If you watched Ireland play in the World Cup qualifiers against Denmark in the last week, you heard the song. Actually, if you’ve seen any Irish team play any sport against another national team, you’ve heard the song. You mightn’t know the name or the history of it, but if you’ve watch an Irish sports team play another country, you’ve heard those plaintive, drawn out notes… loooow liiiiiie the fields of Athenry…. Perhaps you’ve wondered why we sing about one small town when supporting the national teams. Or you may have noticed that The Fields of Athenry is a sad song, hardly the sort of cheering you’d expect.
The heart-rending ballad tells the story of a man who was convicted of stealing food during the Famine and transported to Australia, leaving his wife and children behind in the Galway village of Athenry. “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.” The fictional, but all too real, story and tune are the work of Pete St. John, who also wrote The Rare Ould Times. He penned The Fields of Athenry in 1979. And it became so popular that in the 1990 World Cup, the Irish team and its supporters took it up as their anthem.
Why It’s the Perfect Irish Sports Song
The song reached the hearts of sports fan globally in 2012, when Irish supporters sang it for the last several minutes of the match where Ireland was knocked out of the EUFA football championship by Spain. It was clear our lads had lost, but the fans sang on and on. International commentators were sincerely moved. They even stopped talking so their viewers could hear the Irish fans singing their support for their team. Irish fans weren’t sore losers. They wanted to thank the team for doing their best and for giving the nation such joy watching them. Since then, Irish fans have sung the song at all sorts of international sporting contests, even cricket matches.
The lyrics tell the story of a couple torn apart by oppression, poverty and hunger, but who still loved one another. And isn’t that an ideal aim for sports fans? To stand by the team, win or lose? To value the game itself, the sheer fun and excitement of it, more than the outcome? It’s better to play and lose than never to play at all! And as a nation, we know loss. It’s part of us. We survived 800 years of occupation and oppression including a (totally avoidable, genocidal) famine that slashed the island’s population dramatically through death and emigration.
So really, losing a game doesn’t rattle us that much. We can take the bad along with the good with grace. And we’ll sing through it all. In 2016, videos of Irish fans in France went viral. They sang Abba songs with Swedish fans, changed a tire for an elderly couple and picked up litter. That attitude has made Irish sports fans welcome across Europe and beyond.
As for those fields in Athenry, they are gorgeous. The town is even better. Athenry is a medieval walled town with a castle and a delightful heritage center that includes a museum where visitors can don medieval costumes, try some archery and visit the dungeon.