September 5, 2019
By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Fair play. To Northern Irish singer-songwriter and activist Tommy Sands, it’s “kind of a throwaway phrase that people use a lot – but it’s a meaningful one.”
In fact, it is a lack of fair play – the idea of treating everyone fairly and equitably, even those with whom you disagree – that is at the root of so many problems in the world today, according to Sands, whether it’s the treatment of migrants and refugees or humankind’s unwillingness to address environmental problems.
The struggle for fair play is nothing new for Sands, who’s been carrying that banner for decades. Born in County Down the year World War II ended, Sands was approaching his mid-20s when long-simmering Catholic-Protestant/Republican-Loyalist tensions boiled over, ushering in the years of conflict, terror and tragedy summed up by another notable phrase: The Troubles. Sands, by himself and along with his siblings (as the Sands Family) and children as well as friends and significant allies, advocated a path away from the violence and hate through song, spirit, and deed. He penned “There Were Roses,” perhaps the most iconic song about The Troubles, and its complement, “Daughters and Sons,” plus a raft of other compositions, earning the respect of luminaries like Seamus Heaney and Pete Seeger.
But Sands didn’t limit his music and message to pub or concert hall – he brought it out to where he thought it might do the most good. So in 1986 he organized a Citizens Assembly, full of Ulster’s artists and literary figures, to call for peace in Belfast. Twelve years later, as the Northern Irish peace talks teetered on the edge of failure, he brought together several musicians – including Vedran Smailovic, the famed, tragic Cellist of Sarajevo – along with schoolchildren from North and South to sing, in an effort to convince the politicians to go the extra mile. Four years after that, he got members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to record a special Christmas feature for his weekly radio show – inspiring Loyalist leader David Ervine to remark "Tommy Sands is the only man, without a private army, who can intimidate me."
And despite some recent health concerns, he’s nowhere near done yet, as he made clear during a recent stop in Boston as part of a solo tour. He’s recently collaborated on a unique theatrical production and has just released his 10th album, titled – fittingly enough – “Fair Play to You All,” which includes a song inspired by a chance encounter in Boston.
Sands will be back in town again next month, when he performs at Boston College’s Gaelic Roots Series on Oct. 16, at 6:30 p.m. in the Theology and Ministry Library on Newton Campus.
“The songs I grew up singing were about the pursuit of fair play,” said Sands, relaxing over dinner at The Burren, where he performed as part of the Backroom series. “I was really singing about people’s hopes and dreams before I had consciousness about them. It all just happened naturally, organically: Neighbors came from both sides – Catholic or Protestant – to hear my dad and mom make music, and their feet all tapped to the same rhythm. I learned that music connected the secret and sacred things between us all.”
That lesson was reinforced during the memorable 1998 “sing-in” Sands organized shortly before the Good Friday Agreement was reached. “We felt the politicians were losing their nerve, afraid to take that last step because they were worried about the response from their constituents. So the idea was to go there and tell them not to be afraid, that we all wanted them to take that step and make peace. But we all had to, literally, be singing the same song to send that message.
“So I wrote ‘Carry On’ while riding in the bus on the way there, and we put it together somehow.”
Carry on carry on, you can hear the people singing
Carry on carry on, ’til peace will come again
Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon would later describe the sound of the children singing as “a decisive moment.”
As impactful as “Carry On” might have been, it was a far earlier composition of Sands that brought him attention well beyond Ireland. In 1974, a Protestant friend of Sands was killed by Republican paramilitaries and not long afterward, Loyalists retaliated by killing a Catholic who had been a friend of the earlier victim. That unspeakably awful irony was tragic enough, but the likelihood of more such occurrences was just as terrible to contemplate, and so Sands endeavored to express the human cost of The Troubles in personal, and musical terms.
But it took the better part of 10 years for him to finish “There Were Roses” – though certainly not because he was short on inspiration or motivation.
“It’s easy to write a partisan song, on one side or the other, but that had been done for years and years, and it wasn’t bringing us any closer,” Sands explained. “There was something I wanted to say, but it had to be done in the right way so that everyone would listen. Every word of the song had to be weighed very, very carefully. In Northern Ireland, if you throw a wall up with half your audience, you may as well put a gag on yourself.”
Instead of writing a strident, “come-all-ye”-style diatribe, Sands fashioned the song to defuse any reflexive wariness at the outset, and to establish the personal character of the story:
My song to you this evening is not to make you sad
Nor for adding to the sorrows of this troubled northern land
But lately I've been thinking and it just won't leave my mind
I’ll tell you of two friends one time
They were both good friends of mine
Sands reprises this verse near the end of the song, having sketched a moving portrait of the two victims and their friendship, and the impact of their deaths on the community. Instead of expressing rage or advocating a specific solution, the final verses simply appeal to our common humanity – and vulnerability.
