Hall of Fame - The Sands Family

Geoff Harden traces the Sands' musical family tree

Mick Sands, known to one and all as ‘The Chief’, and his wife Bridie played fiddle and accordion as well as singing; and their house on the Ryan Road near Mayobridge in Co Down, was the most welcoming place imaginable.

People were always dropping in for a few songs, tunes and stories and when son Hugh brought a guitar home one day his young brother Colum took to it right away despite The Chief’s misgivings that it wasn’t a 'proper' instrument.  'I had tried the fiddle before that,' Colum recalls 'but I gave it up when we got a guitar. It was years before I went back to the fiddle and learned concertina and double bass and a few other things.' 

Hugh and an older sister Mary joined in the house sessions but it was the five younger members of the family who began to take the music and songs more seriously. Tommy, Ben, Colum, Eugene and Anne started giving occasional concerts in local halls and around 1967 they entered a competition in Dublin. 

'It was very exciting,' says Colum.  'We won the competition and the prize was a trip to play in New York for three weeks. I suppose that was the beginning of the move into becoming professional.'

The Sands Family played mostly traditional songs and tunes in the early days but started to include a few of Tommy’s songs after a while. Playing in East Germany made Colum begin to take writing seriously. 'We went there in 1972 and people were asking us for new songs, songs about our situation. We were back the next year for a huge political song festival with people like Mikis Theodorakis from Greece, Miriam Makeba from Africa, Harry Belafonte and so on.

'There were some very dedicated writers. I remember Theodorakis going on stage with a doctor tugging at this shirt sleeve to come off because he had a heart condition; but he refused and went out there to conduct a band and sing songs. Those times were very important. Like many Irish artists we found new belief in what we were about by leaving Ireland.'

Irish music was unknown in East Germany at the time and the Sands became big stars in the 70's although the period was marred by the tragic death of youngest brother Eugene in a car accident there in 1975. 'Dino' played banjo and mandolin and he was on their first Outlet album, three in Germany and one for EMI, You’ll Be Well Looked After, which was produced by Donal Lunny.

Tommy, Colum and Ben Sands now all have successful solo careers as singers and musicians and the first two both have weekly folk programmes on radio in Northern Ireland. Colum also has a recording studio and record label and had a beautifully illustrated book of his songs published in 2000. This year, Tommy had a book of reminiscences, The Songman, published to great acclaim. Both Tommy and Colum have had many of their songs recorded by other singers and Tommy had a hit single in Ireland with his tale of two tragic tit-for-tat killings, 'There Were Roses.'

On top of that, the four original members continue to tour in Europe and America as well as at home.