Legendary folk musician and peace campaigner Tommy Sands joins his siblings for a special tour next month. He tells Ivan Little about overcoming a recent illness and his hopes for resolving conflict in Ireland
Evergreen singer-songwriter Tommy Sands hadn't a notion what all the fuss was about. But his sharp-eyed niece and nephew knew something wasn't right after their uncle laughed at a Rabbi telling a joke at an ecumenical gathering in Co Down.
The veteran musician and peacemaker had been hosting a bridge-building meeting in Rostrevor between religious leaders earlier this year when he suffered what was later diagnosed as a mini-stroke.
Tommy didn't see it coming or realise that it had arrived.
"But my nephew Fra and niece Sorcha who know me well spotted that after I laughed at the story my jaw which had dropped down didn't go back up again. I hadn't felt anything unusual," says 71-year-old Tommy.
A number of doctors were in the audience and went to Tommy's immediate assistance.
He says: "I was taken to hospital in an ambulance - it was the first time I had ever been in one.
"I was told by doctors that I had suffered a mini-stroke. But after treatment I have been assured that all is now well once more.
"All the limbs are working. The only downside is that I feel a bit tired.
"I'm treating it as a wake-up call and thankfully it was nothing worse than that."
But the ever-busy Tommy has been urged to take things easier now. He cancelled a tour in Scotland but he says he now feels well enough to return there in the next few days and weeks.
Back home he can't wait to play a series of golden anniversary reunion gigs in December with his siblings in the Sands Family - Colum, Ben and Anne who, like him, now pursue successful solo careers.
Tommy says: "There is something special about the family playing together. We don't get to do it as often as we'd like. They are wonderful occasions for all of us and I especially look forward to hearing new songs from Ben and Colum.
"Nothing is planned too much in advance. We tend to get on stage and see what happens.
"And of course we sing our older songs, too."
Away from the musical spotlight Tommy has long been regarded as one of the most innovative campaigners for peace and understanding in Northern Ireland.
He's famously remembered for playing music outside the tortuous Stormont talks that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Tommy performed songs backed with a group of children, Lambeg drummers and cellist Vedran Smailovic, who played in ruined buildings at the height of the Bosnian conflict.
Later, Tommy organised a party at Parliament Buildings for rival politicians who did their party pieces rather than party songs.
Tommy also broke down barriers through the years by inviting odd couplings of politicians and loyalist and republican bedfellows to attend his Music of Healing nights in Rostrevor.
The song which gave the initiative its name was written by Tommy and his friend, the legendary American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger.
Tommy was convinced that risks had to be taken if advances were to be made in Northern Ireland. He'd already encountered people he'd feared because of their past activities - like Gusty Spence, the UVF killer, whom he first encountered at a Labour Party conference.
But the Rostrevor evenings became ground-breaking events in the calendar of reconciliation work.
Indeed, it was at another of Tommy's gatherings that he took ill.
He'd invited Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders, including Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, to come together along with politicians, scholars and artists for a series of engagements under the title of A Higher Quality of Disagreement.
Tommy remains committed to his ideals of unifying people here and across the world. In recent times he has been saddened by the inability of politicians at Stormont to restore a power-sharing government.
He can't envisage relaunching his musical attempts to encourage an accommodation.
But he remains optimistic about the future.
He says: "We have got ourselves out of much worse than this. I think there must be a different way out. We need different perspectives to find it.
"We must look at each other again not as enemies but rather as neighbours. We have painted ourselves into a corner and I think we need to get the paint and paintbrush out again.
"There are so many colours of truth between black and white and yes and no."
Tommy says people here need to acknowledge each other's pain and their desires and make their aspirations for a united Ireland or for the retention of the status quo of Northern Ireland palatable to the other community.
Musically, Tommy, who has been honoured for his pioneering songwriting work with prisoners in America, is fiercely proud of the Sands family's 50-year musical career - though the death on the road of their baby brother Eugene, or Dino as he was known, has left a heartbreaking void. The family were on a European tour in November 1975 when Dino was killed in a road accident in Germany.
Dino was the youngest of the five boys in the Sands clan who grew up on a farm in Mayobridge in a family steeped for generations in Irish traditional music.
"There was always music in the house," says Tommy. "My father - who was known far and wide as the Chief - played the fiddle and my mother played the accordion.
