The Dubliners- Fields Of Athenry
I like to say that American Irish try to be more Irish than actual Irish people, and I don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. It often reeks of either a kind of minstrelsy or of trying to co-opt someone else’s pain and struggle. That said, I’m often pretty guilty of being a Plastic Paddy myself, as my genuinely Irish friends are always quite happy to remind me. Because as much as we Americans like to identify with wherever it is our grandparents came from, the reality is: we are not from there; we are yanks.
That ramble aside, I was raised on Irish songs, starting with my Grandma singing them to me as a kid. And I love a lot of them, especially the sad ones. While they certainly know their way around a funny tune or a drinking song, absolutely nobody does mournful ballads like the Irish.
'Fields of Athenry' is one that particularly tugs on the old heartstrings. It's the story of a man being sent off on a prison ship to Australia after getting caught stealing food from a British civil servant to feed his young family. Which means it's really about the famine and the outcomes of the British invasion of Ireland, and the point is well made because the story is so goddamn affecting. The couple, Michael and Mary, are calling out to each other as he is shipped away. They remember happier times, watching ‘the free birds fly’ around the fields in Athenry. ‘Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free’ he tells her.
I knew all the words to this song from a young age not because they were passed down to me, sadly, but instead because of a cover on a skatepunk album that was on heavy rotation in my bedroom (and why not give No Use For A Name’s version a listen?). But I remember the first time I sang it to my Grandma- she started tearing up on the spot. It was one of her favorites, and she then went out and bought me books and CDs of Irish songs in the hopes that I would sing some more to her. I was generally too shy, unfortunately, but at least I’ve soaked up all the music over the years.
So there is surely some emotional resonance of me missing my Grandma tied up in this, but I have trouble getting through this one without becoming a little misty-eyed myself. The line that always hits me is when Michael tells Mary that she “must raise our child with dignity”. Heartbreaking stuff.
Traditional though it seems, this song was actually written in the 70s, and has been covered a billion times. Above is the Dubliners version, but the most popular version is Paddy Reilly’s. If you like it, it’s well worth checking out all the different takes on it- it holds up as a punk song (in addition to No Use, Dropkick Murphys have done it) and a reggae song (Century Steel Band’s version). I particularly like the Durutti Column version, sung by Vick A. Wood. You’ll also hear it at Ireland Rugby matches, with some extra interjections about the English thrown in for good measure.
But this song is best as a crowd-pleaser at some type of Irish music night- and chances are you’ll hear it. I went to see Blarney singer-songwriter Mick Flannery at the Irish Cultural Center in London with an Irish girl, and I teased her that we were just going to see a bunch of people lift beers in the air and sing ‘Fields Of Athenry’. I was joking of course, and she told me to fuck off, then lo and behold, the opening band played it and everyone did indeed sing. With a crowd, it becomes a sad but defiant and ultimately celebratory singalong, and… well, I better stop now before I get any further into Plastic Paddyland. Just understand that this is one of the greatest sad songs ever written, and one of my all-time favorites.
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