Friday 22 September 2017

It's so lonely round the chorus of our national anthem

Tommy Conlon

W hile the song was inspired by an awesome historical catastrophe, it may be the job not of historians but psychoanalysts to explain why The Fields of Athenry has become so popular, so long after the event happened.

And even they may be baffled as to how it has ended up a sporting anthem, sung by thousands of young men whose idea of a famine is their team not winning a trophy for a couple of years.

But, for some reason or other, those hitherto unheralded few acres around an east Galway town have apparently become precious to people who never set foot on them. Those green fields, those four green fields even, have become jewels of the emerald isle, the land of our fathers -- the holy ground once more. One can therefore safely assume that no developer was allowed throw up a few apartment blocks on them, back when the going was good.

But ah, sez you, sure it's not about the fields at all, or even Athenry; 'tis about the Great Hunger of the late 1840s. Right. But that only deepens the mystery as to why, when the country was never more rich or educated, that a song about this subject should have captured the zeitgeist.

They delved into this question on an RTE documentary last Tuesday night, and didn't get very far. It quickly descended into another backslapping festival of nostalgia and self-congratulation as they again rolled out plucky little Ireland's greatest hits on the sporting stage.

From Euro '88 to Grand Slam '09, they were all wheeled out again in a series of visual images and verbal recollections that shed very little light on the role of this song in these triumphs. Maybe because there was little light to shed: The Fields of Athenry, no more than any song, can only have the faintest impact on proceedings down on the field, if it can have any at all. On certain special occasions it has been central to the atmospherics in the ground, but even then only tangential to the action on the pitch.

Now, the rugby and soccer players interviewed, former and current, all testified that it was capable of giving them a boost during games, but they went no further than that.

They all have fond memories of moments when the crowd was in full voice and the singing reverberated around the stadium; but none would go so far as to say that it actually changed a game. That would be romantic nonsense.

It was left to the amateurs to make the overblown claims. RTE's rugby anchor Tom McGurk concluded, after a long dissertation, that "The Fields of Athenry are literally pumping (the Ireland and Munster rugby teams) full of adrenalin." Which would surely be bad news for the manufacturers of all those protein shakes and supplements, if word got out.

He couldn't resist throwing some sentimental baggage at the subject either. Millions left this country, never to be seen again. "Athenry sums that up. All the ghosts appear when Athenry is sung." Even when it's sung by portered-up geezers who don't know the words?

Danny Doyle first recorded it but it was Paddy Reilly's version that turned it into a phenomenon. "I don't really want to decry the people at football matches who sing it," said Reilly, "but I don't think really that they're totally aware of the lyrics."

The great balladeer says that something has been lost in translation. He was doing a gig in Cork one time and someone said to him, "Your song is a marvellous rugby song." To which he replied: "It's not a rugby song, it's about the fucking famine, like!" He could hardly have been more succinct.

But, to repeat, why of all the Irish songs, from Turlough O'Carolan to Thomas Moore to U2, did Joe Sport end up embracing this one? The documentary didn't really explore this question in any great depth. The best answer came from the man who wrote it, Pete St John. "Songs are magic carpets. They don't necessarily always have a specific or logical reason for people singing them." Fair enough. The people like it, the players respond to it, the song works for whatever reason. But it could also be said that it is a mawkish, manipulative

and self-pitying dirge. And it's hard therefore to avoid one possible explanation: that it appeals to the sense of victimhood that has lurked deep in the breast of the Gael since time immemorial.

It provides an irresistible temptation for Paddy to wallow in his woes, even if the woe in this case is 150 years old. Which of course is only a drop in the ocean compared to the 800 years of woe.

The irony is that all these great sporting triumphs of the last 20 years were supposed to be signifiers of a new era, public manifestations of a resurgent national self-confidence. We were serious now, we were professional and ambitious. We weren't going to be gallant losers anymore; we weren't going to be victims anymore; we were winners now. We were all winners now.

But all the while, we were singing The Fields of Athenry, and singing it like we believed it.

So, now that the arse has fallen out of everything again, maybe people will drop it from the repertoire, knowing that things are bad enough the way they are.

thecouch@independent.ie

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