Slouching Towards Bantry

A journey is a hallucination. -- Flann O'Brien

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Fields of Athenry

this is an audio post - click to play

I remember playing along with this song at many Irish-American jam sessions held in a cramped kitchen in Maplewood, Mo. more than 20 years ago. Of course, until last month I didn't have a clue about what the song was about or from whence it came.

Back then I thought it was a traditional ballad. I should have known better because traditional Irish ballads are sung unaccompanied. Since the mid-1970s modern songwriter Pete St. John has laid claim to the words and music. Irish troubadour Paddy Reilly recorded the most well-known pop version, which has been covered by various artists ever since, including more than one punk rock band. The Fields of Athenry has also been filched by sport fans as a theme song.

Lost in the translation of the many tortured renditions is the tune's poignant yet rebellious message. Athenry is a small town in County Galway. Michael, the character in the song, has been put aboard a prison ship bound for Bounty Bay, the location of a 19th-Century British prison colony in Australia. His crime: stealing "Trevelyan's" corn to save his family from starvation due to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

Sir Charles Edward Trevalyan oversaw the flawed British response to the famine that resulted in the death of nearly one million people. Known as the "Great Hunger" in Ireland, the potato famine was caused by a fungus, but it was exacerbated by the British policy of laissez faire economics and by a belief in the Malthusian theory, which promulgated the idea that natural disasters such as the potato blight were a devine remedy for overpopulation. In this way, Britain rationalized the famine, while continuing to export Irish grain on the world market.

Abandoned stone farm houses such as the one pictured above are still a common sight in rural Ireland today. During my visit, fisherman and farmer Michael "Mitey" McNally told me that the reason the windows are so small in these deserted cottages is because the British taxed Irish farmers more if their houses had bigger windows.

The Fields of Anthenry

By the lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling,
Michael, they have taken you away.
For you stole Trevelyan's corn,
So the young might see the morn,
Now the 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 the lonely prison wall, I heard a young man calling,
Nothing matters, Mary, when you're free.
'gainst the famine and the Crown
I rebelled, they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

By the lonely harbour wall, she watched the last star falling,
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky,
For she'll live and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay.
It's so lonely around the fields of Athenry.


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