“The Fields Of Athenry”

The Irish greeted Saint Patrick’s message in 433 A.D. with open minds and happy hearts. It is Celtic to the core, imagination yielding to exaggeration in elegant elaboration. So, too, is the legend of St. Patrick observed here in America — with wild celebration and exuberant joy. In Ireland it’s a “Holy Day of Obligation.” You’re supposed to be in church.

St. Patrick’s Day 2011 finds me in a reflective, more darkly Irish mood,

“By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling.
Michael, they are taking you away.
For you stole the English corn
So our young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.”

“The Fields of Athenry” is an Irish folk ballad set during the Great Irish Potato Famine (1845-1850) about a fictional man named Michael from near Athenry in County Galway — sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia, for stealing food for his starving family.

1992 was the 100th Anniversary of my Great- Grandfather’s death. He had left Ireland during The Famine Years in 1848 and had crossed the North Atlantic to the green fields of America. He rests buried under a fine Celtic Cross in a little churchyard just north of Syracuse. His name is engraved in sharp, bold lettering, still clearly distinct with more than a century gone:


My namesake’s handwriting appears in an old, worn book on Irish History which was passed down to me. It was all Peter
left us in memory. This is what he wrote:

Diocese of Fern
County of Leinster
Town of Ballyoughter
Irish Nobility
Evicted By The English
And Abandoned By God

I had left broadcasting after 36 uninterrupted years. I knew where to go. Eileen and I drove to Detroit and caught a flight
to Dublin. We rented a car and traveled the land without itinerary or agenda. There was no need. There were spirits every-
where. We were led.

Peter is listed as the son of James and Margaret Cavanaugh, born in the summer of 1816 in Ballyoughter. The town has disappeared. It was located east of Enniscorthy, just south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains near the sea.

Peter was baptized July 15 of that year, according to parish records now miraculously preserved on microfilm at the Library
of Ireland in Dublin. The fancy spelling of the family name “Kavanagh” with a “C” and a superfluous “u” can be attributed
to the transcribing priest, who wrote in a most graceful and elegant hand. Before and after his stewardship of some thirty
years, the whole bunch were illiterate “Kavanaghs”, forbidden to learn reading and writing, own property, vote, practice their religion, hold public office, engage in trade or commerce or possess firearms.

The priest had faithfully noted births, marriages and deaths in the small community during his whole tenure. It is a ledger covered with
invisible tears. There are five pages per year before “The Famine,” and five years per page thereafter. Many in our family died
of hunger. So did a million fellow countrymen during the time of the “Great Starvation” with yet another million emigrating on “Coffin Ships” bound for North America, Australia and New Zealand. Of these, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition before reaching their destination.

“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.”

Let the record be clear. At no point during the length of the “Famine” period did Ireland fail to grow plentiful crops — enough to feed the entire native population of the island twice over. But “Free Market” thinking carried the day. Such bountiful harvests were sent to England and Europe to enrich the treasuries of non-Irish Lords, Ladies and Landowners who lived far across the Irish Sea, owning and controlling over 95% of the Emerald Isle following 800 years of tyrannical, often brutal rule over Britain’s first and last colony.

The rich and powerful have been triumphant over the poor and weak century after century in our extended human experience. Governance in a democratic fashion is still new and fragile in the history of our species.

Could a time ever come when the wealthiest one percent of American households might represent 190 times the economic worth of an average person? Or witness that top one percent more than doubling their share of America’s income in a single generation while the bottom 90% fell? Or realize fifty percent of Americans now own only one-half of one percent of America’s stocks and bonds?

Such time has come today.

“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. “

Dubliners — Live –“Fields of Athenry”

2 Responses to ““The Fields Of Athenry””

  1. Mary M. Says:

    This was a very personal account of Irish History. Thank you for sharing and reminding us of how and why many of our ancestors got here.

  2. Lori Marcum Says:

    Thank you for the perspective. So many have suffered at the hands of so few. How is it possible that one tyrant can destroy so many people but so many people can’t destroy one tyrant? When will we learn from our pasts, open our eyes to the present and create our own future?

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