Tommy Sands: Music of healing and hope from Northern Ireland

Rostrevor, the homeplace of musician Tommy Sands, is a small town in County Down, Northern Ireland. It stands on the shores of what in Norway would be called a fjord and in Ireland is called a lough, looking across the water at the Cooley Peninsula, in the Republic of Ireland.

The mountains in Cooley play an important part in Irish legend and myth, as do the Mourne Mountains, which rise up behind Rostrevor. Just a stone’s throw up the road is the city of Newry, long a center of connection and commerce, a hub for travelers and traders from within the north and from across the nearby border.

A bit further on to the north and west is south County Armagh, a lovely land and one that holds so much conflict in its recent history that during The Troubles it came to be known as known as Bandit Country.

Mournes over Rostrevor, Northern Ireland home of Sands family

Tommy Sands took in all these things as he was growing up in Rostrevor. He made the choice, as a young man, to make his way in music and to do his work for peace and healing in Ireland through that music. Across the years, he’s written about other subjects, of course, and sung and taught and brought all sides of his music, and worked for peace and connection and understanding in different lands, from the Middle East to India to North America. It is that land along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the conflicts and connections that happen there which have been the forge and center of his ideas, though. For his album Arising from the Troubles, he’s gathered eighteen songs, many he’s sung for years but never recorded and others recently composed, that speak of peace, conflict, healing, history, and hope, in both personal and political terms.

You do not have to know or care about the Troubles in Ireland to enjoy this music: for one thing, the songs stand on their own as compelling tales, and for another Sands has a storyteller’s voice and a fine knack for imagery as well. The songs themselves touch on universal themes, too.There are anthems of hope, history, and reconciliation, such as Song for Erin, and funny songs that take a lighter perspective on things, such as The Mixed Marriage. There are songs which look at the history from different sides, such as You Sold Us Down the River and Bloody Sunday, civil rights anthems such as We’ll Sing It All Over, and songs of hope for the future seen in passing moments of change and connection, such s A Stone’s Throw.

Ideas and lyrics such as these are grounded in place and circumstance, and help with the understanding of those things, even as they reach beyond them. Listening to the songs on Arising from the Troubles, you’ll likely come away with different perspectives on Northern Ireland and the peace process there than you had before hearing them. Reading the thoughtful liner notes, in which Sands reflects briefly on the story behind each song, will add to your understanding.

Sands in joined on the songs by his daughter Moya and son Fionan, both fine musicians in their own rights. Guests include others whose names you may know, among them Pete Seeger, Dolores Keane, Greg Anderson, and Arty McGlynn.

you might also like to

Read about the political situation and travel in Northern Ireland
Learn about another album by Tommy Sands, called Let the Circle Be Wide

Read about a concert on the Falls Road by Cathie Ryan in An Evening in Belfast and learn about Ryan’s thoughts on teaching Irish music tradition.

Photograph of the Mourne mountains over Rostrevor by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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