The Fields ... A Simple Folk Song?

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The Fields ... A Simple Folk Song?

by dom_pedro on Mon Jan 30, 2006 6:30 pm

The Fields ... A Simple Folk Song?

On Five Live this morning, Nicky Campbell tried his best to portray the 'Fields of Athenry' as a song for Irish Republicans or a song for those who preach sectarianism, using the fact that Glasgow Celtic supporters sing the song as evidence. He pressed the interviewee on whether they thought that an old Republican song sung at a football ground in Glasgow was acceptable, but it got me thinking that he was mis-representing the song and that those listening to him who do not know the song or its lyrics might be swayed with the argument we hear occassionally that London Irish supporters should not sing it. It could cause offense, couldn't it? To whom, Glasgow Rangers supporters? Harlequins supporters?

Let's be plain, "The Fields .." is a simple folk song and could be about anyone from Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England. It happens to be about an Irish couple during the famine.

Pete St John wrote:It is about poor innocent people and how they are victims of natural disasters. It's easy to see 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.


The words of the song go back to a broadsheet ballad published in 1880, though the author of the song as sung at the Madejski Stadium is Pete St John who wrote the popular or modern form of the song in 1979. There are a reported 400 cover versions of the song, including a reggae version by the Century Steel Band and one by fashionable punk band the Dropkick Murphys and it tells the story of Lord Trevelyan who imported corn from America during the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. The corn however is thought to have been useless for milling as it was Indian Corn, but local people believed it would save them from starvation, so broke into the stores and having been arrested and tried were deported to Australia. The hero of the song is lamenting his plight as he awaits the long trip to the penal colonies.

Image

The song is based on actual events of the famine, when Prime Minister Peel in England assigned a civil servant, Charles Edward Trevelyan as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to oversea relief operations in Ireland. Trevelyan visited Ireland only once according to reports during the famine and even then went no further than Dublin. The corn from America was bought by Peel without the agreement of his Tory government, but being Indian corn it needed to be ground twice to be suitable for use in 'corn meal'. A lack of mills in Ireland and not enough corn (only £100,000 worth was imported) meant that the relief operation failed.

Original broadsheet lyrics wrote:By a lonely prison wall
I heard a sweet voice calling,
'Oh Danny, they have taken you away.
for you stole Travelian's corn,
that your babes might see the dawn,
now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.'

chorus
Fair lie the fields of Athenry
where we stood to watch the small freebirds fly.
Our love grew with the spring,
we had dreams and songs to sing
as we wandered through the fields of Athenry.

I heard a young man calling
'nothing matters, Jenny, when your'e free
'gainst the famine and the crown,
I rebelled, they ran me down,
now you must raise our children without me.'

On the windswept harbour wall,
she watched the last star rising
as the prison ship sailed out accross the sky
But she will watch and hope and pray,
for her love in Botany bay
whilst she is lonely in the fields of Athenry


So why is it that people often seem to mistake this song as an 'anti-English' song when there are probably hundreds of famine songs and poems? There is one line that potentially could be slightly contentious and that is "against the famine and the crown", but as an Englishman, I see nothing at all wrong with that line. I'd wage a fair sum of money that if I'd been alive in Yorkshire in 1846 that I would have had more in common with the starving in Ireland than with Peel and Trevelyan and other 'servants' of the British crown.

Now I'm no expert but I have a few CDs in my collection that could be classed as folk but anyone who listens to any amount of folk music knows that a large proportion of folk songs have a common theme, that of the plight of common people against those in a position of power or authority. Folk songs are often based on tales of insurrection, insubordination and class struggles and to me "The Fields ..." just follows that tradition.

Image

The singing of the "Fields of Athenry" by Celtic supporters (or John Hartson and Stephen Pearson) does not make it sectarian and the singing of that same song by London Irish supporters does not make it anti-English (especially since many of the voices attempting to find the tune will be English). In 1996, the song was condemned by Gerry McNee a football commentator in Glasgow as being used by Celtic supporters for sectarian reasons to wind up Rangers supporters. Pete St John was shocked by the news that McNee had called for the song to be banned:

Pete St John wrote:I was delighted when I heard the song was being sung in Parkhead and when I heard they wanted to ban it I thought it was a joke. I've never met Gerry McNee but there is nothing in the song that is at all sectarian. I've been involved in the peace movement both here and in America. I'm not into pulling a stunt like that.


