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"The Fields of Athenry" is an Irish folk ballad set during the Great Irish Famine (1845–1850) about a fictional man named Michael from near Athenry in County Galway who has been sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia, for stealing food for his starving family. It is a widely known and popular anthem for Irish sports supporters.
"The Fields of Athenry" was written in the 1970s by Pete St. John. A claim was made in 1996 that a broadsheet ballad published in the 1880s had similar words; however, the folklorist and researcher John Moulden found no basis to this claim, and Pete St. John has stated that he wrote the words as well as the music.
The song was first recorded in 1979 by Danny Doyle, reaching the top ten in the Irish Singles Chart. The song charted again in 1982 for Barleycorn, reaching number seven in Ireland, but the most successful version was released by Paddy Reilly in 1983: while peaking only at number four, it remained in the Irish charts for 72 weeks. Two further versions have since reached the Irish top ten: the Cox Crew getting to number five in 1999, while Dance to Tipperary peaked at number six in 2001.
The lyrics say the convict's crime is that he "stole Trevelyan's corn"; this is a reference to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a senior British civil servant in the administration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in Dublin Castle. Trevelyan believed that the starving Irish could subsist on maize, a grain that they had no knowledge of or experience in preparing.
Other artists to have recorded versions include Daniel O'Donnell, Frank Patterson, Ronan Tynan, Brush Shiels, James Galway, The Dubliners, Charlie Haden with daughter Petra Haden, Seanchai & The Unity Squad, Scottish band North Sea Gas, Newcastle upon Tyne band, Kelda with vocalist Jack Routledge, Yonkers-based group Shilelagh Law, California punk band No Use for a Name, New Zealanders Hollie Smith and Steve McDonald, Dropkick Murphys, London-Irish band Neck, The Durutti Column, The High Kings, the Epcot-based band Off Kilter, and by Dr. Kieran Moriarty and friends. Serbian bands who recorded the song include Orthodox Celts and Tir na n'Og. It was also recorded by a Polish band called Carrantuohill and in 2005 by a Hungarian folk-rock band Sacra Arcana. US Celtic/Klezmer/folk band Scythian recorded the song on their 2007 Immigrant Road Show album. It also featured in Irish Clubland with a dance beat. In the summer of 2013, it was recorded by Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly of Celtic Thunder for their album "Acoustically Irish" released on October 1, 2013.
Irish -Londoners, Neck, released a "Psycho-Ceilidh" version of the song as a single in support of the Republic of Ireland national football team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. While Dropkick Murphys recorded a punk-rock version of this song on their 2003 album Blackout, as well as a softer version they recorded specially for the family of Sergeant Andrew Farrar, a United States Marine from the 2nd Force Support Service Group killed in Fallujah, Iraq. Blaggards blended the song with Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues in a medley called Prison Love Songs. Other punk versions of the song have been recorded by the bands No Use for a Name, The Tossers, and the Broken O'Briens. The Greenland Whalefishers, a Celtic-punk band from Norway, also recorded a version on their Streets Of Salvation CD. The Pennsylvania based Celtic rock band, The Kilmaine Saints recorded a soulful version on their 2012 album Drunken Redemption.
The song was also recorded by Canadian Celtic rock band the Mudmen on their album "Another Day" released in 2010. The Mudmen feature bagpipers Rob and Sandy Campbell who perform on the Hockey Night In Canada theme song on CBC television.
Celtic Football Club in Glasgow has a large following of Irish descent. During the Great Famine in Ireland during the 1840s, 15,000 Irish famine victims emigrated to Glasgow. When Celtic's long serving Irish goalkeeper Packie Byrne had a testimonial match in 1991, he invited Pete St John to attend the event and speak to the crowd before the game. St John began by thanking Glasgow for looking after the famine victims, and then began to sing Fields of Athenry, accompanied by thousands of fans. He later described it as one of the most memorable moments of his life.
The song's popularity, due in part to its use at sporting events, has helped to attract tourists to Athenry. In recognition of this, the town's officials invited Pete St John to a civic reception and presented him with an mace and chain as a token of their appreciation.
The song is also associated with the Connacht, Munster, London Irish and Ireland rugby union teams. It's also seen by many as Galway's county song, sung at the various GAA matches when the county is playing.
At the Beijing Olympics Boxing Final featuring Irish boxer Kenny Egan, Tom Humphries of the Irish Times noted, "By the time Egan and Zhang emerged the great rhythmic roars of "Zhang! Zhang! Zhang!" competed to drown out the lusty warblings of a large Irish contingent who returned to singing of the problems of social isolation in rural Athenry."
During the UEFA Euro 2012 group stage game against Spain, the Irish fans started singing the song roughly 83 minutes into the game and sang for the last six minutes of regulation, as well as past the full-time whistle, knowing that they were going to be eliminated from the group as they were down by four goals and had failed to accrue the points necessary to remain in the tournament. The display of support was noted in media in Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Spain, Austria, the United Arab Emirates, Poland (where the match took place), the United Kingdom, Belgium, Armenia, Portugal, China, Germany and many more where the song's provenance was explained.
The song is sung in the movie Veronica Guerin, by Brian O'Donnell, then aged 11, a street singer in Dublin, although it is credited on the soundtrack as 'Bad News'. It is also sung a cappella by a female character at a wake in the 1994 film Priest. It also appears in Dead Poets Society, an anachronism, as the film is set in 1959, before the song was written, and 16 Years of Alcohol. An a cappella version of the first verse and chorus can be found during a singing contest judged by Janeane Garofalo in the film The Matchmaker. Cancer Boy, a character in the 1996 film "Brain Candy", is briefly shown whistling the tune.