This article was first published in Celtic fanzine Not the View on 5 November 2003 under the Barrow Bhoy pseudonym I adopted for that publication (usually to write on football and finance). This article is about “The Fields of Athenry,” written by Peter St. John, sung here by Paddy Reilly, and sung during every week of the football season by supporters of Glasgow Celtic F.C. all over the world.

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.

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 harbor 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.

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.

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Unique

Our love was on the wing

We had dreams and songs to sing

It’s so lonely, ‘round the fields of Athenry.

Why do these lines make my throat tighten? Why are they so poignant? It’s partly because the comparison of the two lovers to birds on the wing elevates them above the stereotype of their oppression. They are not just a statistic – one amongst millions of Irish victims of British colonialism – but individuals. Everyone has a dream, but no two dreams are the same. And if Michael were not boarding a prison ship, he and Mary would have the chance to pursue their dreams. We’re not just confronted with faceless victims of injustice, but the tragedy of two unique lives, nipped in the bud.

It’s also partly because of the lovers’ generosity of spirit. Since they have had their freedom unjustly taken away, you could hardly blame them for being envious of the birds’ freedom; if there is no justice for them, why should there be for anyone or anything else? Instead, the free birds make them glad by reminding them of the freedom they once held so dear. And just as the injustice of their oppression makes their oppressors inhuman, so the lovers’ refusal to be vindictive or mean-minded makes them noble. By taking pleasure in the birds’ freedom, they re-assert the individuality which is so unfairly denied them.

Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech as president of South Africa says something in a similar spirit. The black South Africans’ plight was in many ways similar to that of the starving Irish, and they had as much right to be vindictive, but Mandela says: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others” (1994).

Contagious

But who says these powerful words? Who is ‘we’? The song begins with the voice of a narrator who introduces the voice of Mary, and finishes with Michael’s reply, but it is unclear who sings the choruses in between. The obvious answer would be that it is Michael and Mary, singing a duet as it were. This would make sense, because the song is telling their story, the experience of watching the free birds is their experience.

But it could also be the narrator, who would be telling us about the fields and the birds in the same way as he tells us that he heard a young girl, calling out by a lonely prison wall. And it could also be the lovers and the narrator, singing a kind of trio. But what right does the narrator (or anyone) have to share in Michael and Mary’s experience? How can he say we when it didn’t happen to him?

These might seem like silly questions because, after all, the narrator is only a convention: you don’t have to imagine him at all in the song. I agree that you don’t have to. This is only my personal interpretation, but I hope it can show one reason why “The Fields” strikes a chord with so many of us. If the narrator can sing together with the lovers, then so can we, the fans, or indeed anyone who sings the song. Like the narrator, we too share in the personal tragedy of Michael and Mary. Within the convention of the song, we sing “where once we (the fans) watched the small free birds fly,” almost as though we too had been in Athenry during the potato famine.

One of the powerful things about this song, I think, is that it takes something special and particular, namely the unique plight of two lovers, and spreads it like wildfire through anyone who sings it. And it is powerful because it never explicitly tells you what it is doing, but, like a Mohammed Ali punch, does it so fast you can’t see it except in slow motion.

You could say that to analyse something this subtle is to spoil it, that it works better if you don’t know what’s happening. Fair enough. I only do so because it has consequences for the ‘official status’ of “The Fields” at Celtic. Whenever you tell sceptical people that Celtic have banned sectarian songs at home games, the only thing they can reply is “what about ‘The Fields’” bla bla bla …. I would argue that, rather than being the last vestige of sectarianism to linger at Celtic Park, the song is a moving affirmation of both the distinctiveness and inclusivity of our identity.

Universal

For “The Fields” explicitly makes the story of Michael and Mary touch people in other places and other times. When Michael says “now you must raise our child with dignity,” he alludes not just to their child but to their child’s children, and to the potentially endless descendants who will have an intimate connection with Athenry, many years later. The child represents the hope of a better future, but also the possibility of keeping its parents’ story alive in future generations. For me, the child symbolises the connection that we have today with the story of “The Fields.”

And when the narrator says that Mary “will live and hope and pray/ For her love in Botany Bay,” he explicitly describes the dissemination of the lovers’ story away from Ireland, across the sea, and into the New World. For me, this symbolises the connection of all immigrants with “The Fields.” Just as the many possible voices for the chorus connect everyone who sings it with the unique plight of the lovers, so the lyrics of “The Fields” transports a particular moment in the life of two people, in a particular place in Ireland, through time and across physical boundaries.