So, is that sectarian badge about to be pinned on the song again following the Hartson and Pearson investigation (they were supposedly caught on video singing 'The Fields ...' while others chanted IRA slogans in the background) and now Nicky Campbell linking it with sectarianism? I hope not. Currently there aren't many up to date reports that I can find about the Hartson/Pearson incident though the last one I found suggested that the footage was real but the sloganising had been dubbed over the top. We'll have to wait and see I suppose.

Anyway, I'm off to listen to some The Men They Couldn't Hang ("If I starved on the streets of Bristol, I starved worse on a British ship"), Oysterband ("They defied the landlords, They defied the law, They were the dispossessed, Reclaiming what was theirs") or Chumbawamba ("It's a long walk to the gallows, It's a small step to swing free, The crying in the tower, For my conspirators and me").
Last edited by dom_pedro on Wed Feb 15, 2006 10:11 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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by gabriel on Mon Jan 30, 2006 7:25 pm

Nice piece Dom Pedro.
There were only a very few mills that could cope with the hard dry maize so a lot was wasted. I am afraid I don't know whether it could be cooked easily without being ground. The last time I researched the issue (for a piece that appeared in The Exile Files) I also came across suggestions that the American maize was deficient in essential vitamins.
One of the interesting errors in the song, if I am right, is in the reference to Botany Bay. By the time of the events of the song NSW had already closed as a convict settlement and the likely destination was Van Deimen's land (Tasmania).
Trevelyan was not a Lord at the time of the events and is better knoiw for the Nortcote Trevelyan reforms of the civil service and on which it is still based. There is now a move to alter the civil service and introduce new approaches so watch out for mentions of our anti-hero in the press.
Finally; there are a number of buildings and meeting rooms in London named after Trevelyan and the Mammy always insists that I should object to attending meetings in any of them because of the racially insensitive venue.
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by Londoner on Mon Jan 30, 2006 7:41 pm

Thanks for this, Dom Pedro - a goodly bit of research in there!

I knew the song went back far beyond the Pete St John version and it's interesting to see the original lyrics.

I agree - the song could be about anyone, anywhere in those times. While it happens to have been set in Ireland, reference to "the Crown" hardly makes it sectarian. How many English people were deported for minor crimes and falling foul of the law? No doubt they didn't feel too good about the Crown either.

Those who claim the song is sectarian or anti-English clearly don't know what they're talking about, but it's a slippery slope once the charge is levelled, and we've already had a number of people on the various LI boards complaining about us singing it - remember Jimmyquinn?? To hear that a radio broadcaster is suggesting the same is very annoying. Perhaps you should send him a copy of your post!
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by Mackem on Mon Jan 30, 2006 7:58 pm

What next? The Princess Royal, as Patron of the SRU, being told by her mother not to sing their adopted anthem "Flower of Scotland" because it commemorates the defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314. Nicky Campbell should stick to what he does best - having a go at rogues and bandits on Watchdog. Paxman he is not! Seems to me that he and his researchers need to do a bit more homework. Anyway, Michael or Danny were not the only deportees - let's hear it for the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
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by Shawshank on Mon Jan 30, 2006 8:21 pm

Nicky Campbell = A very petite, Scottish Twat. Deffo chip on shoulder v English. :lol:

Him, and that dullard Scouser harridan make 5 Live a deffo no-no in the morning. :shock:
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by Huck the hooker on Mon Jan 30, 2006 9:29 pm

When you go back into history there is a plethora of this type of song, and each one carries its own message, all coming from every generation of each nation.
Here's one that takes me back to the Thatcher era.

The Workers song

Come all of you workers who toil night and day
By hand and by brain to earn your pay
Who for centuries long past for no more than your bread
Have bled for your countries and counted your dead

In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We've often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they've streamlined the job
And with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who's given a gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
When we've never owned one handful of earth?

We're the first ones to starve the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about

All of these things the worker has done
From tilling the fields to carrying the gun
We've been yoked to the plough since time first began
And always expected to carry the can
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by Big Andy on Mon Jan 30, 2006 9:42 pm

I find Nicky Campbell the reason I don’t tune to 5 live in the mornings now.

I quite often can be found singing Redemption song Bob Marley style, which by all accounts is about the trade in African slaves to the Caribbean, however as with the "Fields" I find it an uplifting song about mans struggle against conformity and the “shackles” I find placed around me when I break out of the mould most what me to be in, I will sing in my head one or the other when I am “outside the box” in my thinking.

