Pride Of Mayobridge

PRIDE of Mayobridge, as well as the village of Rostrevor, where they now reside, are the renowned Sands Family Folk Group, especially the spectacular personal successes of Colum and Tommy Sands.

Radio and TV have been major factors in popularising these South Down stars, who have played on stages, ranging from Moscow’s Olympic Stadium to Carnegie Hall in New York. And they were a huge hit in East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As children, living on the Ryan Road, they were surrounded by the sound of Irish music, - their father, Mick was an accomplished fiddler and story-teller, while his wife, Bridie, was an accordionist and fine singer.

However, Tommy felt he had a vocation, and was studying Theology and Philosophy at a seminary in the south. But he finally realised his mistake and decided to walk the 120 miles back to Mayobridge.

He was nearing home, unsure of his future, wondering if he would end up working in the ditches, like the men he had passed along the way. Just then, a black taxi, filled with his brothers, came along.

Colum rolled down the window and said: “We’re going to play at a concert. We’ve got your guitar in the back of the car.” So Tommy joined them. He and they have never looked back!

Of course, Tommy has been regaling Downtown Radio audiences for over 25 years with his “Country Ceili “ programme, one of the longest-running shows in these islands.

Indeed, there was the now-legendary occasion, when listeners were astonished to hear the broadcast of a Christmas Party, with Ian Paisley telling jokes; Cardinal O Fiaich singing “the Aul Orange Flute;” Gerry Adams reminiscing about his boyhood in West Belfast; while Gerry Fitt played “Roisin Dubh” on the mouth-organ.

Only later was it explained that the programme had been pre-recorded, with the tapes of the famous contributors being edited together.

Colum became well-known through his Radio Ulster programmes, “Shifting Sands” and “Folk Club,” but also the “Fathom Line,” based on the Newry area, originated by Rowan Hand. In typical whimsical fashion, he inter-twined fascinating interviews and humorous anecdotes, with traditional Irish music and folk songs from the Clanrye region.

Few will disagree with his assertion that “there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Everybody has a story to tell.”

Colum was also the subject of a TV documentary, based on songs from his album and illustrated book, “The March Hare,” with such themes as “The Marching Season” and the humorous, descriptive “Newry Market.” The illustrations were by Rostrevor artist, Colm McEvoy.

Referring to the European dimension in the village, - Colum is married to a German girl, Barbara, while Tommy has a French wife, Catherine, - Colum said: “I love to travel. I think it is important to go abroad; you can then be more objective about what is going on at home.”

Colum and Tommy come from a family of seven children, - Mary, the eldest, then Hugh, Ben, Colum, Eugene and Anne. The latter also joined the group, along with Ben and Eugene, who was killed in a car accident, while touring in Germany.

Back in the 60`s and 70`s, when Newry was a centre of civil rights agitation, the Sands family would lead the singing of anthems like “We shall overcome.” Indeed, songs about Irish freedom and civil liberties were in the repertoire at such venues as Larkin’s in Forkhill, Mark’s Bar at Dundalk and The Embankment in Dublin.

Then, in 1971, the group won a Talent Contest, organised by the proprietor of the “Old Sheeling” pub in Dublin, the famous promoter, Bill Fuller, who owned two pubs in New York. The prize was two weeks holiday in the “Big Apple.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008