Fields of Athenry

by Pete St John, 1979,  pub 1985 Waltons Publishing Ltd

Audio

This example of "The Fields of Athenry" is performed by Jill Anderson on her album, Seven Songs
Please refer to Cantaria's Copyright information

sheet music (toggle as desired for printing)

Background notes

Excerpt from an article that appeared in The Glasgow Herald for 10 April 1996:

"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."

To learn about the Great Famine, the entry in Wikipedia is a good starting point.

An internet myth diffused
In June 1996 someone named Mike Parker posted a note to the Harp Digest mailing list (I had a link to the thread here, but the archive has disappeared, sorry!) that asserted that this song was based on an 1888 broadsheet ballad published in Dublin.  From this one posting on one mailing list, the assertion spread as a copy-paste virus across the web until it became a footnote to almost every instance of the lyrics for The Fields of Athenry found on the Web.  In 2000, folklorist and researcher John Moulden questioned the accuracy of this assertion.  He contacted Mike Parker for more information and also went to Dublin to research the broadsheet histories and found no evidence to support the existence of said broadsheet.  You can read the DT Forum thread with his research results (see his first post on 11 March 00). 

Unfortunately, the horse was already out of the barn, and we too had added the unconfirmed information as notes to this page, as did a few others, and so on and so on, a la urban legend.  It's been perpetuated for years, weakening Pete St. John's claim on a song that he unequivocally states he wrote from scratch.  That should not have happened based on a list-serv post with no substantiation.  We extend our apologies to Pete St. John for perpetuating this for so long.   Credit certainly belongs to him for a song that has become an ubiquitous and cherished piece of the tradition.

By a 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 a prison ship lies waiting in the bay."

Chorus:
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 cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity."

By a lonely harbor wall, she watched the last star fall
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky
For she lived to hope and pray for her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.