Redemption Song

Old pirates, yes, they rob i;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took i
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the ’and of the almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
’cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
’cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? ooh!
Some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfil de book.

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
’cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! have no fear for atomic energy,
’cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfil de book.
Won’t you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? -
’cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.
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by gabriel on Mon Jan 30, 2006 11:59 pm

All three are great songs. Of that there is no doubt. I asked the Mammy which one she prefered and without a second's hesitation she opted for Dick Gaughan singing The Workers' Song. She reckons that if the barricades went up tomorrow that Dick would at some point be perched on one singing this song to the revolting masses. She says he has a voice that sounds like treacle with grit rubbed into it. Mind you she says, says she, that he is a bit irreligious at times and that 'Stand up for Judas' didn't go down well with the young folk singing curate they had a while ago.
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by bisach on Tue Jan 31, 2006 12:29 am

As many of you are aware I am English so maybe I have a chip on my shoulder. However, It's not the song. It's Nicky (Try as he might he's just not up to it) Campbell. He is the definite and only reason I've become a R2 listener. R5 used to be my choice of a morning.
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by dom_pedro on Tue Jan 31, 2006 9:20 pm

gabriel, I wouldn't mind seeing your stuff on the fields as it'll be more in depth than mine.

I found this link too which has some film of Paddy Reilly singing it live though it stops abruptly which is a shame and there is also an odd 'karaoke/no vocals' media file there too : http://www.netsoc.ucd.ie/~justy/athenry.html
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by Mackem on Tue Jan 31, 2006 10:16 pm

I found this link a couple of years ago just after my first visit to watch LI and before I started attending regularly. This lady, Jill Anderson, performs it wonderfully but a pity that there is just one verse and one chorus. Open up the MP3 to hear her.

http://www.chivalry.com/cantaria/lyrics ... henry.html
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by gabriel on Tue Jan 31, 2006 10:21 pm

DP
Can't seem to find the piece on my machine. Kitty will have it stuffed away in a hatbox under the dresser or in some corner of her computer - I hope. It was only a little piece.
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by Loobs on Tue Jan 31, 2006 10:38 pm

I had the privilege a couple of months ago to do the sound for the aforementioned Mr. Gaughan, legend, and I got paid for the privilege! His version of Song for Ireland live fair puts the hair tingling on the back of the neck
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by Brendan on Wed Feb 01, 2006 1:43 am

What a good report you put together and yes I too heard it all on 5 Live.
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by Mrs Chicken on Sun Feb 05, 2006 8:03 pm

DP, this has been a really interesting thread. I can't say I particularly like "The Fields" as it's used by too many other teams and therefore doesn't feel unique to London Irish - IMHO, I hasten to point out. But the history an' all has been a good read, both for those who know lots and those who know less.

If you can find more stuff like this about LI traditions, then I'd be happy to read it.

PS - Please don't flame me for not liking a song, folks. Each to his own.
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by Huck the hooker on Sun Feb 05, 2006 10:36 pm

I agree with the Mrs Chicken, An interesting thread. Dom, don't kill it, edit if you must but please don't kill it.
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by Brendan on Mon Feb 06, 2006 4:36 pm

I might sound a bit of an old git but in the days of Sunbury, along the Ave, when the team came out we had this......
A Nation Once Again

When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen
Of Greece and Rome, who bravely stood
Three hundred men and three men
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain
And Ireland long a province, be
A nation once again

Chorus
A nation once again
A nation once again
And Ireland long a province, be
A nation once again

So from the time through wildest woe
That hope has shone a far light
Nor could love brightest summer glow
Outshine that solemn starlight
It seemed to watch above my head
In forum, field and fane
It's angle voice rang round my bed
A nation once again

So as I grew from boy to man
I bent me to that bidding-
The spirit of each selfish plan
And cruel passions ridding
For thus, I hoped some day to aid-
Oh, can such hope be vain?
When my dear country shall be made
A nation once again

So is it a bit tamer with the Fields
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by Mrs Chicken on Mon Feb 06, 2006 9:27 pm

I used to quite like old Molly. Tales of poverty and consumption on the streets of Dublin, yet universal.

