Thursday, March 17, 2016


A cousin posted this video of The Dubliners performing what is basically our clan's theme song: "The Fields of Athenry." Athenry (pronounced "Athen" "rye") is the town in County Galway closest to the crossroads where the thatched roof dirt floor peasant "cottage" my Irish grandfather—my father's father and the progenitor of our branch of the clan in the USA—grew up in.

His and my name, Michael, is mentioned at the start of the song ("by a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling, 'Michael they have taken you away, for you stole Trevalyn's corn so the young might see the morn, now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay'"). And the fields were the same fields he grew up around, and I have been to many times, and many among my siblings and cousins and nephews and nieces, as well as my own three children, have been to and have images of forever in our minds.

By the way, Trevalyn was the man the English government put in charge of the so-called "famine"—it wasn't a "famine" because the English and the Irish Protestants didn't starve, they had plenty of food to eat, it was the Irish Catholic peasants who starved, when deprived of their basic staple, the potato, and were kicked off the land they lived on with no other means of paying for food.

There was a great outpouring from around the world, including from freed slave societies in the USA and native Americans, as well as governments. Shiploads of food were sent to Ireland for the starving, but Trevalyn, under the auspices of the English political establishment of the time, believed in "laissez faire" capitalism so concluded to distribute the corn to the starving would be interfering with the "free market" (sound familiar?) and thus a third of the population starved to death, while another third emigrated, which is why it was "so lonely 'round the fields of Athenry" (though in the song's specific sense, the woman is lonely because her husband and the father of her children is on a prison ship heading for "Botany Bay" in Australia).

There's many versions of the song, including a more "punk" one by The Dropkick Murphys, but this live version touches me because what was for decades a little known song dear to my heart has become almost a theme song of the Irish, as you can hear in the reaction to the first beats of the song from the live audience. The sing-a-long is corny for sure, but also to me very moving.


tpw said...

Dear Michael---I must chastise you for not saying anything about the song's composer. It was written by a guy named Pete St. John, who played for decades in Kelly's Irish Times in DC (next to the Dubliner and across from Union Station). I'm not sure if he's still around & performing, but he was a fixture there for a long time. Basically, a singer/guitar player. I don't think he's Irish or Irish American, but he obviously channeled something in coming up with this song. It was first made a hit by Danny Doyle, a great guy and popular Irish singer from Dublin who settled in the DC area (sadly, illness has silenced Danny's great voice, though he is still with us otherwise). love, TP

tpw said...

Oh, and one more comment. I hadn't watched the video you put up from The Dubliners. This version of the Dubliners is not, of course, the original group. The guy singing is Paddy Reilly, who played the Dubliner pub in DC during the same era that Celtic Thunder played there. We knew him pretty well. He went on to open a bar in the east 20s in Manhattan that I think still bears his name. There was a session there for 20+ years led by my old friend Tony DeMarco. Paddy did an early cover of "When NY Was Irish," attributing it on the 45rpm to "Witch," by which he meant me, I guess. Also never paid any royalties and never corrected the mistake. So he has earned permanent asshole status in my book.

Lally said...

I stand chastised TP...but according to Wikipedia, St.John is a Dubliner who emigrated to Canada and then eventually returned to Dublin, so his "playing for decades" in DC must have occurred between Canada and his return to Dublin...there also were accusations that he got the words from an 1880s Irish ballad which he denied but I can't find any proof one way or the other...