Juneau hosts Legendary Irish folk musician Tommy sands

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2008

R enowned singer-songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands has seen firsthand how music can bring people together.

Courtesy Of Tommy Sands
Courtesy Of Tommy Sands

Just before he left his homeland to begin a North American tour, the Northern Ireland native held an event with legendary folk musician Pete Seeger titled "The Music of Healing," an annual meeting Sands organizes to bring musicians, politicians and others together through the common bond of music. At this year's event Sands invited Gerry Adams and Jeffrey Donaldson, two politicians of opposing views in Northern Ireland, to shake hands.

"They didn't want to shake hands, but they actually sang together and that went out in the news and that was more important than shaking hands," he said. "They were actually singing together and that was pretty extreme."

Sands will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 16, at Centennial Hall. Tickets cost $17 in advance or $20 at the door and are available at Hearthside Books and Rainy Retreat Books. Sands will be accompanied by his daughter, Moya, and son, Fionan.

Sands will also host a signing from 10:15 a.m. to noon on Oct. 16 at Rainy Retreat Books for his book "The Songman."

Sands has become well-known for his activism music that documents the political strife between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island, such as "There Were Roses," which tells a fateful tale of friends of the different denominations.

"I felt I had to write songs about what was happening," he said. "I never set out to write political songs. In the midst of the troubles I wrote songs ... not just to be a gauge, but maybe to try to influence a little bit too."

Sands describes the political environment in Northern Ireland as greatly improved since the historic Belfast Agreement was signed by the British and Irish governments on April 10, 1998, which is sometimes referred to as the Good Friday Agreement. It was a turning point in the Northern Ireland peace process, he said.

"I think we learned the hard way, I suppose, and people try to win through violence - that wasn't working," Sands said, adding that the British government and the Provisional Irish Republican Army were both looking for a way out of the bloodshed. "They realized there was going to be no victory for anybody that way."

The agreement was an important milestone because it helped Northern Ireland distinguish itself as a democracy, he said.

"A democracy should be a majority ruling for everyone not ruling over anyone," Sands said. "I think that now that both sides are at least represented in the decision-making process, people feel that they belong to the place."

The improved relations since the Good Friday Agreement have also somewhat changed the songs he now writes, Sands said.

"We still have a long way to go but at least people have stopped killing each other," he said. "I suppose I'm writing more songs about ordinary, everyday events now rather than songs about people that have been killed and that is a relief."

Sands describes his sound as traditional Irish folk music, with new songs inserted into that medium. He said he learned to play music as a child in a small farmhouse just over the border of Northern Ireland in County Down. He performs on guitar with his son playing the mandolin-banjo and his daughter performing on the fiddle and singing.

The trio hopes to have a positive effect on people with their music and ideally provide a feeling of "a little bit of hope," Sands said.

"The idea is that the music would warm their hearts and that we get to know each other during the concert to some degree and create some kind of binding atmosphere," he said. "When people do come together and they look for solutions together, then almost anything is possible to achieve."

Music is a powerful tool that when wielded correctly can leave a great impression upon people, he said.

"Violence creates more violence. I think music is something that can create an atmosphere of neighborliness," he said. "It can do the opposite too. It's a bit like a hand or a fist. You can do what you like with it."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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