"People from all religions and none came to our house from all around for the music.
"And I remember the rhythms were tapped out in unison on the hobnail boots, regardless of anyone's religion."
All the Sands children played instruments and they introduced the guitar to the house, which was viewed with suspicion by the traditionalists, but there was no formal teaching process.
Older siblings Hugh and Mary weren't involved but the five younger members of the family set up their group in the mid-Sixties.
And the mustard keen youngsters soon extended their sights from their homeplace to play in pubs and halls.
The Sands made their first recording in 1968, not in a snazzy studio, but in a neighbour's byre.
"We had no electric or phone in our house," says Tommy. "The neighbour, however, had a generator to enable him to milk the cows. We got a tape recorder and linked it up to the generator and that's how we made our first demo which had some unusual sounds on it, like cows mooing and worse."
The Sands won an all-Ireland ballad group competition in 1970 which opened the door to the USA and residencies in pubs in New York City, and even an appearance at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall.
The family also became popular in Germany where they toured regularly, meeting a huge demand for Irish music from young people who had heard it as they holidayed in Ireland.
On their travels the Sands family became friendly with a host of influential musicians, including Billy Connolly, who was a folk singer before he turned to comedy.
"I'm still in touch with Billy," says Tommy. "He hasn't been well recently but I've received a few letters. He's a great man."
At the height of their massive popularity the five members of the Sands family were full-time musicians and the world was their oyster. On one year alone they shifted three different albums.
But the Troubles had a major impact on their music.
The early songs in the Sands repertoire, says Tommy, were carefree and mainly traditional, about pretty maids, fairs and rambles in May.
"But then in July and August people were being killed in the Troubles. So we started to write songs about what was happening," he says.
One of the best known 'Troubles' songs, There Were Roses, was written by Tommy after the murders in South Armagh of two friends that Tommy knew - one Protestant, one Catholic.
A version of the song by Cara Dillon, from Dungiven, featured every week on a popular TV series by Billy Connolly.
After Dino's untimely death the Sands family cut back on their touring and several of them took different paths alongside their solo musical careers.
Tommy launched what was to prove to be a remarkable 37-year career as a presenter with Downtown Radio.
And Colum followed him into broadcasting with Radio Ulster but he also had a spell working at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast where he came into contact with a youthful Liam Neeson, who was appearing in plays there.
In a song in one production Colum accompanied Liam on the guitar.
Several decades on, a new generation of Sands family members are now making their mark on the music circuit.
Na Leanai - Irish for 'the children' - are the offspring of Tommy and his siblings and they say they play folk music with a twist.
As for Tommy Sands, he's played a number of gigs recently with an even greater twist - in Orange halls near his home, where he even played a few Irish rebel songs.
Tommy and a community organisation with whom he's involved are trying to bring other people from different sides together through what they call 'diversion dinners'.
Says Tommy: "We are inviting people from, say, a GAA background and maybe an Orange background for a meal.
"We are talking about people who wouldn't meet each other in the normal course of events.
"It's not about discussing politics, though inevitably this might well come up.
"We want people to form relationships and get to know each other - and not just Protestants and Catholics but from other communities as well."
The Sands Family play their Home for Christmas tour on December 7 at the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh; December 8 at Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown; December 10 at Canal Court, Newry; and December 14 at the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen. For information, call Michael Magill Entertainments on, tel: 028 4175 2229
Colum Sands has played solo gigs all over the world this year but he says he's really looking forward to reuniting with his siblings nearer home.
"I've been to Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany and England but there is always something special about our family shows," says Colum, who has been writing for a new outlet after he was commissioned by a German newspaper to contribute a feature for a four-page spread about the issue of flags in Belfast. They asked him to write a song about Northern Ireland and Colum chose to focus on two dogs he kept seeing on his travels through Hilltown in the foothills of the Mournes.
He says: "The dogs were on opposite sides of the street and they spent their time snarling at each other.
"They didn't seem to have any other mission in life, so I wrote a song on the idea that people could very easily spend all their time blaming someone else for all of their problems.
"To me, the song is a bit of a metaphor about how people can become entrenched in their lives here."
Fans should be hearing Colum's song Two Angry Dogs at their forthcoming concerts.