Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Fields of Athenry" - Danny Doyle, Irish folk (1979)

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a 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 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 ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

This Irish folk song was written by Pete St. John, and is living proof that folk tunes need not be hundreds of years old to become near and dear to the heart of a nation. This number has become quite important to the Irish in remembering their heritage. In fact, this tune has been well covered not only by folk singers, but reggae, punk, country, and even psychedelic music groups, which is significant seeing as how the song was only written in the 1970's. The most successful recording was made in 1983 by Patrick 'Paddy' Reilly, but it was originally recorded by Danny Doyle in 1979, and it has become a popular sports anthem for Irish sports supporters and fans of the Celtic Football Club.

"Fields of Athenry" is a tune about a fictional character who is from Athenry in County Galway, Ireland, who has been convicted sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia because he stole food to feed his starving family. The song is set between 1845 and 1850, during the Great Irish Famine.

The Great Famine started out as a fairly normal phenomenon. It is not uncommon for the agriculture industry to experience its fair share of shortages for various reasons; however, what happened in Ireland wasn't just limited to fluctuations in the growing season. There were man-made causes, which actually drew this catastrophe out longer than it should have lasted. As a result, approximately 1 million people died, which makes the Great Irish Famine the single greatest catastrophic famine in modern history, and it all started with infected crates of potatoes that had travelled from America to Belgium.

For the most part, when famine affects a geographic area, there is only a small percentage of the population in danger of infectious diseases and starvation as a result of the shortage. Yet, the Great Famine occurred during a period in Ireland's history when the country was on the brink of being one of the wealthiest in the known world. In general, famines only lasted for a season or two. Most famines were due to fluctuations in the growing season. However, successive wind-borne blasts of the potato fungus Phytophthora infestans left at least 1/3 of Ireland's population without their primary source of subsistence for 4-5 years in a row.

Of course, the question has always been, "Wasn't there anything other than spuds to eat?!" Well, the potato represented more than 60% of the nation's food source, and the successive blight in crops for several years on end created a significant food gap. Different countries and different regions of the world are better suited for producing different crops. Every region has a at least one crop that is particularly prolific, and thus that region grows those one or two crops as its main source of subsistence. While those areas are capable of growing other crops, those minor crops may not grow as well in that particular environment, thus the crop doesn't provide a harvest capable of sustaining a population. When the fungus blighted the Irish potatoes, it created such a gap that it was impossible for all of the other food crops combined to fill it.

It works a little something like this: I live in the Midwest. While it's true we can grow potatoes, tomatoes, grapes, fruit, and everything else, it gets very hot and very dry here for long periods in the summer. Corn and soy beans are highly resistant to our yearly drought conditions. As a result, corn and beans are our chief plant crops. Should either of these crops fail in the entire region, the whole world will feel it. We export every other row of corn and every fifth row of our beans. These crops not only feed people but animals - recreational animals like dogs and cats (kibble) and food animals such as cattle, which are not only produced for meat but are used for milk and cheese. So, we can see that the failure of one crop can mean famine for more than just the immediate farm or community, as that failure of one significant crop causes a ripple that radiates outward into other communities who depend on it for the production of their own crops. In fact, many of our modern farming techniques, such as irrigation and crop rotation, have been designed to ensure against regional crop failure, so that nothing like the Great Famine never happens again.

Because of the serious deficiency of their chief crop, nearly three times more grain entered the country than left it. The country was then faced with a distribution problem. Unlike home-grown product, imported product is not as widely available as quickly. One significant issue faced with imports is how to get food to those communities farthest from the port. In the 1800s, there were no highways and there were no refrigeration trucks or 18-wheelers to travel from one end of the country to another in a matter of hours. The farther your community was from the storehouse, the more your imported grain ran the risk of molding and becoming pest infested, which was not an issue with local farmers whose grains could be more quickly consumed before it went bad. These conveyances could also only hold so much grain, unlike your local farmers who knew exactly how much product they had to grow to sustain the communities around him. During the Great Famine, it was particularly difficult to get food to the smallholders and laborers of the west and south of Ireland.

Finally, there were three political ideologies which stood in the way of economic relief and caused the death of 1 million Irish. The first was 'providentialism'. Providentialism was the notion that God was somehow unhappy with Ireland, and as such the famine was His judgment upon the people. To interfere would mean to interfere with the will of God, and thus anger Him, bringing that judgment upon one's own self, family, and country. So many religious political figures advocated a hands-off approach.

The second ideology was one called 'moralism'. Moralists debated that Ireland should be left alone because the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. The educated, elite Britons notioned that the Irish should be left alone because this poverty was a direct result the Irish's warring, laziness, uncleanliness, lack of discipline, and lack of self-reliance.

Essentially, it was the government who dropped the ball. The British government had many tools at its disposal that would have provided heavy, sustained relief after the initial 2 years. The government's highest priority was not in saving lives and providing disaster relief, but cutting costs and expenses. A mandate should have been made that all food exports be suspended until the potato gap could be lessened. It doesn't make sense that they were exporting food while the imports weren't even enough to feed them all. The government's food pantries and soup kitchens were only operational for 6 months, and the public works projects and work houses provided little work at all compared to the number of out-of-work-and-food people (not to mention the wages paid were so menial that one could not afford to buy food for his family). Finally, the British government should have treated this famine as an imperial responsibility and bared the cost. Instead, it grew weary of the situation ("famine fatigue") and essentially threw the remainder of the famine back on its own woefully inadequate resources. All of this is due to the ideological structure of the British government of the time. It was a laissez-faire, which politics that government interference was strictly prohibited in the economy.

If the famine and the government's nonchalance didn't kill them, the one other thing did. The last great killer in the Great Famine were the "coffin ships" on which thousands of Irish boarded to immigrated from their homes in search of a better life in the U.S. These ships, crowded and disease ridden, with poor access to food and water, resulted in the deaths of many people as they crossed the Atlantic.

"Fields of Athenry" - Patrick 'Paddy' Reilly, 1983

(and this is my favorite rendition of the song)

"Fields of Athenry" - Dropkick Murphys, 2006

~information harvested from:


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say what a brilliant web site. We wanted to know the author of the words of Fields of Athenry. To have a mmusical selection as well - Brilliant!

LivingDedGrrl said...

Thank you. :^)

I like to try and use the original artist when posting a song when I can, although it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes I can't find a video or a good music file of the original. Many of these tunes that you'll find here in this blog have been performed by many different people because the music, itself, is inspired by folk music.

Anonymous said...

Found this version on youtube. Excellent version it is too.

Hope you enjoy it also.

Anonymous said...

You are awesome for going into such detail about the song and the history behind it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Check out this version of the song by the Dubliners. It's a little more mournful than the 2 versions posted here, and it's just as good.