“One of the things that made an impression on me when I first came to Celtic was just how connected the first-team squad was with the supporters,” recalled Chris Morris when I spoke to him 30 years after Billy McNeill signed the Cornishman from Sheffield Wednesday. Chris was a relatively unknown right-back when the returning Celtic manager plucked him from Wednesday’s reserves in 1987 as part of the club’s much-needed centenary rebuilding operation.
The image of an overlapping Morris, with his highlighted blonde locks complementing the splendorous green-and-white hoops, is an iconic snapshot of what was an unforgettable season. There is no doubt that he left a lasting impression as an ever-present during that glorious double-winning campaign, but he also left his mark in another unexpected way…
“I remember that Billy McNeill used to come in with a folder, filed full of player requests,” continued Chris. “We were expected to go out amongst Celtic Supporters’ Clubs almost every weekend. This was something that I’d never come across – that kind of connection between player, club and supporter.
“One thing that always struck me was the expectation that, at the end of the dinner dance, they would want you to say a few words as a player and sing a song. I said, ‘I haven’t got a clue, what am I going to sing?’ I remember Peter Grant saying to me, ‘All you need to do is, when you get up there, when you go to sing a song, just go ‘Hail! Hail!’ and the room will bounce around you and you won’t have to say another word.’ That’s what I did the first few times.”
So he said, ‘You’ve to sing a Celtic song or you’ve to sing an Irish song or something like that?’
‘Well, what do you do?’
‘I always stand up there and go, ‘Hail! Hail!’ and then the room takes over, and it’s bouncing and they drag you up on their shoulders and all sorts of things.’
‘I’ve got a song for you to sing…’
“He taught me a song called ‘The Fields of Athenry’. When I came back from international duty, every single time that I went to a Celtic Supporters’ dance, which was pretty much every Saturday, I used to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’. That became my little trademark.
“Many years passed and I came back to Hampden to watch a cup final during the Henrik Larsson time… As I walked along the road, a few of the Celtic supporters shouted, ‘Hey there’s Chris – there’s the man who gave us The Fields of Athenry’, which was really quite interesting. That was the first time that I realised that Celtic supporters were singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’, which became their anthem.”
The Pete St. John-penned ballad, did indeed strike a chord with Celtic fans in the late eighties and early nineties, and it quickly became a staple part of the Celtic Park repertoire. There are many players who have inspired the ever-creative Celtic fans to fashion songs about them, but Chris Morris went one better and introduced a timeless classic to the Paradise songbook.
Others may remember the song’s introduction to the slopes of Paradise differently, but when I had the opportunity to interview Niall Quinn shortly after speaking to Chris Morris, the former Ireland striker was certainly able to confirm his part in introducing Chris to one of his favourite Irish ballads.
Many Celtic fans remember The Fields being chanted at Celtic Park in the late eighties. By 1996 it was a staple fixture in Celtic’s songbook, and Fergus McCann was moved to defend our right to sing it after Scottish journalist, Gerry McNee, suggested that Celtic fans had adopted the song for sectarian reasons. McCann promptly had the song’s origins and lyrics printed in the Celtic View to encourage its ongoing inclusion on matchday.
Since The Fields was written in 1979, there have been over 850 versions of the song recorded or performed from such musical luminaries as The Dubliners, Paddy Reilly and Dropkick Murphys. If I was to choose my own personal favourite version of the song (after 60,000 Celtic fans chanting it, of course) I would have to opt for this rendition from former Factory Records band The Durutti Column:
I may have to rethink my position on this, however, following the news that Aslan are set to release their own version of The Fields of Athenry on Thursday this week (20th July). This was the final track the band recorded with the late Christy Dignam, who had fought a rare blood disorder for a decade before sadly passing away last month.
Christy spoke of his love for Celtic in April this year, and was seen sporting a Celtic tracksuit top during Aslan’s legendary Vicar Street performance which featured in the 1999 documentary, ‘Made in Dublin‘.
Aslan’s Billy McGuinness told Dublin Live that, following his timeless take on The Green Fields of France, the late Christy Dignam had become “passionate” about Irish ballads, which led to the band recording The Fields of Athenry.
PAUL JOHN DYKES