Tommy Sands

Traditional Music

Tommy Sands is a Co Down singer, songwriter and social activist. He was born in Mayobridge, County Down, just outside of Newry in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.

His family was immersed in folk music - his father played the fiddle and his mother the accordion. During the ‘60s and ‘70s he was the chief songwriter with the Sands Family, a group including brothers Colum, Ben and the late Dino Sands, and sister Anne.

Sands has also continued to pave new ground as a solo singer/songwriter and as the host of a popular radio show, Country Ceili, broadcast weekly via Belfast’s Downtown Radio since 1976.

Although constantly performing on stages all around the world he prides in taking his music down from the lights and into the darker corners of society. One of his projects, teaching under-privledged prisoners in Reno, Nevada to write their own song with which to defend themselves in court is currently creating a widespread stir in the world of community art in the United States.

During the Good Friday Agreement Talks, his impromptu performance with a group of children and Lambeg drummers was described by Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon as ‘a defining moment in the Peace Process’.

In May 2002 Tommy Sands received an honourary doctorate of Letters from The University of Nevada for his outstanding work as musician and ambassador for peace and understanding and, May 18th was pronounced Tommy Sands Day in Reno. In December 2002 although the Northern Ireland Assembly had been stood down, Sands managed to persuade the Members to return for a special Christmas musical party together. The concert was recorded for the Sands weekly radio programme, Country Ceili, and later received a special award at the World Festival of TV and Radio in New York.

“I grew up in a small farmhouse near Mayobridge, in a ‘mixed neighbourhood’ to where people came ‘on their ceili’ to pass the evenings after working in the fields and, into a family that played music and sang songs. From my parents and neighbours I learned songs that I felt sang the unwritten history of ordinary people. I learned songs about emigration and songs of the Troubles from both sides. There were songs about working in flax dams, selling cattle at fairs, hunting for rabbits in whin bushes… ordinary every day events which when sung once were remembered always.
And there were ones too about pretty fair maids in the month of May or even June but in my growing it was becoming July and August and pretty fair maids were amongst those being maimed or killed. And so I wrote about such events not as a political song writer but as a neighbour standing by with little else to offer but a song.
After awhile I realised that some of these songs like There were Roses Daughters and Sons etc which were aimed initially at local people around me were being translated and sung in many other countries. It made me realise that not only has the local song a universality but it can also contribute, not just as an observatorial thermometer but as a thermostat, to help aid the temperature of the times at home and abroad”.
Tommy Sands

“Tommy Sands is one of the most important songwriters in Ireland if not the rest of the world….”
Sing Out!

“There Were Roses” is certainly one of the best songs ever written about the “Irish Problem…”
‘To Beat The Drum’ (Scotland)

“Timeless Sands, still with irresistible lure.”
Irish News

“Sands is a true weaver of dreams and spells.”
Hot Press

“In two minutes the entire audience were singing with him ‘Armenia, Armenia’, a very moving performer.

“One moment my tears were of sorrow, the next moment they were tears of joy, his songs are unforgettable stories.”
Radio Leipzig

“Tommy Sands has achieved that difficult but wonderful balance between knowing and loving the traditions of his home and being concerned with the future of the whole world.”
Pete Seeger

“Tommy Sands is the only man, without a private army, who can intimidate me.”
David Ervine (after being coaxed on stage to sing with Sands at Re-Imagining Ireland in 2003)

Selected Recordings:
Singing of the Times (1985)
Down by Bendy’s Lane: Irish Songs and Stories for Children (1988).
Hedges of County Down (1989)
Beyond the Shadows (1990)
The Heart’s a Wonder (1995)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger (1997)
to Shorten the Winter (2002)
Let the Circle be Wide - Tommy Sands with Moya & Fionán (2006)
Arising from the Troubles (2011)

Selected Publications:
The Tommy Sands Songbook 1985 (Spring Publications)
The Songman 2005 Lilliput Press (Autobiographical)