All Sports for All People Addendum: The Fields of Athenry

Irish Fans (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

By a lonely prison wall,
I heard a young girl calling
Michael they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan's corn
So the young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay

When I wrote All Sports for All People after the Fabrice Muamba incident, I foolishly thought that would be the end of it. I expounded on the why of sports, what makes it so important, why it's worth the pain and the turmoil, and I thought that my article would be fairly up to date barring something truly heroic occurring at the London Olympics. I was dead wrong. I didn't think about what could occur on the rainy field at Gdansk, about how a simple act of devotion, love, and passion would vault itself into the pantheon of moving sports moments. I did something that people have done for countless decades, countless centuries even, and didn't give a group of people their right due. I underestimated the Irish.

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

On a rainy night in Gdansk, thousands and thousands of Irish supporters let their voices be heard. The unique thing about it though was that they weren't singing in triumph, or after a goal, or after securing advancement or qualification. The loudest, most impassioned singing of the tournament came from supporters down against 4-0 against the defending champions, their tournament over, denied a chance at a trophy once again. Ireland has never gotten past the first round of the European Championship and Spain ensured they weren't going to get past it again. Yet in the 83rd minute, the singing started. It grew louder, and louder, and drowned out the stadium. It grew so loud and moved those watching so much, broadcasters in Ireland, Holland, Germany, and even Spain ceased to talk and simply let the audience listen to what was happening.

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 cut me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity

It didn't stop either. Ireland kept losing, but the Irish fans kept singing. They sang through the 83rd, the 84th, the 85th minute. They were still going at the 90th minute. Still, as the final whistle blew they sang. They sang long after the players had left the pitch, long after others had left the stadium. The Irish would not stop singing.

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

Pride. That was the quality on display at the end of the game in Gdansk. Ireland arrived to this tournament with an old, aging team, a last shot at glory gone by. They fell short. Yet, in a nation like Ireland, losing is not something to be ashamed about. The Irish have been losing for centuries, through colonization by the English, being ruled by the crown, famine, discrimination. The Irish had gone through decades and decades of losing before finally winning independence in 1922. The Irish already won. It took them centuries. 80 years without a major football trophy is nothing. Because no matter how much Ireland loses, they've won. The Irish come together in failure, and vow to come back and try again. Failure won't divide the Irish, it will simply unite them even more.

By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky
For she lived in hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the Fields Of Athenry

In the 1970's, Pete St. John wrote a ballad that encapsulated the Irish spirit, called The Fields of Athenry. Much like Hymns and Aria's has become Wales song, so too has The Fields of Athenry become Ireland's song. It tells the story of an Irish man, in the Great Irish Famine, being arrested for stealing British corn for his starving family and being sentenced to deportation to Botany Bay, Australia. It's filled with the melancholy feeling of isolation and loneliness the Irish felt in their own homeland, combined with the resilience and pursuit of freedom that Ireland desired. "Nothing matters when you're free." Exactly. Losing doesn't matter, not when you're free.

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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