I don't know where the moral is or where this song should end
But I wonder just how many wars are fought between good friends
And those who give the orders are not the ones to die
It's Bell and O'Malley and the likes of you and I
And through it all is the chorus, with its evocative line “The tears of the people ran together.”
The song was released in 1985 by Sands on his “Singing of the Times” album and by the trio of Mick Moloney, Robbie O’Connell and Jimmy Keane on their LP of the same name. It would be covered by, among others, Joan Baez, Dolores Keane, Frank Patterson, and The Dubliners.
Given Sands’s dedication to advancing peace and healing in Northern Ireland, it’s only natural to wonder whether he despairs over the current political stalemate, and the sporadic outbreaks of violence. In a word: No.
“Peace is like a little baby; it’s easy to slip and fall before learning to walk. The peace process, remember, is a process. There’s been lots of slipping and falling, but for the most part, it’s stopped the killing. A peace process is never a failure; it’s violence that’s a failure.”
Perhaps one reason for his positive state of mind is that over the years he’s been able to find fresh outlets for his muse, whether teaching underprivileged prisoners to use songwriting as a tool to defend themselves in court; assisting with interfaith initiatives in the Middle East; putting together an album with Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren about life in their communities; or hosting the weekly radio show “Country Ceili” for decades.
More recently, he wrote music and songs for the theatrical production “Blood Red Lines,” in which survivors of The Troubles – including people who lost loved ones to violence, and a former British soldier who served two tours in Northern Ireland – tell their own stories.
“They’re all on stage together, learning from one another, and we piece together their words and weave them into a dialogue,” said Sands, who collaborated with British Academy of Film and Television Arts award-winning director, writer and producer Robert Rae. “The songs are a sort of commentary on what’s being said. For example, there’s one in which the chorus is, ‘If you’d seen what I’d seen, you’d never go to war.’ There’s a verse which asks, ‘What’s the use of talking? You can’t bring back your dead,’ and the response is, ‘I’m speaking for our loved ones, for they can speak no more.’
“It’s about rejecting violence and hate, not trying to glorify them. One song goes: ‘Something bad had happened/I could feel it in bones/Later when they told me, I cried and cried alone. Your husband is a martyr/and never whispered low/I said I need no martyr/I just want my Johnny home.’”
And there’s also “Fair Play to You All,” for which he wrote songs about refugees in the Middle East, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, the billions of dollars spent in the global arms trade, and one in Irish about the ancient goddess Macha, whose mistreatment at the hands of the king of Ulster prompted her to proclaim a curse whereby the men of Ulster would be overcome with weakness at the time of their greatest need.
“Macha was associated with the land, with nature,” he said. “So the song is a lament that links her to today, a time when nature is being destroyed – what will the consequences for us be?”
Another song on “Fair Play to You All” had its origins in a curious meeting that took place in Boston.
“I met a man named McAteer, singing softly in an Irish pub, who was from a village in County Down called Ballyholland. It turns out that there’s a meeting every year in Massachusetts of the McAteer clan – he had wondered if I was on my way there, in fact. I thought that was interesting, so later on I did a little research and I discovered that some 30 people had left that small village during the 1930s and had never come back – 30 is no small number for a place like that.
“It’s just one of those little occurrences that make you think about life and how it unfolds, I suppose.”
Later on in the Backroom, Sands entertained the near-capacity audience with stories and reminiscences, and entries from the family songbook as well as his own. It was as much a conversation as it was a concert: Introducing “Come Home to the County Down,” he noted its theme of immigration and dislocation “at a time when so many people are on the move through no fault of their own.” But this was no blog-ready polemic; he went deeper, pointing to the universality lurking in the lyrics, the sense of desperation and longing as expressed in its chorus (“Oh can you hear me? Oh can you hear me/As you roam through lonely London town?”).
“When you lose someone, you never stop searching,” he said, “because you see them everywhere.”
While there were plenty of occasions for laughter during his set, Sands made no apologies for the more somber entries in his repertoire: “Sad songs are important. Not because they make you sad, but because they take the sadness out of you.”
All of which led to his penultimate, and most anticipated, song of the evening (for his encore, he performed “Daughters and Sons” along with New Leaf, the Western Massachusetts trio that opened for him). While he acknowledged having back-burnered “There Were Roses” for a while, Sands told the audience, he had lately begun singing it again. “It’s good to know the bad places you came from,” he said.
And with that, he began softly picking his guitar, and softly but self-assuredly sang the words familiar to most if not all of the audience.
My song to you this evening is not to make you sad…