann refused, saying it could be sung with pride.
St John first heard that the song had become an unofficial anthem when n friends in Germany contacted him after attending a Celtic versus Borussia Dortmund match where the lyrics echoed around the terracing. It was the Celtic keeper, Paddy Bonner, who explained the controversy when they met earlier this year at Croke Park for the All Ireland Gaelic football final.
"I was delighted when I heard the song was being sung in Parkhead and when I heard they wanted to ban it I thought it was a joke. I've never met Gerry McNee but there is nothing in the song that is at all sectarian. I've been involved in the peace movement both here and in America. I'm not into pulling a stunt like that," says St John.
"I've been so long in the game I just dismissed it as a thoughtless thing to say by a person looking for a few headlines or some publicity. It seemed to me more like a marketing ploy. Now I couldn't take that man McNee seriously if I met him, not after what he's said. There are other songs closer to the bone, than the one I've written."
The song was written in 1979 and recorded by Paddy Reilly, whose best-selling single launched an album of the same name. However, over the past 17 years more than 400 cover versions have been made with conservative estimates on single sales put at five million. The song was based on a true story of the fate of one young couple during the Irish famine.
The song tells the story of Lord Trevelyan who brought a supply of corn back from America in a bid to battle starvation during the potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately it was Indian corn too hard to be milled, so useless. However, local people thought it would save them and so broke into the stores, were arrested, and subsequently deported to Australia.
"The song could be about anyone Scots, Irish, English. It is about poor innocent people and how they are victims of natural disasters. It's easy to say why it's been so popular in Glasgow because in 1846, the year the song's set, over 150,000 Irishmen, women, and children fled to the city where many were treated with generosity. But I've heard the song sung everywhere from San Francisco to Melbourne."
St John trained as an electrician, emigrated to Washington via Canada and South America as young man, where he rose to vice president of an electrical contracting firm, before moving into PR, and then song-writing. To date he has written more than 50 songs. "And I've never had a bad one; well I've never had one that hasn't made money."
He returned semi-retired to Ireland in 1975 but returns regularly to America to visit his two sons. Next year he plans to conduct a large tour of American colleges and campuses to mark the 150th anniversary of "Black '47" the worst year of the Irish famine.
The invitation to Parkhead from Fergus McCann he describes as "an honour". It is unlikely he will sing unaccompanied for long - 30,000 fans may decide to sing-a-long a salute.