Once you start this process it is impossible to stop. If the song touches Irish immigrants in Australia, what’s to stop it from taking in Blacks, Scottish Asians, even – why not? – English people. Once you let the narrator join in the chorus, you make it possible for everyone to join in. The free birds fly for us all. There is, to be sure, a problem with the fact that everyone could include Slobodan Milosevic or Ian Paisley. But the point is that for them to be touched by the song, they would have to empathise with the plight of the oppressed, which they would find impossible. Everyone is welcome to join in, but some people exclude themselves with their bigotry or lust for power.

Identity

And this is where the controversy over “The Fields” mirrors something vulnerable but infinitely valuable in Celtic’s identity. Other clubs’ identities are simple. They either say, “we’ve got no particular identity, we’re just a club that happens to play in (e.g.) Kilmarnock” (though that doesn’t stop them from singing “the Killie boys”), or they are Rangers and say, “we’ve got an identity, and make no apologies for the fact that it is exclusive and prejudiced.”

At Celtic, we have a particular identity, with roots in Irish immigration, but we extend that identity to everyone, Protestant or Muslim (or agnostic), European or Asian, it doesn’t matter. The subtlety of our identity therefore leaves it open to the accusation that it really corresponds to one of the two simplistic extremes which it tries to avoid. Critics either say, “if you are an Irish club you must be anti-Protestant,” or “how can we not sell out our heritage unless we are an exclusively Irish club, the way Rangers are exclusively Protestant?” etc. Any identity with a “but” is vulnerable. But I think the most valuable things in life are always characterised by this kind of complexity; our identity attempts something difficult, but intrinsically worthwhile.

“The Fields” appeals to us in part, I think, because it is symbolic of this complex identity. It takes something unique and makes it universal, just as at Celtic we try to universalise our Irish heritage so it includes everyone. And this, I think, goes some way toward explaining why Celtic is so popular with neutral fans throughout the world.

Birds

“The Fields” is not the only piece to use birds in this way. Thus, for example, the heartbroken lover in an ancient traditional French song seeks solace from a nightingale: “Sing nightingale sing, you with a happy heart, your heart is full of laughter, while mine is full of tears” (“Chante, rossignol chante, toi qui as le coeur gai, tu as le coeur à rire, moi je l’ai à pleurer”); John Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale” (1820): “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, …./ ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,/ But being too happy in thine happiness,-/ That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,/ … Singest of summer in full-throated ease”; and Bob Dylan sings in “You’re a Big Girl Now” (1974): “Bird on the horizon, sitting on a fence/ He’s singing his song for me, at his own expense./ And I’m just like that bird, …/ Singing just for you./ I hope you can hear,/ Hear me singing through these tears.”

In each of these pieces, like in “The Fields,” although the bird’s “happy lot” contrasts with the singer’s misfortune, he transcends any possible envy for its happiness, and this enables the bird to provide him with some form of consolation. And just as the chorus of “The Fields” universalises the experience of two people in Ireland, so “The Fields” itself, while being a quintessentially Irish song, also belongs to a wider cultural tradition.

That’s why the line about rebelling against the crown, so often used to argue that the song is bigoted, is anything but. The rebellion naturally extends to all oppressed people, be they black South Africans, Basques, Kurds, Sarawis, Tibetans or East Timorese. Unlike bigotry, which hates people because of their religion or race, the rebellion in the song is only directed against oppression, not the people in whose name that oppression is carried out. That’s why “The Fields” can include the English, and why Mandela was able to rebel against Apartheid without being bigoted toward the Afrikaners.

But why birds? I think that because birds migrate, they are a perfect symbol for something that is unique, but also crosses borders. The swallows which the lovers may have watched in Athenry, and which might have seemed symbolic of a typical Irish rural scene, will eventually fly off to breed in Africa. Like “The Fields,” they are at once characteristic of a particular place, and intrinsically international. A migrant animal is a perfect symbol for an immigrant people. Perhaps that’s why Dante, writing in exile, compares the souls of lovers imprisoned in hell to flying birds, in a poem recently translated by the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who saw in the Inferno an echo of the divisions in his native Belfast:

“Oh anime affannate,

venite a noi parlar, s’altri nol niega!”

            Quali colombe dal disio chiamate

con l’ali alzate e ferme al dolce nido

vegnon per l’aere, dal vol portate;

            cotale uscir de la schiera ov’ è Dido,

a noi venendo per l’aere maligno,

si forte fu l’affettüoso grido.

 

“Oh come and speak to us, if none deny.”

As doves, with wings extended, paraglide

            the air; when, summoned by desire, they swoop

into their nest like loving groom and bride;

so did these spirits veer from Dido’s troop,

            and flutter towards us through the air malign,

answering my pity with their truth.

Inferno (1314), Canto V, lines 80-87; trans. Ciaran Carson (London: Granta, 2002).

Michael and Mary answer our pity with their truth, every time we sing this song.

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