And even a tone deaf moron could sing that one.
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by Brendan on Tue Feb 07, 2006 1:12 am

Molly is tosh.
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by Loobs on Tue Feb 07, 2006 7:27 am

Don't let her father hear you saying that, you nasty man.
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by Mrs Chicken on Tue Feb 07, 2006 11:29 am

I like Molly! You put her down!
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by donaghadee on Tue Feb 07, 2006 12:56 pm

Those of you who know me or have read my ravings (surely you mean posts? - ED) here or in "another place" know that my sympathies are more Orange than Green. I do not think it is a sectarian song and have sung it many times. Best rendition was "by a lonely prison wall" outside Mulligans in Toulouse opposite the local prison.
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by Brendan on Thu Feb 09, 2006 9:56 pm

I did say I will ask about.

Bren,

just a quick e-mail re bubbles. The 'Web' says;

Written by some bloke called 'Jean Kenbrovin' in 1919 who appears to have been quite well known for his film scores. Seems WHU adopted it full-time in the 1950s but no other info. Can't find any connection with the BandTs using it (thank God) as most history on the web is minimal and repeated on all the web sites I found.
Did find a couple of rebel songs about them one of which is a cracker called 'Come out ye Black and Tans' basically to get a good kicking from the bhoys! Guaranteed to get the feet tapping and glass banging on the table at the finest of gaelic gatherings.

Also found 'Fields of Athenry' - bit of a tear jerker but can see where its coming from. Would no doubt stir the stoutest of Irish hearts. Downloaded both as MP3s to annoy the wife with.

Cheers,

Steve.
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by dom_pedro on Thu Feb 09, 2006 10:13 pm

A fantastic rebel song is Kipling's "A Pict Song" set to music by Billy Bragg : http://www.billybragg.co.uk/releases/al ... loke5.html
Kipling wrote:Rome never looks where she treads
Always her heavy hooves fall
On our stomachs, our hearts and our heads
And Rome never hears when we bawl

Her sentries pass on -- that is all
And we gather behind them in hordes
And plot to reconquer the Wall
With only our tongues for our swords

For we are the little folk -- we!
Too little to love or to hate
Leave us alone and you'll see
That we can bring down the state


And the Oysterband's "One Green Hill" would make a fantastic London Irish anthem : http://bob.bob.bofh.org/~giolla/oysterband/OGH.html

Telfer/Prosser wrote:There's nothing for your comfort
in the place where I was born
Someone's got the roses
'cause my people got the thorns;
My people are the poor ones,
their country made of stones
Their wealth is in persistence,
in stories and in bones

and one green hill, one green hill
one far green bill we carry everywhere
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by dom_pedro on Sun Feb 12, 2006 10:33 pm

Here's a link to a sample of the Dropkick Murphys' version of 'The Fields ...'. The chorus sounds okay but I don't rate the lead singer at all as he kills the verses. It's a shame as I had high hopes for the DMs when I first heard of them but was very disappointed when I heard samples from an album.

Image

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0002V ... nce&n=5174
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by dom_pedro on Tue Feb 14, 2006 9:44 pm

dom pedro wrote:The words of the song go back to a broadsheet ballad published in 1880, though the author of the song as sung at the Madejski Stadium is Pete St John who wrote the popular or modern form of the song in 1979.


Aha, I'm in the clear ... I never said that Paddy Reilly's version was sung at the Madge :oops:

Here's a snip of Tony Fuller's version : http://thor.dnshotel.com/~andy/free/Fields.mp3
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by Brendan on Thu Feb 16, 2006 1:17 am

How about the Merry Ploughboy? I don't think so.
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by Brendan on Sat Feb 18, 2006 2:18 am

What the Fields did not get a BAFTA or a Brit.....
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by dom_pedro on Sat Feb 18, 2006 8:53 am

No but Pete St John has a fair few awards already :

Republic of Irish Music Publisher (RIMPA) Songwriter of the Year
The Irish Association of Songwriters and Composer
US Irish Cultural Society
US Brendan Cup Committee
Tipperary Peace Award
Washington D.C. Press Club Award
Sunday Press Award
Variety Artists Trust Society Award
Synge Street School "Man of the Year Award"
Beaumont 2000 Cultural Award


Who wants a Brit?

Here's a clip of Paddy Reilly's recorded version :

http://www.dolphin-dara.ie/audio/athenry.ram

.... so the question is who can say for absolute certainty which version is played at the Madge ... Fuller or Reilly????
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by Brendan on Sat Feb 18, 2006 10:42 am

I bow to your knowlage. Off to Bath, Come on you IRISHSSSSSSSS
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