You’ve travelled to Poland, your underdog team is four goals down with ten minutes left of the game, you need at least a draw to advance to the next round. What do you do? Some would leave, some would have already left, but not the Irish. If you’re the Irish, you sing your hearts out. With all hope lost, you keep on singing. On that fateful night, Gdansk was ringing with the sound of Irish song, the rafters shook with the words of an old Irish folk number about a starving man stealing to feed his family. The game may have been Spain’s, but the night was most certainly Ireland’s.
It’s a song now embedded in Irish sporting culture, but its history lies in the Irish famine. It’s about a father, Michael, who has been deported to Australia’s Botany Bay for stealing corn to feed his starving family. In the 1800s, from petty theft to murder, prison ships took their human cargo from Britain and Ireland to the unforgiving island of Australia. The Fields of Athenry is an interesting insight into the Irish mind, it’s a song about hopelessness, unfair sentencing, famine and separation but it can stir a nation and unite thousands. It’s the face life singing attitude, when all hope is lost, and there’s nothing left to lose, sing louder, sing prouder and sing in the face of defeat.
In The Irish Times in 2009, Bernard Dunne beat boxing world champion Richard Cordoba. After a bloody bout, Dunne was on the ropes, then the crowd broke into a heartrending rendition of the nation’s song;
Dunne, whose fight in the O2 against Ricardo Cordoba, was the same day as Ireland’s Grand Slam win in Cardiff, speaks of his own personal relationship with the song. The super bantamweight was on the canvas twice and practically out on his feet in the latter part of the fight. If he went down again it was over, his dreams shattered. Towards the end of the sapping battle of wills Dunne stood up in his corner, blood tricking from open wounds on his face and he heard the song. He raised a clenched fist in the air and stepped forward into an end game that will be remembered for generations, knocking out Cordoba with his final ounce of strength and becoming the World champion.
It’s a song known by so many, and inspires so much, weaved into the delicate fabric of our nation. Its history, its conception, its power – it’s a journey into the Irish psyche. A song is a song. But sometimes a song can live in the heart of a nation.
Glasses up to Sean MacEntee on Flickr for the photo